Ethical Selling

By John Alexander

 

The woman was seated next to Barry Maher at the luncheon prior to his presentation. “So you’re speaking to us on ethical selling today,” she said, accusingly.

“We’re going to be focusing on increasing sales. Ethical selling is certainly part of it.”

“Don’t you understand what a joke that is?” she demanded angrily. “Management pretends they want us to sell squeaky clean. That keeps their consciences pure. Then they set larger and larger quotas. And make it crystal clear that our jobs are on the line if we don’t deliver.”

“Right now there are over 300 reps on your company payroll. What happens to your jobs if you lose your clients’ trust and the customer base shrinks?”

“We’re selling directory advertising. We call on a customer once a year. Chances are that next year some other rep else will be handling their account. I need enough trust to make the sale today. I don’t steal and I don’t lie. But if I didn’t cut a few corners here and there, I’d never make my numbers.”

“So how does that corner-cutting make you feel?” Maher asked.

“I feel fine. That’s the way of the world, the real world. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Then why are you so angry? And why are you being so honest with me? For that matter, why are we even talking? Why did you go to all the trouble to get in here an hour early?”

The woman stared at Maher for a long moment. Finally she said, “You think I don’t want to sell clean?”

* * *

Eric is a national sales manager with over twenty years experience working for a midsize company in the business machines industry. He has an MBA in marketing and he’s active in his church.

“Every reputable company wants its people to sell ethically,” he says. “We’ve all learned that our customers are our most precious resource. We all understand the long term benefits of gaining and maintaining customer trust and the dangers of losing that trust.

“Unfortunately, everyone has numbers to meet. Sales people, sales managers, national sales managers, vice presidents, the CEO. Everybody. And we’re all judged—and many of us are paid on those numbers—those short-term numbers. Sales management teams have gotten very good at making certain that numbers are reached. We’ve improved greatly in the last few years at celebrating and rewarding those who make the numbers. Sometimes we’re not nearly as good about monitoring how the numbers may have been made. And the pressure to produce can lead reps into gray areas, sometimes very gray areas.”

According to Eric, companies sometimes pay lip service to the concept of ethical selling but some fail to consistently enforce it. When he first became a sales manager, he was actually reprimanded for pointing out to his boss that a top producer had a history of slippery deals and should be watched. In another instance a rep who led the region in customer complaints was promoted into management.

“I’ve seen reps that should have been fired protected by managers desperate to meet their numbers. That’s sends a message that short-term sales are more important than how you get them or how the customer is treated.”

But Eric knows that truly dishonest reps are rare. he real problem is with good reps tempted into the type of corner cutting the directory sales person mentioned earlier. “Sales people want to succeed,” he explains. “They want to produce, and in the heat of battle they’ll sometimes say whatever works rather than what’s strictly true. And that’s a training issue. Most companies don’t spend enough time training to the issue of ethics. And it’s costing us customers. Which means it’s costing us money.”

* * *

As a consultant, Barry Maher does spend a lot of time training to the issue of ethics, but to him it’s just part and parcel of training reps to sell more.

Today he’s delivering the keynote speech to a gathering of industrial supply reps in Oxnard, California.

“Ethical selling, when done correctly, means more sales,” Maher explains. “And not just in the long term. Selling ethically means selling more in the account today! The simple fact is that the most effective sales trick in the book is the truth. Once you understand that, the problem of less-than-ethical selling disappears.”

Maher warns the group about hidden cow reps and about mealy-mouthers. Hidden cow reps? “Yes—if there’s a rotting cow in the well that supplies the drinking water of that country estate they’ll trying to sell you, they’ll do whatever they can to keep that annoying fact hidden.” Mealy-mouthers on the other hand treat the cow or any other potential negative as a terrifying obstacle. Which they proceed to stumble over blatantly enough to guarantee that those negatives become the focal point of the entire presentation.

“They’ll spend so much time and energy trying to reduce the rotting cow to insignificance that by the time they’ve finished you swear you can smell it on the drapes and in the carpeting, and you walk away from the deal with the sour taste of contaminated well water in your mouth even though you never took a sip.”

If the person you’re dealing with has a right to know something—or if, right or no right, they’re likely to discover it anyway—give it loud and give it proud. Get it out on table where you can deal with the issue. Why leave it for the customer to stumble upon over later, when you have no control at all over the situation? Full disclosure is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart business and the easiest way to sell.

“As sales people we sometimes feel that the whole presentation has to be nothing but pluses: benefits, benefits, benefits, benefits, with no drawbacks or negatives. But customers are smart enough to realize that if it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Nothing builds credibility and trust like honesty. And credibility and trust generate sales—today as well as in the future.

“So how do you sell a dead cow in a well,” a woman in the second row calls out.

Maher smiles but he doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you know the best feature of this country estate, Ms. Customer? The best feature is that there’s a rotting cow in your drinking water!”

“Excuse me?” the woman says, playing the customer.

“There’s a dead cow in the well. Which is the only reason this place wasn’t snapped up a long time ago. And most likely at a considerably higher price.”

“Gosh, I hope there’s a dead skunk in the bedroom,” the woman says.

The audience roars, but they get the point. And Maher adds that a great salesperson would have already worked out a method of cow removal to present to the client, along with all associated costs. “And if I thought it necessary in order to be able to sell the place with complete honesty I may have even pre-negotiated a ‘dead cow discount’ with the seller.”

“Never try to hide a rotting cow,” Maher tells them. “Not even a little one. Besides why would you ever want to hide such a powerful selling point.”

* * *

Terry is a 27 year old sales person for regional industrial supply company. “I was on the road with one guy. We became pretty good friends. He wasn’t much of a salesman, and he was in heavy financial difficulty. But he always made enough to keep his small draw—usually on the last possible day. It turned out that he was hanging paper: turning in phony contracts, getting paid, then canceling the orders right before they were shipped. I took that as a personal betrayal. This is a small company and we’ve all worked hard to make it what it is Hurting the company hurts me. And it could hurt my paycheck, which hurts my family.

“Still, what really burns me is when I see top salespeople shading the truth. Or being out and out deceptive. These people don’t have to cheat. And they’re hardly starving. So what’s their excuse? What they do reflects on the company and on me, and on every sales rep out there. It makes it just that much harder for the rest of us, puts just that much more distrust and sales resistance out into the market. When it comes right down to it, these guys are not only hurting the customers, they’re hurting us.They’re picking our pockets. And none of us should tolerate it.”

As for himself, Terry’s sales strategy is to recommend whatever is best for his individual customer, whatever that may be. “Recommending what’s best gives you the best sales story. It’s as simple as that.

“I don’t have to spend my nights wondering if I hurt the guy who trusted me enough to buy from me. I feel good when I make a sale and I feel good when I think back on it later, and even better the next time I stop in to see the customer and find that he’s glad to see me and happy with the last order and looking to order more in the future. That’s what selling is all about. Or at least it should be.”

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