Sunday, July 11, 2004

...Sales Ethics 101

Working in sales often puts you in a position of moral ambiguity. The most dishonest salesperson you’re ever going to meet is the one who tells you he never lies. We all do it to some degree. I try to keep mine to the little white variety, like telling a customer that a particular product is the “best” on the market when in reality it is the one I can make the most money on or is the hardest for them to shop my competition for. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile my personal ethics with the realities of the business world. In my personal life, there are few virtues I value higher than honesty. But I’m also not going to lose a potentially lucrative sale just because I’m afraid my nose might grow another half-centimeter.

Whether it’s hypocritical or not, we salespeople expect to be treated fairly and honestly when we find ourselves in the role of customer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve listened to a fellow salesperson spew out one line of bullshit after another in order to close a deal, only to have that same salesperson later complain about what a rip-off artist the mechanic across the street is.

At a previous job, I worked with this guy, Barry, who was not only that company’s top salesperson, but probably the best salesperson I’ve ever come across, period. He was legendary for tricking customers into paying above retail, often making over 50% margin on his sales, which is unheard of in our industry. I once had breakfast with Barry at a hotel in Orlando. After realizing the small glass of orange juice he had just ordered cost $4, Barry proceeded to chase our waiter around the restaurant with his glass, demanding to return it due to the outrageous price .

Friday morning, one of my business partners told me about his horrifying experience from the previous afternoon. Seems he had taken advantage of one of those “We’ll Clean 3 Rooms of Your House for $99" offers from a local carpet cleaning service. After about 15 minutes, the carpet cleaner guy (CCG) came out to tell him that the rooms were finished, but the dirt would probably reappear once the carpet dried since the $99 cleaning is really only meant to prepare the carpet for a more expensive deep cleaning. CCG said he had all of the equipment to do the deep cleaning ready in his van and would be happy to proceed as long as my partner agreed to the $390 price tag.

My partner rightfully complained about the blatant bait-and-switch tactic and refused to pay anything. A shoving match ensued when my partner requested that CCG leave his property immediately, which CCG wouldn’t do without payment. Threats of calls to the police were made from both sides. It was a big mess.

I could sympathize with my partner, having fallen for similar bait-and-switch routines myself. Since he still seemed kind of shaken up over the whole ordeal, I decided not to remind him of one of the early marketing ideas he had for our company. The plan was to get our phones ringing by offering one of our products at a ridiculously low price “while supplies last”. When customers called in for the special, we were to tell them that we had sold out and then try to steer them towards a different product that we could actually make money on. We talked him off the ledge on that one.
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