“Build it and they’ll come”. The film Field of Dreams has a lot to answer for. And that’s because unless you are a completely unique business or have a monopoly, the latter is very far removed from the reality. Customers won’t magically come to you - in order to make money, your business needs to go out and sell.
And in the age of Amazon, particularly if you’re selling a physical product, competition is stiff.
However, can convincing people into buying your goods - possibly people who were doing okay without them - ever be ethical?
As a copywriter, the ambiguity around ethics is something I encounter often. Whenever copywriters write words, the objective is to get someone to take action - whether that action is to buy a product after seeing an ad, or feel compelled to share an article. It doesn’t matter what you want them to do, you still need to convince the audience to do something. On the other hand, you don’t want to hoodwink people into buying something that they really don’t need or can’t afford.
Achieving that balance is tough. Much like good sales copy, a great sales pitch will be full of compelling reasons why the audience should part with their cash. Converting leads into customers is about reminding the audience of their pain, and promising to match solutions to problems.
Spoiler alert, the answer’s yes - you can sell ethically and still achieve results.
What is ethical selling?
We all need to sell to survive - this has always been the case since the day we were born. I sound a lot like the cliché sales spiel, but we sell ourselves all the time: in a job interview, academics sell the need for further research funds, even kids use persuasion tactics.
Selling is a natural human experience.
However, ethical selling is less “smile and dial”, and more about putting the interest of the customer first. Your objective should be to get people to spend money on something that they need, not on something that you, as a business or salesperson, want them to buy. And to find that need you need to be approachable and personable enough to identify that need or desire, and then extract it from the potential buyer.
Moreover, ethical selling is about ensuring that the product or service you are presenting meets the needs of the client or consumer, and that you are not using practices that would bring your company into disrepute. In other words, deliberately or unintentionally misrepresenting the benefits and features of a product or a service.
Mis-selling just isn’t worth it. At best, in the short-term, mis-selling could damage the relationships with customers and suppliers. At worst, and in the long-term, your trustworthiness and integrity will in come into question. Cutting corners, or being ‘economical’ with the truth, may manifest itself in a reduction of profitable income in the future, hitting you and the business where it really hurts: the bottom line.
The reason why we should hit our sales quota the right way and put the interests of customers first is because it reaps more long-term success. Unethical selling has a huge impact on sales performance, and the short-term reward of unethical selling just isn’t conducive to sustainable business practices, or a rewarding sales career.
But there’s also a PR element to this argument. So many companies bypass the importance of internal PR. I believe that your people, your employees, are your PR. Don’t forget: staff will relay whatever happens at work, with peers outside the working environment.
How to sell ethically
As a salesperson, the difficulty is not feeling tempted to cut corners - you need to hit your sales quota without burning your bridges. Management need to lead by example and there are plenty of methods for bringing about ethical sales policies and processes, which involves leaders developing a code of ethics. This code of conduct for selling will help your business meet its ethical selling obligations. It’s important to build a clear and structured framework, and include principles that define the way you operate, make decisions and treat your customers and suppliers. This framework can be used as a blueprint for sales teams to use and refer to.
Forming guidelines in this way streamlines processes, and identifies clearly what are acceptable behaviours, and what aren’t. For example, always giving customers and suppliers honest, accurate information, and making sure customers' purchasing decisions are based on their preference, not pressure. Guidelines should be written with all your stakeholders in mind - so not just sellers, but also your suppliers and prospects, for example.
But salespeople can also equip themselves, and be proactive in ethical selling, rather than wait for guidelines from management. Look for thought leaders who can guide you and offer practical, actionable advice. There are many great resources online to help you hit your sales quota ethically.
In ethical sales situations, everyone wins. Your spoken or written words push the customer to do something that they’ve been neglecting, but that they need or want. Most people need a nudge even to buy things that would benefit them.
Our actions are more important than what we say. Building long-term, loyal relationships and demonstrating ethical sales techniques is good business practice. It helps earn the trust and loyalty of your customers, strengthening your reputation and even boosting sales.
If you want to sleep well at night while still doing your job, try to be a bit less “technically correct” and lean more toward “no BS.” In the end, sales comes down to telling the truth. Sometimes that’s harder than it sounds, especially when sales target have to be met, food needs to be put onto the table, and your bills need paying, but we can all remember how to do it if we try.
The ethical approach is more sustainable and likely to have a positive impact on your sales record. Plus, you may actually earn bonus points for honesty.