On My Honor as a Salesperson. A New Look at Why Sales Ethics Matter

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Which risk poses the greatest threat to a company’s market value – Pandemics and natural disasters? Terrorism? Product defects? Patent infringement? Theft of intellectual property? Lack of moral boundaries?

If you answered anything but the last choice, think again. The decimation of market value at Tyco, Worldcom, and Enron – three of the most prominent ethical meltdowns of our time – illustrates what can occur when a company lacks ethical footing. According to Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, the cumulative decline in market capitalization resulting from fraud at these three companies was $136 billion.

The financial impact of Covid-19 on the global stock market may never be fully known. But one thing stands out: unlike most risks, companies have ultimate control over their moral conduct.

Many corporate scandals are hatched in the executive suite and metastasize into the organization. The sales operation is a fecund spot for seeding schemes because it is directly connected with the most watched measurement a company maintains and shares: revenue.

Sales is also the linchpin for the trust between a company and its customers. For example, the Wells Fargo consumer credit card scandal was the consequence of stock-price bonus incentives granted to then-CEO John Stumpf and a cadre of senior executives. To enrich themselves, they usurped customer trust and exploited employees by encumbering them with onerous performance quotas, and followed through by browbeating them into hitting targets that would be attractive to investment analysts. The rationale was that when thresholds were met, analysts would make buy recommendations for Wells Fargo stock, elevating its price. The scheme worked for a while before the business media uncovered the story. In the end, Stumpf was fired over the scandal and his bonuses clawed back or terminated.

Bad ethics can take root elsewhere in the hierarchy. When governance and audit controls are ineffective, they can easily spread, infecting employees, suppliers, channel partners, and customers. In 1998, ethical violations at Prudential Insurance Company’s sales organization became so pervasive that the company’s management eventually estimated its liability from the pending class-action lawsuit at $2 billion. Among the voluminous courtroom testimony from the case was this statement from a Prudential sales rep: “Your judgment gets clouded out in the field when you are pressured to sell, sell, sell.” More than two decades later, sales reps face the same difficulty.

How can harm from unethical behavior be prevented? First, accept that no company is immune from facing ethical dilemmas, and second, understand that there are no guarantees that ethical decisions will somehow prevail. This is especially true for companies proclaiming themselves “customer-focused” or “customer-centric.”

Companies must purposefully and actively reduce the opportunities for unethical behavior to enter an organization. Taking key steps such as developing and communicating a corporate code of conduct, modeling ethical behavior in the C-Suite, implementing strong governance and accountability, and making it safe for employees to speak up without fear of retaliation are vital. Importantly, companies must take prompt and decisive action when incidents are reported.

Still, when it comes to acknowledging the possibility of malfeasance in their organization, many senior executives are dismissive. I often hear, “that type of thing could never happen here,” quickly followed by “we don’t hire those kinds of people,” as if “those kinds of people” are easy to spot in the interview. In fact, in companies large and small in any industry, the potential for making unethical choices always exists. If the risks aren’t acknowledged, understood, and managed, stakeholder harm becomes not only probable, but certain.

One “sales-driven” company I worked for felt immune to ethical risks, and their hubris cost them more than $1 million from a scam that began with one rogue sales employee, “Travis Doe.” Travis was a reseller account manager. He was tall, charismatic, confident. He was good at golf. At sales meetings, Travis could always be found in the center of a group of colleagues, sharing a bawdy new joke, or regaling them with something useful he learned over his long career in computer sales.

Travis’s compensation plan earned him a comfortable six-figure income. But he figured out a way to augment that. Travis began his scheme with a transaction my employer made routine: he established a new reseller account. In this case, Travis gave this one a bogus name, bogus address, and bogus line-of-business. Bogus everything. He even anointed himself CEO – a move that came back to haunt him.

The cleverness of Travis’s scheme came from the fact that resellers received 40% discounts for all IT hardware. When customers and prospects sent requests for quotes or placed orders, Travis circumvented them to his bogus company. In this way, Travis pocketed a healthy margin on every order his bogus company processed. There’s more. In addition to that revenue stream, my employer also paid Travis commission on his “reseller’s” sales because, of course, the bogus company was in Travis’s portfolio.

