Sgt. Dakota Meyer is Right: Some Sales are Wrong

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“We are taking the best gear, the best technology on the market to date and giving it to guys known to stab us in the back . . . These are the same people killing our guys.”

A Marine Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Dakota Meyer, wrote that in an email quoted in The Wall Street Journal (Decorated Marine Sues Contractor, November 29, 2011).

If you’re following this story, you already know that Sgt. Meyer is suing his former employer, BAE Systems, alleging that they “retaliated against him after he raised objections about BAE’s alleged decision to sell high-tech sniper scopes to the Pakistani military. He says his supervisor at BAE effectively blocked his hiring by another defense contractor by making the claims about drinking and his mental condition.” If you want to contact BAE’s Investor Relations about investing, you might wait until their damage-control staff has handled the last seething caller.

But put aside Sgt. Meyer’s legal case for a moment, and recognize that he won his Medal of Honor for “braving enemy fire as he tried to save the lives of fellow Marines who had been trapped in a Taliban ambush.” And what’s the relationship between the Pakistani military and the Taliban?

No matter how sure the answers might be from BAE or the US State Department, they’re not sure enough. So Sgt. Meyer’s objection to BAE’s pursuit of this sale makes poignant sense. Sgt. Meyer found a point when revenue becomes filthy, and he spoke up. We need more people like him.

The pending BAE rifle scope sale isn’t the first in which revenue pursuit has collided with public policy issues, or with moral and ethical beliefs. Ambivalence over a prospect customer’s business mission, products, and services occurs more often than people might expect. Here are some examples from my selling past:

1. Cigarette manufacturing

Cigarette manufacturing is huge part of Virginia’s economy. The Philip Morris Richmond Manufacturing Center alone is located on 200 acres, with six connected buildings that cover 43 acres, totaling 1.6 million square feet. An outsider cannot appreciate the size of the industry until he or she drives on I-95 through Richmond and experiences the smell of ambient tobacco leaf in the air. Then you know. The huge network of providers—from production machinery to carton printers to filter manufacturers to warehousing—have the same logistics challenges that all manufacturers face.

For years, the technology I sold to companies in the tobacco value chain helped them manufacture and distribute a legal-lethal product better, faster, and cheaper. Not exactly a conversation starter at parties I attended with members from my masters swim team, or with my relatives in the health care profession. You see where I’m going with this. I overcame my dissonance because I rationalized that cigarette smoking is voluntary—as long as I suspended the nicotine-as-addictive-drug idea.

Had I stood on principal and refused to help these producers, my competitors would have gladly filled the void. Just as important, could I subtract tobacco-related revenue from my account portfolio and still make quota? Answer: no. But what happens when you can? (see #2)

2. Firearm manufacturing

One of my prospects was a large handgun manufacturer. While some might find my choice heretic, I decided not to call on the company because I didn’t need the revenue to make quota. Unlike cigarettes, theirs was a “stand-alone” plant, without an ecosystem of suppliers in my sales territory.

OK. Before we get into a heated philosophical debate over the intended meaning of the second amendment to the US Constitution, let’s agree that it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and distribute firearms in the US. No controversy. Done.

So what was my objection? Once again, it’s the lethal thing. For me, it would have been indescribably strange to walk the production floor, looking at bins of forged parts and watching Quality Control test bays, knowing the likely use of the finished product. I imagined speaking with the same clinically-detached operational terms used for the production of automotive seats and headlamps, but unable to escape knowing the ultimate purpose of the precision and quality was to deliver bullets better. Just writing about it still makes me a touch queasy. Call me a wimp. I can handle it.

As in life, nothing in sales ethics comes easily. Was my idealism fair to my employer? Was it fair to my resellers? Probably not. I referred the gun manufacturer to a VAR who was not conflicted. And I still made commission on the sales—a twist to the story that I’ll save for another day.

3. Meat production.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years. OK, I’m not really a vegetarian, because I eat fish. And I only mentioned that because it’s an important fact for wrapping this up with a not-so-neat ethical bow at the end, which I promise to do in just a moment. That said, it doesn’t bother me when other people eat meat, just that I don’t.

Yet, I don’t sell to meat processors for the same reasons I don’t sell to tobacco processors: for me, it doesn’t feel good. Yes, I did write about a big sale I made to a meat plant following an e-coli outbreak. Yes, I got a great shot of adrenaline, and yes, there was a nice commission for my sale. But—and I’m not trying to win converts to veganism here—there are times in sales when you have TMI (Too Much Information). Vegetarian or not, if you’re selling to the meatpacking industry, you should have the appetite for it (pun intended).

