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What Role Does Ethics Play in Selling?

The archetypal salesperson is a dinosaur. Whether the picture we have in our minds is Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross” from 1992, Vin Diesel or Giovanni Ribisi in the 2000 movie “Boiler Room,” or just about any other film or TV show with salespeople.

The easy stereotype to reinforce is that of an unethical con artist focused on making the sale no matter what it takes.

Unfortunately, there can be a kernel of truth to the stereotype, as headlines revealing scandals and unethical selling practices attest to. The mistrust of those in the selling profession has always been a challenge for salespeople, but now it is more elevated than ever. Simply put:

Buyers don’t want to buy from salespeople. They want to work with executives and consultants who understand their businesses. They don’t want a short-term fix; they want long-term solutions.

Today’s ultra-informed buyer is doing more research and due diligence ahead of time before ever contacting a salesperson. Sometimes, their research is not great research, but right or wrong, they’ve done their homework and think they know what’s what. Their preparation requires salespeople to come in as consultants if they want to be part of the decision-making process. Showing up with slick sales pitches won’t work anymore.

The cumulative impact of all these factors means that if a salesperson takes a shortcut, if there is even the appearance of impropriety, it impacts more than a single deal. The fallout can impact the overall relationship, other relationships, the salesperson’s reputation, and even their organization’s long-term success. News of unethical behavior quickly spreads, with social media postings continuing to keep the story fresh.

The perennial challenge is that trust cannot be earned overnight. You don’t get to put “Trusted Advisor” on your business card and have people believe the title. Salespeople have to be in it for the long haul. They have to be committed to ongoing customer relationship development. They have to take a sustained role in account management, eschewing a transactional approach to selling.

Just as buyers are spending more time on research, so should salespeople. The amount of preparation and due diligence a salesperson needs to do to bring value to the buyer’s table is greater than ever. Salespeople certainly need to understand their own product or service, but they also have to understand their customer’s needs, their political environment, their buying cycle, and not just who the salesperson is competing against but who their customer competes against. All this work needs to be done ahead of time, so when an opportunity presents itself, salespeople can show prospects depth of understanding about their pain points and market needs.

Consider these questions:

  • What makes someone an ethical person?
  • An ethical leader?
  • An ethical salesperson?

There are two primary things an ethical person displays: character and competence.

Buyers know when salespeople are being duplicitous, manipulative, or shortsighted. Their character speaks louder than words. So, while salespeople can’t claim trusted advisor status, they can be trustworthy people. And they can show their competence through preparation and due diligence to not only understand their customer’s goals, but to show they truly care about their customer’s business.

By showing the strength of their character and the depth of their confidence, salespeople can bury the dinosaur stereotype that taints their profession. Doing so is essential to succeeding with customers in today’s increasingly skeptical business environment.

About the Author

Dr. Andy Neillie has extensive expertise in leadership development and developmental coaching, sales and negotiations training and strategic relationship management. In addition to the work he has done with Richardson for almost 20 years, Andy blogs and speaks regularly on leadership development and personal ethics. He is passionate about helping sales and organizational leaders lead better, and has led multiple successful global engagements for Richardson.

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