Ethical Questions in Electrical Sales

July 1, 2003
In the electrical market, ethical issues arise in virtually every aspect of selling.

Perhaps this reticence stems from a misplaced sense of etiquette, as if such issues should not be brought up in polite company. Or perhaps we believe that the other person will assume that any reference to ethics is really just a veiled attack on his or her character or behavior. Otherwise, why bring it up at all? Or could the reason be more personal? Perhaps we prefer to avoid discussing ethics — except in the most general terms — for fear of exposing, if only to ourselves, our own sometimes unethical behavior.

Whatever the reason, attempts to sweep ethical issues under the rug will not make them go away. They remain hidden beneath the surface, where they lie in wait, ready to trip up the unsuspecting salesperson.

How exactly does one define ethics?

One book describes ethics as “standards of conduct and moral judgment… the system or code or morals of a particular profession…” This definition seems useful for our purposes.

If you're a regular reader of this column, you know that I consider sales as demanding as any other profession. Like other professions, selling has its unique requirements — the knowledge, attitudes, skills and habits that an individual must acquire to achieve consistent success. But what of ethics? Are there published standards of behavior that address the application of these professional requirements? Do salespeople have an agreed-upon code of professional conduct? I know of none.

Given the current state of public opinion regarding the ethics of business people in general and salespeople in particular, this is a strange omission indeed. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a salesperson depicted in a positive light on television or in the movies?

Through Hollywood's heavily filtered lens, the salesperson is most often characterized as one of two distinct types — a self-absorbed, grasping, deceitful charlatan concerned only with closing sales and earning commissions or a pathetic, bumbling underachiever. How many people view today's salesperson as nothing more than a modernized version of the snake oil salesman of the last century?

Yet my personal experiences convince me that most sales professionals are highly ethical business people strongly committed to their customers' satisfaction. Certainly, there are exceptions. We have all had unfortunate experiences with salespeople who have misrepresented their products or prices to get a signed purchase order. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. Unfortunately, it's these same exceptions that color the perceptions of customers.

Here's how to counter popular perceptions and deal with the ethically charged situations you encounter in the field.

Let me begin by describing a conversation I had with the sales and marketing vice president for a manufacturing company. He had some interesting observations on the subject of ethics.

“What a person knows has little bearing on what he does,” he said.

“Someone can understand management theory and be a lousy leader. And a person can know all there is to know about ethics and never put it into practice. Knowledge does not guarantee behavior. I've fired three people for gross unethical behavior. They were intelligent, and knew right from wrong but still chose the wrong path. Something was missing. Conscience maybe.”

“Your conscience keeps you on the straight and narrow?” I asked.

“Yes, I think it does. And the fact that it was developed in a family where honesty and trust were valued.” He laughed. “And there's always the Mom Test — my final decision-making criterion. Quite simply, it consists of one question: ‘Would my mom be proud of me if she knew what I was about to do?’”

Maybe we all need some version of the Mom Test to keep us from engaging in unethical behavior and to remind us of what is at stake.

I know one salesperson who turns the Golden Rule into a question, asking, “How would I react if I were the customer?” One sales manager encourages salespeople to ask themselves if they'd stake their professional reputations on the decisions they make.

These tactics are designed to give us pause, to encourage us to step away, if only momentarily, from the often highly emotional selling situation to weigh our actions against some higher standard. Each take us back to the definition of ethics mentioned above, that is, “standards of conduct and moral judgement.”

Putting morality aside temporarily, there are two more pragmatic reasons for choosing an ethical approach to any selling situation — trust and credibility. Without them, no long-term relationship with a customer is possible. Let's look at each and see how they relate to ethical behavior.

Let's conclude with some general guidelines that should help you deal successfully and ethically with the situations and customers you encounter.

1. Trust

If you want the customer's trust, you have to earn it. Trust doesn't precede your reputation, it follows it. Trust comes from your customers' experience with you over time, from a knowledge that what you say is true and in his best interests. It's built on honesty and an obvious commitment to your customer and the success of his business. As such, it's a form of personal faith in you.

From an ethical perspective, then, the establishment of trust between you and your customer precludes any form of dishonesty, even those seemingly harmless “white lies” used to save face or avoid uncomfortable or embarrassing situations.

For example, a salesperson once informed me that the late delivery of a critical computer part had been caused by a “screw-up” of an air-express firm. In a subsequent telephone conversation with one of the computer firm's parts expediters, I discovered that the salesperson had forgotten to place the order. I never trusted that salesperson again. Trust can take a long time to develop, but only a moment to destroy.

2. Credibility

Credibility comes from performance, not talk. It means possessing and displaying a belief in your company, its products and the way it does business. It means having a thorough knowledge of your products and their applications and showing a willingness to learn about your customers and their unique problems and needs. Credibility comes from a track record of successes and an ability to apply the lessons learned. It's at the heart of true professionalism.

Like trust, credibility takes time to build and depends heavily on your professional reputation. If you're not credible, your products aren't saleable.

3. Anticipate Problems

Don't wait until you run up against a difficulty in the field. Consider the ethical implications of your work and discuss common situations with your colleagues and manager. Preventative maintenance will help you avoid taking the wrong turn when confronted by ethical obstacles.

4. Set High Standards from the Beginning

If, by your words and behavior, you make your ethical standards (and those of your company) apparent to your customers, you will be respected accordingly. Those customers who regularly cross ethical boundaries are less likely to propose or even hint at such behavior if they believe it will be declined.

5. Avoid Legalism

Don't develop the tendency to split hairs or slip through ethical (usually semantic) loopholes. Such behavior rarely fools anybody and only causes others to doubt your sincerity. The mere perception of unethical behavior can have the same impact on your reputation as any blatant violation.

6. Face up to your Mistakes

None of us likes to admit our mistakes and failings. But, by ignoring or repressing them, we only ensure that we will repeat them. Even more dangerous, however, is the propensity to cover up blunders through lies or other unethical behavior. Don't run the risk of ruining your reputation and the valuable goodwill of your company simply to avoid taking responsibility for your own actions.

Certainly, unethical behavior is immoral, but this factor doesn't seem to have much effect on those who engage in it. By taking the easy way out, they ignore the importance of trust, credibility and the confidence they create. Perhaps if we attach a dollar sign to ethics, salespeople will begin to recognize that high standards generate a high return in the form of future business. If not, we can always tell their mothers.