By James A. Baker
Founder and Chairman
Even in the best of times, sales is a challenging way to earn a living. When economic conditions are uncertain and business cycles slow down, the pressure on sales professionals to perform is very intense. Competition becomes ferocious and margins shrink. Some sales professionals, looking for an edge to help retire quota and drive business, may be tempted to generate leverage any way they can, if it will help close deals. Unfortunately, in this drive to succeed, it becomes easy to cut corners, bend the facts and rationalize a host of unethical behaviors. The sales professional may win a few deals this way, but he is not likely to win many long-term customers.
Highly successful sales professionals realize that it takes openness, honesty, and a distinct lack of self-interest deployed over time to create the level of trust with a customer necessary to build a solid relationship. This includes not only delivering great products and services, but it also includes avoiding questionable – sometimes downright unethical – tactics that might help produce a short-term gain but which are almost certain to have a long-term negative impact on the relationship. Customers don’t appreciate being manipulated, and when they discover they have been taken advantage of by a sales professional, not only will the account be lost, but the reputation of the sales professional may be lost right along with it.
If you want to stay in the habit of doing all things with integrity, pay close attention to these guidelines:
Avoid selling a solution that isn’t in the customer’s best interest – Sometimes you just don’t have the right solution at the right price. If that is the case, it is always best to be honest with the customer, instead of proposing something which might be in their price range, but which you know will not fully deliver the outcome the customer is looking for. If you can’t find a creative solution that will meet all of the customer’s needs, consider introducing them to someone you’ve partnered with that can help fill their need. This introduction can come in two forms. The first is to a company where you have a formal referral revenue sharing agreement. The second is to someone you know that can help, but with whom you don’t have a revenue sharing agreement. Either is better than doing nothing and walking away. The customer will appreciate your sincere care for their requirements and remember you next time they have a need. The person you are referring to the customer will also appreciate it for obvious reasons and one day will more than likely repay the favor. No matter what, never do a deal just to earn a commission if it is going to hurt the customer in the long run.
Never misrepresent the features, advantages and benefits of a product or service – This issue is very closely aligned to the previous one. To a certain degree, the customer depends on you to be the expert on your products and services. If you say it will perform to certain specifications, they expect you to tell the truth. Also, if there are known issues with the product that make it unsuitable for certain applications, they expect you to reveal those, too. Customers don’t want a product or solution that comes close to meeting their needs, or that usually functions properly. Give them the whole, unvarnished truth, and let them decide if the proposed solution will work for them.
Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver – Logically, the more promises and guarantees you are able to give to a customer, the more secure they will feel in doing business with you. For that reason, some sales professionals find it very difficult to say no to the customer about anything. Overpromising resources – in which a sales professional tells the customer that a certain solution with specific features and benefits will be delivered by a specific deadline – is a common problem. The customer may walk away in happy anticipation of the exciting solution that will soon be deployed, the sales professional may walk away in happy anticipation of adding this commission to his total for the quarter, but back at the home office the people who are actually charged with building and delivering the solution may be furious because there is no way to develop and deliver something that will meet the customer’s elevated expectations in time to meet the deadline. The simplest way to avoid this problem is to coordinate with all departments before making customers promises, especially when their requests are out of scope with the normal fulfillment parameters or your company.
Accepting or offering bribes or gifts is always unethical – There is perhaps no brighter ethical line sales professionals must not cross than the one prohibiting off-the books inducements. Bribes and gifts corrupt the process and the players, leaving an unbalanced playing field that puts everyone else in the market place at a disadvantage. This is not only a rule of best practice, it is also spelled out in laws that regulate many industries and markets. In spite of that, the temptation to play this game is extremely strong, and the rationalizations to break the rules are insidious. After all, it is “only” tickets to the game, or a night at the theater, or a few rounds of golf, or a weekend at Aspen. Not only do these inducements create an unfair advantage for the parties involved, they also establish a pattern of behavior for doing business going forward. If the only reason the other party is doing business with you is the extra “value” you have offered to him, it is likely that the only way to hold on to the account is to continue to offer these inducements, and that can create even greater problems going forward. Most companies have specific policies in place that address gift giving and receiving. It is important to know these policies and adhere by them.