It took an alert order administrator who spotted a part number anomaly to unravel Travis’s scheme. When she called the “reseller” to explain the problem, she was told, “Our president, Travis Doe, will call you back.” The order administrator reported Travis, and he was quietly fired about a week later.

Travis’s scheme created only losers. A characteristic common to all ethical breakdowns. If Travis’s immediate boss knew about his dishonesty, why didn’t he stop him? If he didn’t know, what excuse could he offer for being ignorant about a scam happening in his own office? You know it’s a bad day when any answer you provide isn’t a good one.

In their desire to move on, many executives at the company looked no further than blaming Travis. “You’re always going to have a ‘bad apple,’ or two,” senior managers somberly told me. A convenient rationalization, but very misleading. Other people, from the CEO down, were culpable. Sales Administration allowed account managers to establish reseller accounts without any oversight. Internal audit didn’t see a glaring opportunity for fraud in the order entry process. Contracts administration had no vetting rigor beyond “can you fog a mirror?” Flush with sales orders, the company blithely looked askance despite ongoing grumbling from staff that large dollar orders were routinely being processed through a “reseller” whose qualifications were murky, at best.

This incident happened before social media platforms became ubiquitous. The total direct cost from Travis’s scheme totaled more than $1 million. But that’s without adding the incalculable cost of broken morale and corroded trust. The company issued no press releases or public explanations. No trade journal carried the story. The cost of this scam got paved flatter than a pancake into company’s Income Statement.

Any discussion of ethics involves drawing boundaries. But drawing boundaries for sales ethics is much easier said than done:

“I’ll sell an early version of my software that isn’t fully tested, but I won’t sell anything that I know doesn’t work.”

“I won’t bring up the fact that I’m missing a key feature, but I won’t lie about its absence.”

“At the end of the quarter, I will commit resources I don’t control so I can win the sale, but I won’t promise my prospective customer anything I know cannot be delivered.”

“I won’t overcharge anyone, but I won’t sell at the lowest possible price, either.”

“I’ll look out for my client’s best interests but only if doing so doesn’t jeopardize my business.”

As author David Quammen writes in Wild Thoughts From Wild Places, “Not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.” An individual’s ethical interpretations are rarely constant. Rather, they’re a combination of of a person’s current emotions, situation, values, experience, logic and personality. What makes a practice ethical or not can be difficult to define.

This is why evaluating what’s ethical, what’s the right thing to do, or how to get the right thing done requires having conversations about dilemmas. Unfortunately, that idea is heretic in many sales cultures today, where perceiving things as black or white is often considered a badge of honor. “Never lie!” and “A half-truth is the same as a lie,” were among the opinions readers posted when I asked about resolving ethical dilemmas on LinkedIn sales forum. The problem is, judging actions as “right” and “wrong” discourages conversations about ethics in the first place. Most situations business development professionals encounter are not that clear.

Mitigating ethical risk is a vexing challenge for organizations because expectations for conduct must be defined, documented, communicated and ultimately followed. In addition, executives should be reminded must that no employee enters the workplace a tabula rasa. Corporate policies will always be interpreted through an individual’s awareness of his or her own values. Even then, employee motivation and desire to maintain those values are still required.

Companies can embrace this challenge by fostering a culture for open, candid discussion about ethical dilemmas. This will encourage salespeople, and those who support them, to be forthcoming in identifying issues, confronting them, and taking action before they spiral out of control.

Ethics problems thrive in the eye of the perfect storm: 1) high financial incentives for malfeasance, 2) lax audit controls and governance, and 3) non-integrated processes. We need a tocsin to sound in the boardroom and executive suite. Ethical lapses can destroy the best business plans, corporate and personal reputations, and brand integrity. There are too many opportunistic Travises in the world, and too much value at risk, to ignore the warning signs.

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