Ethics of Selling

Reclaiming Salesmanship Without Selling Your Soul

by Nancy C. Godson

In 1992 Hollywood released a film titled “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the story of a failing real estate office in which four real estate salesmen are told by management that two of them will face certain termination if significant property sales are not immediately forthcoming. The top two producers are promised substantial bonuses. How the salesmen generate leads and pursue sales over the next 24 hours within a pressure cooker of unrelenting scrutiny from management and intense competition among themselves has become an academic study of sales ethics used by university marketing departments throughout the country.

As the story unfolds, one salesman chooses to break the law and another will experience an emotional breakdown. The perennially confident top producer of the team will force a sale on a particularly vulnerable client, while the “old lion” of the group, considered by his peers to be professionally obsolete, believes he scored the major sale of the day.

The depiction of salespeople as wily hucksters who value compensation over client welfare does little to enhance the professional image the career and the majority of its practitioners deserve. According to Baylor marketing professors and research collaborators Bill Weeks and Larry Chonko, much of this negativity is rooted in how sales were conducted 30, 40, even 50 years ago.

“Salespeople continue to have a bad rap in some circles, and some of it is deserved,” says. Chonko. “Any profession that offers an opportunity to make a good living is going to draw a range of ethical views.”

“Historically there has long been a negative stereotype of salespeople,” agrees Weeks, who, together with Chonko, is considered a definitive resource on the subject of business and sales ethics among leading trade and academic journals.

Why is the issue of ethics suddenly a hot topic in today’s business-to-business sales environment?

Weeks credits the trend to growing competition, increased pressure on profit margins, more complex sales processes, a constantly evolving business market and the recent corporate debacles of Enron, WorldCom and Waste Management, Inc —textbook examples of organizations that lacked a true culture of ethical compliance.

Rather than taking the traditional “sell harder” competitive approach, selling firms seeking to effectively differentiate their solution offerings are instead investing in a successful corporate ethics culture that incorporates a value-added method to sales — and reaping positive results.

“The historical stereotype of salespeople is changing as more people become familiar with the critical role that salespeople play in the United States economy, and as selling firms choose to separate themselves from their competitors by demonstrating a clear preference for longterm, mutually profitable relationships with clients,” says Weeks

“Indeed, some firms are living this,” says. Chonko. “But most firms still struggle with focusing on the longterm as they have their eye on meeting monthly sales objectives.

Part of the reason for this is that other factors besides organizational factors drive salespeople,” he continued. “Materialism, a need to succeed, the desire to take care of a family—these are also factors that encourage short-term-oriented sales activity.

“Such influencers and the resulting sales activities may in fact be ethical, but they may not be in the best interest of a client for the longterm,” he said. “There is no doubt that the conflict between meeting short-term goals while developing longterm relationships provides fertile ground for the seeds of unethical activity.”

Sales practitioners can be their own worst enemy in perpetuating a sense of general mistrust. Bowing to perceived criticism, many companies discourage the term ‘salesperson’ from being printed on the business cards of their sales staff, preferring titles such as ‘marketing representative,’ ‘product consultant,’ or ‘client advisor’ to describe their sales function.

“These companies expect their sales staff to act as sales professionals and achieve set sales goals, yet do not want them to be perceived as salespeople,” says Chonko. “Not only is that a delicate line to walk, but it demeans a legitimate and worthy occupation.

The result is a profession experiencing an identity crisis and a company sales culture that inhibits salespeople, confuses customers and does little to benefit the bottom line.

In his book, The Hard Truth about Soft-Selling: Restoring Pride and Purpose to the Sales Profession, John F. Tanner, a marketing professor and associate dean of research and faculty development at Hankamer School of Business, seeks to convince sales professionals that a sales career is a worthy, credible profession.

“Because salespeople regard their career as somehow less than professional or something to be ashamed of, they have become professional ‘visitors’ or ‘friends’ to their clients rather than product advocates, ” says Tanner.

