Essay: Ethical Salespeople: A Key to Economic Recovery

There’s an old joke that asks “How can you tell when a salesperson is lying?” Answer: “When his lips are moving.” This overused joke has probably been passed down from generation to generation. After all, the reputation of salespeople has a history and, generally speaking, it is not good. In his book, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, Mahan Khalsa describes the dilemma of the sales profession as follows:

“With due respect to true sales professionals, the notion of sales and selling carries a lot of negative baggage. It is the second oldest profession, often confused with the first. No matter what you put in front or in back of the word ‘selling’ (consultative, solution, visionary, creative, integrity, value-based, beyond), it still ends up with the sense of doing something to somebody rather than for or with somebody.”

Too often, salespeople driven by their own greed have contributed to the stereotype that salespeople are aggressive, assertive individuals who will do almost anything just to make a sale. Salespeople are often perceived as being fast talking, self-serving individuals who lack integrity and ethics.

As someone who has spent most of his career in the sales profession, I no longer flinch at the derogatory jokes and negative remarks. What does bother me, however, are salespeople and senior executives who believe that ethical behavior is an option. Now, more than ever, honesty and ethical behavior must be viewed as the cornerstones, the very foundation, for everyone involved in the marketing of products and services to the buying public.

Why the Urgent Need for Ethical Behavior?

American business faces a crisis today. We are suffering from a self-imposed plague that has the markets reeling, the politicians scratching their heads, and the individual investors wincing. Business has been bad before, but this time, it’s worse. This time, American business has lost the people’s trust.

It’s hard to say who is responsible for this loss of trust or what actually caused it. Dot-com’s and the early Internet craze might be much to blame since this is where most of the unrealistic expectations began. The hype of a “new” economy led to an over-exuberance that blinded analysts and investors alike and created overvalued companies that had yet to make a cent in profit. This momentum, though built on a house of cards, pressured many of the more established publicly traded companies to reevaluate their own business models and forecast even stronger performance so they could effectively compete for the investor dollars. Overzealous CEOs and senior executives became the most irresponsible salespeople of all as they painted portraits of their companies that clearly did not represent the truth. And then, it happened.

The house of cards came tumbling down. Dot-com’s that had advertised during the Super Bowl were suddenly out of business. Names like Enron, Tyco, Andersen and Xerox, hardly dot-coms, made their own headlines, but they were headlines of the worst kind. The simple truth is that over the last 24 months we witnessed something far worse than a salesperson stretching the truth. Driven by greed, we saw American businesses throw their value systems out the window and fall into an abyss of bad character and bad judgment. When greed takes over, bad things tend to happen and now, we all are paying for it.

Re-starting the Economy Through Sales

If we are to re-start our economy, it will begin through the hard work and effort of salespeople. Look around you. Wherever you are sitting as you read this article, pretty much everything you are looking at, light fixtures, doorknobs, carpet on the floor, desks, chairs, clocks, telephones, computers, etc., all of it, was sold by somebody to someone else. Salespeople literally drive the American economy. Whether it is an idea, a concept, a product or a service, ultimately, nothing truly happens that is revenue producing until a sale is made. So, if we are to re-ignite our economy, it will begin among the ranks of professional salespeople. Part of that sales effort, however, is going to require regaining the trust of the public. A buying public is a trusting public. Today’s consumers and business professionals who acquire products and services for their companies want honesty and integrity more than anything else. Nobody wants to hear promises that cannot be delivered on. We’re tired of the false hope and the “spin.” We want to deal with people who are genuine and unafraid to be who they really are when representing their company. For many people in the sales profession, who feel constantly pressured to make their numbers, this may seem foreign, even awkward, compared to what they are used to. Nevertheless, this is exactly what is needed in today’s business environment: ethical, professional salespeople.

Salespeople function in a leadership position. They often set the tempo and energy level for an entire organization. They are often seen by other employees and viewed as “human barometers” for the entire company. If the sales guys are “up” business must be good! But, now is the time for sales professionals to take on an even stronger leadership position within their organizations by setting the tone for ethical behavior in every aspect of what they do.

True professional salespeople are competent, capable individuals who do not have to cheat their way past their next customers. They are knowledgeable about the industries they serve. They know what their products will and will not do, what their companies will and will not do to support those products, and they are not afraid to face the challenge of winning business for their companies with that understanding. More than just salespeople , they are businesspeople who understand that no company, no vendor organization, no product or service can be all things to all people. Knowing this, they capably and confidently represent the true merits of their products or services while setting realistic expectations for prospective customers. Courteous, respectful, honest and caring, more than anything else, they are real.

Sales in the Electronic Age

Sales professionals have new options available today to help communicate information to prospective customers. The use of e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones and wireless appliances are all creating new ways for salespeople to communicate more effectively. I sometimes loathe these new tools of technology because they eliminate face-to-face, human interaction, and yet, I see the many benefits of e-mails saved, account histories kept, etc.

Do these new tools present issues related to ethical behavior? Absolutely! One simple example might be information shared in an e-mail message. The message may not be labeled “Confidential” but that does not mean that the information contained in it should be made available for public consumption either. As ethical professional salespeople, we must be respectful of information shared with us in any form and never compromise our prospects’ or our customers’ best interests. When it comes to building trust in our business relationships, the answer is always a simple one-do the right thing.

Regardless of how we choose to communicate our message to a prospective client or customer, the message we send needs to be clear, concise and accurate. More than anything else, it needs to be an honest representation of the particular product and/or service we may be selling. Setting the proper expectation level for a prospect is the most important responsibility we have as sales professionals. When a salesperson knowingly misrepresents or contributes to setting unrealistic expectations for a prospect, he is clearly being unethical. This cannot be accepted and there should be no compromise or room for discussion on this point.

And why do I speak so strongly on this issue? Just look at the last 24 months! The mess we are in today is all about unrealistic expectations. Expectations were set but not met. As a result, businesses failed and the market plummeted. As professional salespeople, we cannot be about just getting the next deal. If we compromise our integrity in any way to make transactions happen we will never regain the trust that was lost. More than ever before, salespeople must rise above any self-serving interests and honor the fundamental principle of choosing to do what is right. Success in business and in life is more than just numbers.

We Are What We Choose to Be

Selling is an honorable profession. I believe in setting formidable objectives and competing hard to win new business. I am not complacent when it comes to poor performance. As professional salespeople, however, we cannot compromise our values or ourselves in order to make a sale. Practicing ethical behavior is not an option or a part-time proposition. It must become part of who we are, part of our person, our character and our soul. Ultimately, it needs to be at the very foundation of everything we do.

The Rev. John O’Brien once said “There is but one rule of conduct. Always do the right thing. The cost may be high in money, in friends, in sacrifice. The cost to do wrong, however, is infinitely higher. For a temporal gain, we barter the infinities.” In today’s competitive markets, professional salespeople need to be better prepared for the challenge than ever before. In part, that means we must practice ethical behavior in everything we do.

Harold “Bud” Boughton has been involved in the marketing and selling of technology-based solutions to the financial services industry for over twenty years. He has sold for Proctor & Gamble, Xerox, and IBM as well as a number of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. He has also served in senior management positions and was an officer of a publicly traded software company. Bud is now a consultant, speaker, and writer. His recent book, The Missing Piece (Lancaster OH: Lucky Press, 2003), is a wise and engaging reflection on life issues, priorities, and our search for security in a fast-paced, insecure world (