My friends say, “Andy, you won’t eat meat, but you’ll eat fish. You won’t sell technology to a handgun manufacturer, but you will sell systems to automate navy supply warehouses—what’s the difference?” Great question, worth a conversation over a beer, at least. As author David Quammen wrote, “not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.”

Back to Sgt. Meyer, BAE, and gun sight technology for the Pakistani military. Few will argue that a core idea for sales success is belief in your product or service. But belief in the value of your customer’s mission and purpose is just as critical—maybe even more. Sgt. Meyer’s story is important, because in tough economic times, being moral about how you produce revenue is difficult enough. Having the courage to be vocal when something seems amiss is truly remarkable.

Penn State Board of Trustees, are you listening?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Andy – I appreciate your points and the conclusion about Sgt Meyer, but you get a bit carried away when you talk about meat processing and firearms manufacturing. However, I give you credit for saying these are your personal views.

    While the context of the article may lead the reader to think you are offering these views to get others to act similarly, I am giving you the benefit of the doubt that the real, core message of your article is that we all need to look at our values and act in concert with those values and morals and not just do anything for a buck. Some things that may be legal, are not ethical. Those who follow the path of finding a legal condition to do something unethical are those who bring on events like the ENRON collapse.

    Thanks Andy

  2. Interesting blog Andy. I certainly respect Sgt. Meyer for his service to our country and his ethics. However, if you object to the ethics or morals of your company (BAE), I believe it is your responsibility first to support the company's (BAE) mission and sales objectives. If you don’t like the fact that your company is providing high tech sniper scopes to Pakistan, perhaps Sgt. Meyer needed to do a better pre-employment due diligence or should have started looking for employment elsewhere sooner. BAE's blocking of his hire is also unethical in my opinion.

    I also respect your personal decisions as they relate to selling to cigarette, firearms, and meat producing companies. This is a personal decision that obviously has to be made in light of company objectives and individual professional goals. Unfortunately, it is my guess that many companies are doing (or have done) something that is objectionable to almost everybody. If that is truly the case, we'd all be spending too much time looking for reasons to sell and not enough time selling. With the unemployment situation like it is at the moment, we all need to think about who is paying our bills. That's easy for me to say because I'm my own boss, but a much more difficult and challenging position for those who have to a boss to answer to.
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  3. Andy:

    Authentic leadership is not about easy answers, as Harvard’s leadership guru Ron Heifetz would say.

    More companies are drafting situation-specific ethics codes and corporate responsibility policies that indeed address the very dilemmas you describe in your sales career.

    I think for sales people to be able to make the hard ethical choices that in the long run actually reduce potential liabilities for their employers, they need to be supported by the confidence of senior management who have a backbone – and are willing to walk away from business that does not align with the organization’s ethical standards. In this age of hyper and relentless public scrutiny, as well as retaliatory consumerism, sourcing standards and supply chain behavioral benchmarks, for example, are becoming critical factors in any effective risk management program. Why shouldn’t customer profiling be part of such an alignment strategy? Duplicity is a liability few organizations can afford to engage in these days.

    Good for you in doing the personal soul-searching that produces enlightenment.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I think there’s a fine line to walk–both for companies and salespeople. I’ve worked with some companies that self-restricted the types of clients they’ll accept for reasons similar to those I’ve described. This is particularly prevalent in public relations and advertising. It’s hard to get behind helping a client whose mission you don’t support.

    Similarly, I think salespeople need the same latitude when it comes to choosing clients. There’s a fine line. For example, I don’t believe I can ethically sell to a manufacturer of chewing tobacco products when I’m keenly aware of that product’s correlation with the incidence of oral cancer. But I believe the sales opportunity could be offered to another person who could be less conflicted.

    That is a matter a salesperson should take up with his or her manager. But in general, I don’t believe it’s a distraction because salespeople are not looking for these issues–rather they should be tackled when then occur, and without penalty to the salesperson for taking a stand. . . . as long as they don’t interfere with selling to the account as a way to support their ethical position.

    The issues I brought up do not compare to the ethical dilemma that Sgt. Meyer faced. In his circumstance, I think the best thing was to quit his job.

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