Steve Schmidt is an executive partner and a member of the ownership team with Integrity Solutions. Since joining Integrity Solutions in 1996, Steve has played a key role in business development and managing strategic account relationships. He also contributes to Integrity Solutions alliance and partner programs. Steve resides in the Phoenix, AZ, area.
As they weigh purchase options and evaluate vendors, B2B buyers expect sales teams and their companies to behave in ethical ways.
Working with ethical salespeople and companies is a basic requirement among buyers. Harvard Business Review reported on research conducted by Bain, which has taken the 40 distinct kinds of value that B2B offerings provide customers and organized them into a pyramid with five levels. According to their report: “At the base of the pyramid are the table stakes: meeting specifications at an acceptable price in compliance with regulations while abiding by ethical standards.”
Selling with ethics and integrity is about behavior. You can talk about it all you want; what matters is how it manifests itself in the everyday actions of your salespeople.
Transparency Is Key to Creating an Ethical Sales Culture
At a fundamental level, ethical selling is about being transparent — even when it feels risky or uncomfortable.
I recently worked with a company dealing with a product issue. The manufacturer had had some slipups, and that had created a big upheaval internally.
Naturally, they didn’t want their customers to know about all the drama going on behind the scenes. At the same time, their salespeople didn’t want to make false promises or feel like they were engaging in some kind of coverup.
In the end, the leadership recognized that the more transparent they could be about what was going on, the more their customers would be willing to forgive the problems, and the more trust they’d build with them over time. As that trust grows, these customers will become their net promoters – spreading the word about how that company puts their customers’ interests first.
It’s worth noting, however, that this wasn’t just an ethics problem. When salespeople aren’t selling in sync with their own values and their belief in the product, it will inevitably impact their performance. Solidly ethical organizations grow so successfully because they build the trust of both their customers and their employees.
Transparency Starts with Sales Leaders
Not only does leadership have a responsibility to be as upfront as possible about what’s going on, they need to support, model, and praise the behaviors they expect to see.
Sales managers also need to be able to coach their salespeople to have those customer conversations effectively. Your sales team’s ability to meet the customer’s perception of sales ethics will depend on
- how prepared they are,
- how well they understand what the customer needs, and
- whether they can provide value as a trusted advisor.
Sales training is also an important component of creating an ethical sales culture. Effective sales training that defines selling as a mutual exchange of value – as something you do for and with people, not to them – absolutely aligns with and reinforces ethical selling practices.
That said, we all face unexpected challenges (like a manufacturing issue that causes problems with customer orders, for example) that sometimes test our code of ethics. This is why it’s so important to not only define what ethical sales means in your organization but to also communicate it in a tangible manner, coach to it, and make transparency, integrity, and ethics bedrocks of the culture.
In many ways, it comes down to purpose: your organization’s purpose, but also your salespeople’s purpose — the reason they get up every day and sell what they sell. The paradox about purpose is, the more you’re focused on serving the needs of others, the more meaning you’ll enjoy and the more motivated, energized, and successful you’ll be. Selling gives people a great platform to serve others. And, when everyone in the organization views selling through this customer-focused, ethical lens, everyone wins.
Ethical sales practices build trust. Ethics in selling means different things to different people, and the precise definition can depend upon your industry, experience, regulations, and other market factors. But one thing is certain: Your customers know it when they see it — and when they don’t.