Why the sales profession needs a code of conduct

Sales handshake
Jenny Booth
Deputy head of media and PR
Association of Professional Sales
Columnist
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As a presidential candidate, commentators occasionally described Donald Trump as a snake oil salesman. Now the hotel mogul and his transition team are working to transform him from salesman to statesman.  

Winning the US presidential election has changed the game for Donald Trump. As every candidate discovers, governing is not like campaigning. The excesses of the campaign trail - boastful promises, slandering rivals, thin-skinned tantrums and inconvenient truths - will no longer serve. The salesman will be expected to deliver.   

In many ways, Trump’s rise to presidency highlights a number of potential flaws in the modern sales process, and shows why now, more than ever, sales people need to consider abiding by a code of conduct.  

Trust

Sales has reached a position where change is no longer optional. The mis-selling scandals that have convulsed nearly every sector in sales, from banking to charitable fundraising, have left the public as mistrustful of salespeople as they are of politicians. 

This cynicism has helped to accelerate the move to do business by ecommerce. The profession is being reshaped: transactional sales jobs are being lost by the thousand, and in the kind of complex selling where customers still need to do business with a live sales person, some specific new skills are required - the skills of acting as a wise counsellor; providing thought leadership; collaborating with many different stakeholders, including former rivals; and working for mutual benefit. High-end sales have become less about persuasion and more about chairmanship, a skill Mr Trump will need in the White House.

At the Association of Professional Sales (APS), we’ve devised a Code of Conduct around four principles: behaving with integrity, doing the right thing by the customer, good sales practice and obeying the law.

This is a mission statement that could apply to any profession. Sales, however, is an unusual job in that, like politics, it is based almost entirely around dialogue and relationships. Previous attempts to impose company-wide rules on salespeople have failed to clean up sleaze. Rulebooks did not take account of the interpersonal nature of sales, and tended to regulate the wrong things.

For example, rules would insist the sales person communicated in a timely way using the correct legal phrases; but would fail to cover the point where persuasion shades into coercion, or acting against the customer’s interests - areas where bad behaviour is hard to measure, and regulation is urgently needed.

Reputation

The APS Code of Conduct is unique because it confronts the dilemmas that crop up in sales situations.

When sales people are told they must show the highest integrity in business relationships, for example, this means they should tell customers the whole truth, not just the convenient parts. 

Sellers must never use their position for improper gain for themselves or their company, especially when their financial interests are not disclosed to the customer - something the banking industry has sometimes failed at. They should raise alerts if a sale gives the impression of impropriety. They should never breach confidentiality when sensitive information is given to them.

Sellers should take responsibility for ensuring that they only offer a product that is in the customer’s best interests.

The second part of the code is about the customer’s buying experience, insisting that the seller does the right thing, and thereby gets the right results. 

In practice, this means that sellers should take responsibility for ensuring that they only offer a product that is in the customer’s best interests.

They should disclose all relevant information about the product, so that it presents no unpleasant surprises after the sale, on how it works or cost. Sellers need to use plain language. 

Some of this should make uncomfortable reading for sales organisations. Practices have not been all they should be. Employers have tended to judge sales people on their number, not on their ethics. All kinds of products, from investments to energy plans, have been flogged to the wrong people.

To counteract this, sellers should not engage in any conduct that would bring the profession into disrepute. Mr Trump is now playing for even higher stakes: he is responsible for the reputation of America itself.

Judgment

The third section of the code insists that the seller should keep themselves up to date with the best practices in selling. 

The thinking is that only through continuing professional development will a seller develop the judgment to do the right thing. So they must keep abreast of the latest in human rights, fraud and corruption issues. They need to avoid giving or receiving gifts that might be seen as improper. They need to disclose any irregularities, avoid abusing resources. Sales leaders should ensure their teams have the highest professionalism. 

Doing the right thing benefits not just the customer but also the seller.

Doing the right thing benefits not just the customer but also the seller, because customers like sellers who treat them well. In sales, that spells repeat business; in politics, re-election. 

The final section of the code warns of the need to stay within company and industry rules and within the law. In some areas of the globe, sales people may find themselves operating in places where there is no body of law to protect customers: but sellers should continue to obey the spirit and letter of the code.

Now he has the most powerful job in the world, Mr Trump may imagine he is above the law, and will feel pressure to keep his wilder promises; but to act in a partisan way would be a misjudgment.

As the sales profession is now starting to learn, it is by honouring the rules and balancing competing interests that it - and America - will stay on a profitable and sustainable path.

 

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