Why Good Salespeople Do Bad Things. And How They Can Avoid Going Astray

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Most salespeople believe they are ethical and committed to customer success. Our mantra: “Treat customers like you would like to be treated.” If we could, we’d brush our teeth thrice daily with these words.

Unfortunately, companies worshipping at the Maximize Shareholder Value altar have trashed and trampled this ideal. Wells Fargo, VW, and Purdue Pharma come to mind. They’re not alone. If ex-CEO’s John Stumpf (Wells), Martin Winterkorn (VW), and Richard Sackler (Purdue) rightfully earned anything, it’s widespread scorn. For salespeople, this is vindicating. Too often, CXO’s sow stakeholder harm from headquarters, while the frontline sales force does the dirty work out in the field. Expectedly, the salesperson is the first target for customer rage.

The first car dealership in the US opened in 1898. Were early car sales reps “sleazy” and “aggressive”? Or did they become that way through circumstance? Nobody today wags a shaming finger at former industry executives whose sales strategies created that ugly archetype. The result of saturating territories with dealerships and forcing the owners to accept quotas of slow-selling vehicles to get the hot selling ones. When people opine cruddy car buying experiences, look no further than the CXO’s of the major auto manufacturers as the visionary architects for everything wrong in buyer-seller engagement. And like a stain that won’t wash out, it’s lasted into 2020.

Stereotyping has a benefit, however. Casting salespeople in any industry as slick and manipulative means that our minds don’t get encumbered processing deeper understanding. In fact, the putative pushy sales rep is more an artifact of his environment, and less a reflection on his personal character. Contrary to what many believe, greedy ostentatious people are not inherently drawn to the sales profession. Nor do they flock to car selling in particular. Show me a manipulative, aggressive, or unethical sales behavior, and I’ll show you a training program that encouraged it, a pay plan that motivated it, a manager that demanded it, and a company that accepted it. Unless we enjoy hearing others rant about “slimy” salespeople, we must stop blaming the victim, and fix what truly needs fixing.

Importantly, not every revenue scandal involves the sales force. Enron’s scheme began in the CFO’s office. VW’s emissions-cheating scheme was hatched deep in the bowels of its engineering department. Turing Pharmaceutical’s predatory price gouging was the brainchild of its profit-obsessed CEO, Martin Shkreli. In 2018, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

But all too frequently, we find Sales close to the epicenter of ethical havoc, the linchpin in the sharp-fanged mechanism for repeatable, scalable deceit. That wouldn’t happen if the sales force weren’t attractive for exploitation.

Five key reasons:

1. The sales force holds a unique position of trust with a company’s customers. The easiest way to begin a scam is to usurp existing trust.

2. Most sales forces have variable compensation based on revenue attainment. Pay-for-performance significantly influences behavior.

3. Draconian penalties for under-performance. In many organizations, quota shortfalls can result in termination.

4. Sales culture stifles dissent, and champions conformity. Those who voice ethical concerns are often maligned as “whiners” or “not team players.”

5. Sales roles have become de-skilled through Artificial Intelligence, making salespeople easier to replace.

Among the recent cases where the sales force was caught in a customer scandal:

AmEx Staff Misled Small-Business Owners to Boost Card Sign-Ups

High-flying Medical Firm, a Help to Wounded Veterans, Falls to Earth

American Express Gave Small Businesses One Rate, then Secretly Raised it

Deceptive Sales Tactics Secretly Recorded

Although each of these scandals involved the sales force, the genesis of their eventual resolution defies the ugly stereotype attributed to salespeople. Instead, what connects these stories is that each incident was exposed by a salesperson calling out management abuse- not the other way around.

It’s tragic to learn that in at least three of the cases, it was the sales rep who was fired for taking a principled stand, and not someone higher in the organization. In the instance of the AmEx credit card deceit, “When human-resources staff reached out to the employee’s manager, he denied the saleswoman’s allegations and said she was underperforming. The employee later left the company. The manager was later promoted.” Whoever said “righteousness will always prevail” never worked in Sales.

What can companies do to protect customers, other stakeholders, and themselves?

1. Establish the right culture and model ethical behavior. CXO’s must talk the talk, and walk the walk.

2. Hire for the right sales attributes. Stop relying on “what was your biggest sale?” and “how much did you W-2 last year?” as proxies for selling talent. Instead – or in addition – ask the candidate to describe an personal ethical selling dilemma, how he or she managed it, and whether the outcome was fair.

3. Embed ethics training into professional development programs, and foster discussion about it in internal meetings. That should include guiding staff into how to raise issues and advocate for themselves when they feel uncomfortable about a strategy, tactic, process, or policy.

4. Establish formal mechanisms for reporting, documenting, and mitigating ethical matters in the workplace.

5. Above all, make it safe for employees to speak and exercise their values. Employees who fear retaliation for speaking up when something feels wrong are unlikely to do so. That is a risk that no company can afford.

When it comes to getting dragged into committing scams, salespeople are sitting ducks for management manipulation. It’s appalling that sales training companies haven’t moved to protect salespeople – the very group they purportedly serve. Why haven’t they embedded content to help salespeople and their managers navigate moral ambiguity in customer engagements? Why don’t their course materials offer business development staff guidance to advocate for themselves whenever their values and instincts about the right thing to do are confronted?

Instead, they send legions of trainees into the workplace who appear adept at “closing the deal” but are woefully unprepared to stand up to an unscrupulous boss. I surveyed the websites of three prominent training companies – Sandler, Richardson, and Janek – and found ethics unaddressed across the board. Businesses might get a revenue lift from their training, but I wonder whether customers might be paying a price for the love sales training companies lavish on the top line of the income statement.

Treating customers like you would like to be treated and focusing on revenue are not incongruent goals. If you need to learn how to do both, ask a salesperson. They know how.

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