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Principled selling: Why sales is turning ethical in the 21st Century

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17th Apr 2013
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With consumers demanding a more honest sales approach, David Tovey outlines five principles for more personable selling. 

The recent record £10.5 ($16M) fine for deregulated UK power firm SSE is just the latest case of mis-selling to UK customers, and will not be the last. The regulator issuing the fine singled out managers for 'allowing a culture of misselling'.

While some are baying for larger fines, following hot on the heels of the payment insurance scandal which is set to cost UK banks $14bn, many will be counting their blessings and asking how their sales cultures would stand up to such exacting standards. 

The sales landscape is changing. And so is the salesman. For the last century, the sales industry has been characterised by propaganda or pressure as it has transitioned from direct sales to retail sales to the travelling salesman. The stereotypical salesperson demonstrates a pushy and manipulative attitude desperate to deliver the hard sell. But the growth of social media has seen consumers call for a more transparent relationship with brands and more honest sales tactics, meaning salespeople must now become more intelligent in their approach. 

David Tovey says it was observing this changing nature of buying behaviour that led him to write Principled Selling: How to Win More Business Without Selling Your Soul. “Customers new and existing simply will not accept anything less than a trusted relationship anymore and this is driven by all things that were familiar with banking crisis, politicians, big business and so on. Buyers have just become cynical and less trusting of anybody that comes to market to sell anything,” he says.

He adds: “As a consumer, I’ve got the world at my fingertips through my keyboard. If I want to find out if information from a company is accurate, I go to my social media network and ask others? I get this view that comes back that is not filtered through the messaging the company has provided. Social media has become the new world where reputation is more believable by someone tweeting about you or mentioning you on Facebook or on LinkedIn than any amount of advertising or marketing will do.”

What’s clear is that the more aggressive sales techniques will no longer wash with consumers. Instead, salespeople must instead adopt a new approach to suit the always-connected digital consumer landscape. So, how do they do this?

Fundamentally, businesses must deliver 100% on what they promise, says Tovey. And once a business has established what it stands for and its main message, everyone who has contact with customers must reflect that in their behaviour. As a company, if you say that you’re totally customer-centric then you must actually listen to your customer and put the customer first.

“The new skills include having the ability to put customers first, in the knowledge that you as a business will make a profit from being there. There is more profit in doing it correctly because customers will re-buy. It’s moving from a transactional mind-take to what you might call the customers for life mind-take.”

Five principles

In his book, Tovey outlined five principles to help businesses align their sales technique in this new age of customer expectations. The first principle, he says, starts with making sure that everything you do is about motivating the customer, not manipulating. “The traditional sales approach would have been to manipulate the client to get what they want but it's not about that. It’s about motivating customers to want to have that relationship with you and then to buy from you,” he says.

The second principle says that you have to reinvest in the customer relationship if you want them to rebuy. For instance, even when they’re not buying from you, providing valuable and free content on your website helps to create a proactive relationship with customers. Thirdly, there must be consistency between the marketing message, sales message and what you deliver. Customers must be able to see that what was said in the original marketing message when they first started to do business with you is totally consistent with the experience every day over the five years working with you, says Tovey.

Next, is integrity: being honest enough that if your solution isn’t 100% the right solution for the customer you have to be prepared to walk away. “When people have walked away, they've actually called back within days or weeks for something that was far bigger than what they walked away from because people think they've bought the trust.”

Finally, principled selling is about being human, he says. Most people buy on emotion. They want to know that they’re doing business with another human being. It doesn't take a special sort of personality to win business; it just takes someone who can behave like a human being, who can communicate with people.

Cultural change

Adopting these five principles in the business and developing these skills sets among sales staff begins at the top. The leader of the business must not just believe in a more transparent set of principles but act on them and demonstrate how staff should behave. Forget training courses, this is the only way to bring about change in your business, says Tovey.

Of course, starting at the top is no easy feat. Sales leaders themselves have been operating in this old fashioned model for a long time and the people at the top we're asking to herald this change typically tends to be the classic alpha male salesperson.

Tovey accepts the challenge such a huge overhaul would be but says: “Over the last five years they're simply not doing the sort of business that they were. Most people in business can see the commercial strengths of doing it. Sometimes they just need to wake up and smell the coffee.

“In my experience, even the rufty tufty sales manager doesn’t go home and treat their family like that. They put on this cloak of what they think selling is about when actually, you don't need to do that. You just need to go out and find the right customers for the solutions that you offer and have nice meetings over cups of coffees in air conditioned surroundings and professional business meetings with people.

“And anyone that wants to build a customer reputation in the marketplace must harness social media to channel their content to existing and potential customers. It’s a huge power, as long as you do it with integrity and ethically, it influences your market place.”

David Tovey is author of Principled Selling: How to Win More Business Without Selling Your Soul.

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