A recent post by Colin Wilson – Are You Lying Comfortably (now, sadly not available on the blogosphere) – got me thinking about ethics in sales.
It's something people new to, or outside of sales often worry about. How ethical is it to “manipulate” people with salesmanship to buy a particular product or service?
I think one of the toughest areas is in the choice of what you sell. By this, I don't mean choices over whether you sell cigarettes, alcohol or sex products (although your ethical stance there is important, of course). What I mean is selling something you know your customer doesn't really need.
There's really a scale here.
Ethics in Sales: To Sell or Not To Sell?
Selling something you know your customer doesn't need is, in my view, clearly unethical. A professional salesperson has a responsibility to ensure that he or she only sells what their customer will genuinely benefit from – or at the very least, if a customer is intent on buying something they don't really need then the salesperson should warn them of that.
At the other end of the scale, selling something that your customer really needs, where your product is clearly the best available solution for them is unquestionably ethical.
But there's a potentially grey area in between. What if the client needs your product, but you know of a competitors product which meets that need even better? Do you tell them about the competitors product that's a better fit – or keep quiet and just sell yours?
That's a tricky call. I know many salespeople who would say that as long as you “do no evil”, as long as the customer benefits from your product – then it's not your duty to tell them about the better product they could get. That isn't my view – but I'm OK with it. The customer still benefits – and really, it's their responsibility to find the very best product for themselves.
Personally though, If I believe a competitor has a better product, then I'll recommend my customer gives it a look over. I just don't feel right if I know there is a better solution out there but I withold that information.
In the end, I believe this stance actually helps me. As a consultant, one of the critical success factors for me to win and keep clients is to establish a deep trusting relationship. How can I hope to do that if I deliberately withold important information from my client? I believe that my honesty in this helps deepend the bonds of trust with clients – and helps win me further work.
But at the end of the day, holding strong to my position on ethics in sales, whether it benefits me or not, it just feels right. And that's perhaps the biggest benefit of all.
Update: I've written a more recent article on ethics in sales here. It gives a very practical and unexpected solution to the ethical conundrum.