This self-imposed role rejection has resulted in a generation of salespeople engaging in soft-selling techniques that are counterproductive to the goal of closing deals. Uncomfortable with pitching their product too obviously, today’s sales practitioners expect their product to somehow sell itself.

“In fact, the customer understands that the salesperson is there to sell, needs product information, knows that a decision must be made and needs help making it,” says Tanner.

“Salespeople are focusing on acceptance rather than the primary reason they are with the client—to ethically represent their products and services to a prospective buyer,” he said.

Weeks champions the concept that salespeople should be considered ‘value-added partners’ to clients, with the greatest profit potential for each party understood as the shared goal.

“Ideally, salespeople and clients should work together to clarify the customer’s immediate needs and goals, determine where he wants to take his firm in the long run, and then identify the problems or challenges which must be overcome in order to achieve those objectives, he said.

“Essentially the salesperson’s function is to help the customer make decisions that solve problems—that’s the basis of longterm, lucrative client relationships.”

“No one would discount the importance of relationship-building with clients,” says Chonko. “Tension arises when sales accountability is factored into the mix, because relationships are seldom forged overnight and management still expects monthly quotas to be met.”

It is at this juncture that sales professionals will most often experience ethical dilemmas. Common unethical practices include promising a client more than the company can deliver, knowingly recommending products that do not offer the customer the best solution to his problem, steering customers toward a higher-priced solution when a more reasonable alternative exists, or criticizing the competition.

Such practices handicap potential longterm client relationships and do nothing to dismantle the negative opinion that the sales profession is inherently unethical.

Top management cannot rely on individual integrity, but instead must take active responsibility for the ethical climate of its organization according to Weeks and Chonko.

“Reinforcing the importance of moral values is most forceful and the message of ethical performance most eloquent when communicated by the consistent ethical example of leadership—with integrity at the highest levels of management filtering throughout the sales organization,” says Chonko.

Firms concerned with encouraging and maintaining a successful ethical climate are likely to have a clearly developed code of ethics and regularly communicate ethical procedures to employees at every level within the organization. Their suppliers and joint venture partners are expected to demonstrate the same ethical standards. Ethics officers or dedicated ombudsmen often appear on their administrative staff rolls. Ongoing ethics training (including role play), group discussions and newsletters that address specific ethical concerns are the norm.

Growing corporate membership in trade organizations such as the Global Account Management Association (GAMA), the Ethics Officers Association (EOA) and the Professional Society for Marketing and Training is another indicator that Corporate America is raising the bar on ethical expectations and practice. Corporate sponsors underwrite much of today’s sales research. As the academic community continues to recognize the relevance of ethical training, more business schools are adding sales programs to their academic curricula, with five universities now offering dedicated sales degrees.

It is the on the front lines, however, that a company’s ethical standards are often most visible. Sales management must demonstrate consistent responses to employees when they are observed engaging in unethical behavior, regardless of their performance level.

“The last thing you want to discover is a high performer who has been involved in unethical conduct to be treated milder than a low performing individual engaging in the same behavior,” says Weeks.

He suggests that, along with rewarding sales professionals for hitting sales revenue quotas, management would be wise to include a measure for customer satisfaction scores and repeat purchases. In other words, professional integrity must be included as a definition of success.

“If salespeople understand that they are being measured and rewarded for satisfied customers and repeat business, one would expect them to make sure they are doing right by the customer,” he said.

Happily the slick, fast-talking salesperson devoted to the quick sale that populated “Glengarry Glen Ross” is rapidly disappearing from the sales landscape as more companies commit to developing successful ethical cultures within their organizations and practitioners reclaim their role as product-savvy sales professionals partnered with clients in longstanding, mutually beneficial relationships.

Baylor Business Review, Spring 2006


  1. Dr. Laski wrote:

    While some reasonable points are made here, overall, this is very shallow, and misses key points and integration into the larger picture of “Vulture Capitalism.”

    My belief is that everyone should have to sell to “survive” for a period of time in their lives … that would, in my view, bring the issues front and center.

  2. Selling Property wrote:

    Some lines of this blog, were really amazing to read.

Leave a Comment