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Ethical selling: why responsible salespeople achieve better results

Jaime Castelló

Ethical salespeople who act respectfully and responsibly are more motivated, less stressed, and achieve better results. Jaime Castelló, marketing lecturer at Esade, outlines best practices for sales teams. 

This feature is adapted from a longer article in the Spanish edition of Harvard Business Review.  

Salespeople are often caricatured being willing to do anything to close a deal. But this is an unfair stereotype that is usually untrue and badly represents most sales professionals.

Sales is a complex process that requires many skills and a great deal of knowledge. The remit of a salesperson is a wide one, encompassing customers, competitors, colleagues, and the company (what can be called ‘the four Cs’). Identifying desirable and undesirable behaviour in relation to each of these areas and establishing a clear code of sales ethics results in clarity, consistency, and a positive working environment.

Build trust

In supply-dominated markets and business-to-business contexts, solutions are often complex and require a co-creation relationship with customers. Prioritising relationships over transactions means building trust and encouraging loyalty.

Trust is based on the conviction that somebody will not harm the interests of others

It is essential that each party involved in the sales relationship – customers, distributors, agents, exporters, and partners – has a clear understanding of how every other player operates. Trust is based on the conviction that somebody will not harm the interests of others, and so the behaviour of the salesperson – the cornerstone in this equation – must be ethical and fair beyond reproach.

Create better solutions

When a salesperson demonstrates their dedication to creating value for the customer (customer centricity) in a mutually trusting relationship, it puts them in a position to develop better and more valuable solutions. The behaviour associated with customer centricity – gaining insight into the customer and their industry and advocating for them within the company – enables the salesperson to anticipate scenarios and propose solutions. The resulting increase in sales brought about by positive relationships then feeds into a company culture that values trust and insight.

Foster internal relationships

The same approach is applied to relationships between the sales team and their colleagues within the company. In complex sales negotiations, internal relationships are key to generating value-added solutions for customers. In B2B markets in particular, customers favour a bespoke service over off-the-shelf solutions. Salespeople who have an innate working knowledge of other departments and close relationships with colleagues are in a much better position to identify and offer benefits to their customers.

Reduce stress

Sales is one of the most stressful functions within a company. The stress of day-to-day activities required for the role, such as travel and interactions with a multitude of people, combined with deadlines and the pursuit of targets result in a significant amount of pressure.

Reducing stress also reduces the likelihood of the salesperson leaving the company

If the sales team does not have a clear idea of what the company expects of them, the quick decisions and judgements they must make every day add to that pressure. A code of ethics that clarifies expectations and defines desired behaviour provides a clear operational framework that reduces the stress on salespeople.

Reducing stress also reduces the likelihood of the salesperson leaving the company. This is not an insignificant effect: as well as the costs of recruitment, the company loses a great deal of insight that could have taken years to acquire.

Define a code of ethics

Ethical standards and morals differ from person to person and so it is the company’s responsibility to define what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviour. A code of ethics should set out what is acceptable with each of the four Cs. The code below is adapted from the International Certified Professional Salesperson Code of Ethics (Sales & Marketing Executives International, 1994) and is a good place to start.

Customers: 

  • Be honest  
  • Present accurate information and include the advantages and disadvantages of products and services  
  • Provide information that will help make decisions and achieve objectives 

Competitors: 

  • Obtain information by ethical and legal means 
  • Describe competitors and their products honestly   

Company:  

  • Use company resources responsibly  
  • Respect the confidentiality of company information 
  • Act with integrity and honesty when reporting to the company 

Colleagues:  

  • Respect colleagues, act fairly and sincerely, and work together for the good of the organisation 

Be specific

To be effective, a code of sales ethics should focus on a specific set of desired behaviours, rather than a generic set of values. These values should be sought in new recruits and reinforced in current teams with regular coaching and training sessions. The benefits of behaving in the desired way must clearly illustrate why the approach is more valuable than an ‘anything goes’ mentality. Defining and developing behaviour within a wider set of values creates communities of people who reinforce positive characteristics among their peers and within their communities.

Adopt a zero-tolerance approach

A code of ethics is only effective if it is implemented thoroughly: people cannot be allowed to flout the rules because they get good results.

Confidential and anonymous reporting systems which are seen to be effective, a fair disciplinary procedure, and proportionate action will encourage a positive culture and help achieve the desired ethical behaviour.

Lead by example

First-line sales managers are key in defining what is and what is not acceptable within their teams – and they must lead by example. To achieve this, the emphasis should be on promoting people who display leadership qualities rather than those who get the best results.

The long-term perspective of a senior salesperson who has experienced the consequences of their decisions cannot be underestimated. With this knowledge, which is difficult to acquire other than through experience, these mentors become the best ambassadors for ethical sales teams. 

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.