Keep pricing consistent to all departments within the same company – In many large corporations, the procurement process for different business silos is often handled by separate purchasing entities. This could present the sales professional the “opportunity” of pricing the exact same products and services differently to various departments. Is this illegal? No. Will it poison the relationship and kill the account if the discrepancy is every discovered? Absolutely!
When problems develop after the sale, don’t make excuses and don’t place blame; fix the problem – It is not unusual for problems to develop after the sale. Maybe it is a delivery issue; maybe there was a problem in the production or development process. Perhaps there were supply chain disruptions in another country. It doesn’t make any difference what caused the problem, the customer is only concerned about when the problem will be corrected. Don’t waste the customer’s time blaming someone else, even if someone else dropped the ball. The customer isn’t interested in your internal process issues. You are the face of the company, you are the person he trusted, you are the one he is depending on to make things right, and you are the one that needs to “own” making things right, and not because you don’t want to lose the commission or next sale, but because it is your duty as sales professional to delivery on the promise you made.
Don’t withhold bad news – This is related to the previous principle. The sales professional may often become aware that there is a problem with the propposed solution for a particular account before the customer is, especially if it is a delivery, supply chain, or production issue. Bad news never gets better by hiding it. As soon as you know there is a problem, contact the customer immediately. His plans and maybe even his business is going to be impacted by this delay. You must respect him enough to alert him quickly and work with him to find and creatively address any difficulties while the bigger problem is being solved. If you think the customer will be upset when you tell him the bad news, just imagine how much more upset he will be when he finds out you found out the bad news three weeks ago and hid it from him.
If and when you must speak of the competition, be respectful at all times – Some sales professionals seem to think that “trash-talking” the competition will make his own products and services look better. Usually, it only makes him look petty and immature in the eyes of the customer (especially if the customer happens to have friends working for your competitor). Believe in your products and services; be enthusiastic about them and offer the customer real value. Don’t waste time reminding the customer about your competition. It is always okay to respectfully ask about the competition and find out as much as you can about their products, services, prices, terms, etc., but that is as far as you should take the conversation.
Always honor the relationships that other sales professionals have with their accounts – Stealing accounts from your team members is just that – stealing. It is taking money out of their pocket and bread off of their table. There are numerous ways that you can insinuate yourself into a relationship with someone else’s account; taking a phone message, helping out as an SME, responding to an urgent request because you were already in the neighborhood and could get there faster than the account owner. However you should only and always see these encounters as opportunities to serve someone else’s customer for what they are – opportunities to serve, not opportunities to build your own customer base. Even if the customer continues to reach out to you after the fact, graciously refer all calls to the account owner.
And finally: make promises and keep them: Above all, you must do what you say, when you said you would do it. This one skill alone will put you head and shoulders above your competition. With deadlines shrinking, email out of control, and work life spilling into home life, it is easy to forget or delay commitments made to others. Don’t do it! If you tell someone you will deliver a proposal on specific date, do it. If you tell someone you will introduce them to someone they want to meet, do it. Don’t make excuses for yourself or try to justify and rationalize your inability to follow through; that’s what everyone else is doing. Don’t let yourself believe for one minute that missing deadlines and breaking promises is acceptable, because it is not. Do what it takes to follow up and follow through.
From time to time, an unforeseen circumstance will prevent you from keeping your commitment, a death in the family, perhaps, or an unplanned trip or illness. In circumstances like these, and only when it is unavoidable that you miss your deadline, inform the other party as soon as you know that you won’t make the deadline. Don’t let the deadline pass and then inform them, do it in advance. It will be an appreciated gesture that won’t be forgotten, and in fact will be forgiven easily since you’ve always met all your other deadlines in the past. The ability to make and keep promises forms the basis of rock solid relationships that are more valuable than gold in today’s volatile economy. Nothing evokes trust and respect – and inspires repeat business — like being a person who keeps their word.
Take an ethics inventory: Go back over all the principles in discussed in this article. Have you ever violated any of these principles? Which ones? How often? How long ago? How did that work out for you?
If you have ignored one of these principles in the past, take a moment to reflect on the outcome. Was that the only way to win the business? Are you sure? Did you ignore other options because they seemed too hard or too slow?
Which one of these principles do you find it hardest to adhere to? Said another way, which of these principles are you most often tempted to ignore? How do you hold yourself accountable to high ethical standards when the pressure to cut corners and produce more is so strong?