Sales and Ethics

Let me preface this post by saying that my personal experience has inspired this writing. My goal in this post is to share what, in my mind, I’ve conceptually defined and understood as the process of selling as it relates to what I regard as moral, or ethical.

A few months ago I was taking a Lyft through the South of Market (SOMA) district in downtown San Francisco, and it was a ride I haven’t forgotten. Making polite conversation, I asked the driver if this was her full-time gig or something she does on the side, as is the case with many drivers. For her, driving provides the income she needs to start her business. I don’t quite remember what her business was—some form of spiritual therapy—but what I do remember is that I could tell almost immediately what was happening: She was pitching me.

As she skirted around the fact that what she really wanted to know was whether I’d be interested in using her practice, I was reminded of how many people are so averse to the profession of sales that—emotionally—they have a difficult time selling even their own product. I don’t blame her for this—there was a time when I felt similar about selling. In fact, this was the primary reason I tried my hand at something other than sales years ago when I started working in restaurants.

When she asked what it is I do, I explained that I’m in sales. Knowing how she felt, I acknowledged that a lot of people don’t like selling. I mentioned that this is because by and large, selling makes people “feel dirty”. It was when I said this that her guard came down and she admitted that this is precisely how she feels about selling her own service. As we continued, I did my best to help her understand why she feels this way, and that it’s an unjustified source of guilt.

I used to think that the reason for this phenomenon is that sometimes selling can feel like some lesser-crude form of prostitution. I actually remember a friend who, during his stint as a real estate agent, described his social media activities as “whoring” himself out. Yes, I too chuckled when he described it this way. Though there may be something to this theory, I would suggest that there’s something more deeply rooted at work here. I believe that many people find themselves having, if only subconsciously, a moral dilemma when selling.

Selling is a process of two people engaging in conversation so as to come to an understanding of value, and subsequently engage in trade. More specifically, it is the process of the potential buyer determining how valuable something is to him, and whether that something is worth more than the money he will be paying for it. The role of the salesperson is to communicate value as much as possible with one of two goals in mind: Either to communicate value higher than the price he’s asking, or communicate value to the point at which he can negotiate the best price possible. To facilitate trade value for value, a currency is used. In the US, the physical manifestation of value is the dollar. Thus, sales is nothing more than the process of exchanging value for value by means of product and dollars, and the role of the salesperson in that process is to demonstrate, or otherwise communicate, value in his product to the potential buyer.

It should be noted that value is subjective based upon the prospect’s needs. Even water varies in value from person to person, depending on their access to it, and how long it’s been since they’ve last consumed it. The extent to which something is of value to someone else is determined in many ways, such as asking lots of open-ended questions for the purpose of needs discovery, but we’ll not cover that here, since this topic has already been covered by sales professionals exhaustively. What we’ve established is that the result of a sale is two or more people having agreed upon a trade for mutual benefit.

What then are the moral, or ethical, implications of selling? Simply put, to sell something, you are doing so with your own interest in mind. I believe that this is what makes selling feel uncomfortable, and I believe it was what made my Lyft driver that day feel “dirty” about selling something which she otherwise knows is a quality product. Sales is a profession which requires an overtly self-interested mindset—there is no hiding it. This doesn’t mean you’re in fact dirty or dishonest. It actually means quite the opposite: In order to sell something you need to well understand your prospect’s needs so that you can identify why and how what it is you’re selling will be beneficial to them. It holds true that at the end of the day, you need to have walked away knowing that you came out with more money than the product was worth to the company, and yourself. In other words, sales can feel implicitly selfish, and I believe that this is what makes most people uncomfortable about selling.

The takeaway here is that in spite of this perceived moral dilemma, it still holds true that both parties are better off for having made that trade. Your client is better off for having traded a sum of money which is worth less to them than the product which they are receiving, and you and your company are better off for having traded a product that is worth less to you than the money you’re receiving—it’s a win-win. Those who feel bad about selling are operating in a state of cognitive dissonance. They want someone to buy their product yet at the same time feel uncomfortable about asking for an exchange.

In short, I view the ethical implications of sales as this: If you are selling to someone who you know doesn’t need your product at the price offered, that is unethical. If you are selling to someone who you know needs your product at the price offered, and you’re merely trying to figure how best to communicate that value, that is ethical selling. There are many steps in the process of determining that the latter is, in fact, the case, but if you can validate this knowledge, then you may know you’re doing the right thing.

To this end, I’m delighted to know that sales has changed over the years. Now we sell much differently than the days of the ‘used car salesman’. Unfortunately scenes like the ‘sell me this pen’ bit from The Wolf of Wall Street don’t help foster this idea, but it is true sales has changed and is changing. For example, I personally have found success in selling from a consultative standpoint. I sell by asking questions, discovering needs, and I’m honest. I have absolutely no qualms with telling a prospect, “Yea, you don’t need our product. Thanks for taking the time to check it out, though. If your needs change in the future, let me know and we can have another conversation.”

Sales doesn’t have to “feel dirty”. It doesn’t need to be some moral dilemma if it is properly understood as a trade for mutual benefit—that both parties can be better off for having partaken in it. In fact, it is precisely this kind of trade for mutual benefit that has produced modern civilization.

As I explained all this to my Lyft driver she felt much better. In fact, I could see the excitement in her face as she dropped me off at Caltrain, ready and excited to tell her next passenger about her business and whether they needed her services.

Moments afterward as I was riding the train to our office, I reflected on our conversation, and was excited myself about having the opportunity to make our customers’ lives more productive and effective though using my product. In return for this, I feel no dilemma in asking for a trade—so that I can live to sell another day.

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August 12, 2015 · ethics, sales management ·