A standard definition of ethical is, ‘conforming to accepted moral standards.’ The challenge then is to decide whose standards we are comparing to – or not.

Other professions have recognised bodies which set out standards. This isn’t true for selling.

We could probably all agree that unethical selling is:

  • Pushing products or services which you know won’t do the job that you say they do.

  • ‘White lying’ the degree of customer service or support that a buyer could expect.

  • Building a picture of a problem for the customer which doesn’t really exist.

  • Lying about the benefits people will get from what you are selling.

  • Suppressing negative information about your products which is likely to put off potential customers.

  • Misrepresenting competitor products.

  • Excessive pressure to make a buying decision. (I’m thinking about the window salesman
    who refused to leave my kitchen table until we had to insist!)

However, I think the converse of all of these is just good selling practice.

If ‘Ethical Selling Business’ were an accreditation would good selling practice be good enough?  I don’t think so.

There is scope for it to be more than this, to contribute more, to set a new standard which not only serves and protects buyers but could even create Social Impact.

We need to look beyond the sales conversation alone to fully define ethical selling.

What are you selling?

You don’t have to be as influential as Facebook or Twitter to be held accountable for what you sell. If what you are selling directly or indirectly has a damaging impact on individuals or the planet or provides a platform for others to cause damage surely you can’t claim to be ethical?

Who are you selling to?

Hands up!  Quite a few years ago I did sales training for one of the big tobacco companies. I am not proud of that. I justified it to myself that those people would learn skills they could apply for more worthy causes at some point in their career. I know that’s lame.

To be truly ethical salespeople we need to be prepared to say no to business which harms people, communities or the planet.

A healthy respect for your competitors

It is good sales practice to know your competitors and to understand what they do well. Would you be prepared to recommend them if it were the right solution for your prospects? (If you believe in karma, it could just come back round to you!)

Jumping on market trends

Covid19 has provided many opportunities for quick-thinking businesses to make money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – markets and economics at play but the principles of ethical selling apply in exceptional times and in normal. Ethical businesses balance the interests of all stakeholders – employees, customers, community, suppliers and shareholders.  If we only sell to the highest bidder, potentially disregarding those who would benefit most and who could pass on that benefit, can we really claim to be selling ethically? (A debate that Pharmaceutical companies will be familiar with.)

Forget ‘Closing’

The language of selling has often reflected the pressure for salespeople to succeed quickly. Phrases such as ‘closing’, ‘nailing it’, ‘killing it‘ reinforce that ethos and often create the unpleasant experience of selling that most of us will be familiar with. While to some it might seem petty or irrelevant, words do matter. How salespeople talk about sales reflects the culture of their business. If we talk about creating value, getting an agreement, building joint opportunities our mindset subtly changes to a more collaborative approach where mutual benefit – a pillar of ethical selling – is central.

Think long-term

Sales goals are often set for the shortest timescale possible – today, this week, this month. That can be great for getting people into action. The subtlety in ethical selling is the type of goal we are setting. If the only type of goal is to get the buyer to say yes we are encouraging salespeople to do whatever it takes to agree the sale in that timescale, irrespective of whether it is the right solution for them. Different goals encourage different actions and can open up conversations and better opportunities for both parties.

Mind games

Is it unethical to use our understanding of psychology to influence a person’s buying decision? Tactics such as false time pressure or scarcity or quoting customers like us but who don’t really exist or counters telling us how many other people have just bought that yoga mat can be, at best, annoying and, at worst, manipulative.

Firstly, is it true? No – well that’s unethical. Secondly, does it exert extreme pressure that would be difficult for that person to resist? That’s much more difficult to gauge as each of us could react differently under that pressure. In ethical selling we are helping the buyer to make the best decision for them. If we can put our hand on our heart and honestly say, ‘ I am doing the best for you’ that would be a good check.

Ethical selling is a whole set of attitudes and behaviours underpinned by good selling practice. Some may worry that by adopting the principles their potential customer base and opportunities shrink. When the only or main goal is year on year sales growth and your products or services are contributing little to the well-being of the world I can see the concern. (That is another big topic – and one which Kate Raworth articulates so brilliantly in her book, Doughnut Economics.)

However, by focusing on selling the right products to the right customers in the right way we foster more trust, more open conversations and more collaboration – and therein lie more opportunities.  

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