As someone with family members who served in the U.S. military, the holiday just past often reminds me of the unwavering commitment and honor required of our military personnel. Our brave fighters take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, as well as to "bear true faith and allegiance to the same." In a real way, they are held to a higher level of integrity than the rest of us.
In light of recent events involving theft, lying, and unscrupulous behavior by leaders, executives, and politicians alike, I have been thinking lately of honesty and ethics in the sales profession. More to the point, I've been pondering how building a culture of integrity can have an important impact on individual and sales team success.
There have been a variety of surveys taken in the past 10 years about "most/least respected" professions and "honesty and ethics" in professions. A scan of these polls indicates several sales positions—car salespeople, stockbrokers, real estate agents, and insurance brokers—are repeatedly near the bottom of the list when it comes to honesty and respect.
While there may be reasons why each of these professions has integrity issues, it is also true to some degree that the entire profession of sales, regardless of branch or level of professionalism, is tarred with the same brush of perceived lack of integrity.
I remember one particular sales call years ago. The prospect's body language told me she wasn't just uncomfortable—she was downright hostile to me. Finally, she shared this sentiment out loud: "I have to be honest with you. I think that all salespeople are liars, and I don't trust any of them, and I don't trust you."
As a professional salesman, I ultimately was able to get a laugh out of her. But deep down, part of me was offended by what she said and her assumption that I was untrustworthy…simply because of my profession. And yet, there is an underlying truth in her comments. Many (if not all) of our prospects, view salespeople with suspicion, assuming that in attempting to make a sale, we will be self-serving, manipulative, and possibly even untruthful.
When training in sales almost 30 years ago, I spent a week with a young "hot-shot" whose job it was to show me the ropes. I remember distinctly his instructions to "promise them anything to get the business, and then figure out how the heck to deliver it." That didn't mean being downright dishonest, but at the very least, it meant shading the truth in some way to secure a sale.
My guess is that many of us during our sales careers have taken that approach. While sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn't, leaving our customers in the lurch and damaging future sales prospects. Oh, and of course reinforcing the idea that salespeople are the lying bums they thought we were.
How do we as sales leaders battle the perception our profession is somehow inherently untruthful? How do we approach business in a way that clearly demonstrates to prospects we are honest and that we mean the best for them—not just for ourselves? Here's some food for thought:
Integrity has to be an absolute core sales team value. Even if a company's mission, vision, and values make reference to honesty, or salespeople must sign something like an annual statement of integrity, it is important for sales managers to remind the sales team honesty, truthfulness, and "doing the right thing" are integral to individual, team, and organizational success.
Honesty starts with sales leaders. In the same way children will model their parents' behaviors, so too will salespeople model their management's behaviors. If managers shade the truth in presentations, get creative on expense reports, promise things that can't be delivered, or otherwise exhibit actions that are not truthful, those same behaviors will be reflected by salespeople. Managers must always act in an honorable fashion.
Truthfulness grows with daily decisions. Years ago, a friend of mine filled out a call report referencing a meeting with a certain doctor at a regional hospital. His boss asked him how the meeting went, to which he responded "fine." He was then asked how fine it could have been, given that the doctor in question had been deceased for a few years. Ouch.
Every day, we have lots of little opportunities to be truthful, bend the truth, or outright lie to our customers, managers, or fellow employees. If we can encourage our people to be honest with trivial daily actions, that commitment can grow into honorable behaviors on the larger, more important issues.
A win/win approach equals integrity. To combat the idea salespeople are "in it for themselves," it is critical to embrace Steven Covey's Habit 4: "Think win/win." A sales approach that seeks a great win for the client and the salesperson is one of truth and integrity. It will be appreciated and respected by the prospect, which in turn will leading to the opportunity for a long-term sales relationship.
Don't commit to anything that can't be delivered. The Bible says "let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no,' 'no'." Oft times salespeople stumble not because of dishonesty, but because of a lack of promised follow-through after a call or presentation. Essentially what has happened is that an oath has been broken, which can be rightfully be perceived as a lack of integrity. Salespeople must be reminded to promise only what can be delivered and above all, to do what they say they're going to do.
We're inching closer to July 4, and with it, the remembrance that some of our Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence lost everything in their fight for our country. The least we can do is be willing to lose a sale in the short run if it means being honest, knowing that selling with honesty over time will lead to success for our salespeople, our organizations, and our clients.
SMM columnist David Chittock is president of Incentra, Inc.