Ethics and professional sales management

Ethics and professional sales management

Almost everywhere, there is a news report of a firm or an individual getting caught for some -'wrong doing-' in business activities. There are many...

Almost everywhere, there is a news report of a firm or an individual getting caught for some "wrong doing" in business activities. There are many reasons such as failing to pay taxes or deceptive advertising practices among many other reasons. The sales person is the first contact point. For the customer, the sales person is the company and therefore wrong doings of the sales person will be viewed by default as the wrong doings of the company. He is the face of the company.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of preparation and planning needed in order to work as a salesperson. To begin with, few people grow up desiring to be in sales. Often, most young people fall into it because they can't get any other type of "real" job. Second, mostly nothing is taught in classrooms about sales. For example, a sales person who buys discounted products of his company and uses it for himself is legally not doing anything wrong but ethically is definitely disgracing himself.

Same is the case with the airline staff that hogs all the scratch cards and gives only those (which are slightly scratched so that the item is known) to airline passengers are not doing anything wrong from their point of view. They can always claim that the item on the card is not free but is available at a subsided price. But those scratch cards are never meant for the airline staff. They are meant to act as an incentive for airlines passengers to use the same airlines again and again.

As accepted, ethics is the science of moral duty or the science of ideal human character. Therefore, ethics are moral principles or practices. That's why they are referred to as standards of professional conduct. When someone acts in an ethical fashion, it means they are conforming to some standard of moral behavior. There are laws that restrict such things as price discrimination where unfair discounts are given to some buyers but not others. In the world of sales, it is a very common situation where a buyer will request "special" or preferential pricing as a condition to placing an order. Or, a buyer will insist on some form of long-term price guarantee that is not offered to others.

There are some activities that are deemed as "unfair competition." Most obvious to salespeople is the tendency when out selling to make statements about competitors, which are false, deceptive, or damaging. Other illegal actions include such things as giving kickbacks and bribes to buyers, either in the form of money or merchandise for personal use. The final significant areas of illegal activities are: misrepresenting the quality of the products being sold; deceptive advertising about pricing, free products, special "discounts"; and, misleading claims that are part of the inducement to purchase a product or service.

More often than not, unethical behavior occurs when it directly benefits the salesperson - otherwise why would anyone subject indulge to such behavior in the first place? Take the sales person who entertains a buyer with lunch and encourages the person to have a couple of alcoholic drinks in order to get him or her relaxed, after which he lays on some fancy closing techniques that literally catch the buyer off guard to the point of signing the order over lunch. Illegal - no, but unethical - very much so!

The primary reason salespeople do this is due to pressure, and that pressure comes from a variety of sources. The pressure predominantly comes from sales managers who refuse to miss their sales quotas for fear of losing their annual bonus or having their chances of promotion ruined. Sales people are literally ordered to make sales "at all costs" under these circumstances. There is no limit to how and when these pressures can hit a salesperson.

The final facet of the ethics problem is what is referred to as role conflict. This is where the salesperson is caught between doing what is best for the employer versus what is best for the prospect or customer. A frequent scenario is a temporary price reduction due to an upcoming marketing promotion. In this case, the customer is ready to make the purchase decision right now, yet could save 20 per cent by waiting a couple of weeks.

The trouble here is that the promotion has not yet been announced to the public and if the sales person voluntarily tells everyone, then he or she will have no orders for several weeks. Another dimension is the well known fact that many people in business think that it is okay to "bend the rules" once a while if one can get away with it. This attitude prevails not because it's permissible, but because people are seldom caught and punished for these actions. After all, booking that last order of the year that makes one reach a target by lying to the prospect about a pending price increase isn't going to get a salesman fired.

So just how does someone go about deciding what is ethical? Several criteria can be applied to every questionable sales activity to determine this more clearly. The initial test is whether you would rwant someone to do the same thing to you. How would you feel not getting the whole story about a used car you are going to purchase for your wife? What if the seller knows, but never states that the car was in a terrible front end collision and the alignment can never be fixed?

The next test is whether you would want others in the general public to know what you did. Would the things the customers say about you all be nice and complimentary or would the details embarrass you? Consider if you had to tell your parents about each and every one of your sales. Would your mother or father be proud of you or ashamed instead? A final guideline is whether or not anyone can suffer any degree of damage by your choice of conduct.

It's very possible for salespersons to rationalise away the justification for unethical conduct. This is especially true when things aren't going well in a sales career. That's when the temptation enters to bend the rules or do something wrong where the outcome is very beneficial. The reason salespeople are even faced with these opportunities to stray across the line is partly due to their loose supervision by others. Often, salespeople are remotely managed and their actions are not witnessed by company executives.

Putting such trust on sales people requires that those hired have a strong sense of ethical values. The field of sales is undergoing a dramatic change and evolution, thanks to technology and other automations. Out of this picture, a new breed of salespeople has emerged - the sales executive. These sales executives will have to rise through the ranks by virtue of his or her commitment to a personal code of conduct. In the new order of selling, there will no longer be any room at the top for those whose conduct is anything else but absolutely ethical.

By:Dr M Anil Ramesh

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