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Are all salespeople crooks?

Christophe Fournier*

University Professor, IAE of Montpellier

Montpellier Research Management, University of Montpellier

President of AUNEGe

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute



(Paper originally published in The Conversation France)

Salespeople too often suffer from a negative image: liars, smooth talkers, greedy, ready to do anything to sell and this in most countries of the world. This is the image, for example, of Michael Scott in the series The Office, ready to get a partner drunk to make him sign a sales contract. This stereotype seems almost worldwide.

Some will say "business is business", it is the law of business and it is up to the consumer to be vigilant. At a time when there is growing concern about sustainable development issues, when we talk more and more about corporate social responsibility and when we praise the benefits of ESG (environmental, social and governance) assessments, it seems legitimate to ask the question: is it possible to have a sales ethic and if so, why and how?

Beyond moral issues, there is a certain consensus in the scientific literature that ethical business practices have always proven to be more profitable than unethical ones. This is all the more true if we take a long-term view and therefore manage the customer relationship.

Our work shows a beneficial effect from the point of view of the workforce: the more a company cares about ethics, the more successful salespeople are encouraged to stay. In other words, a good ethical climate is an excellent device for limiting turnover and retaining the best. Given the turnover rates that can exist in the sales function and the recruitment difficulties of the sector, it seems that investing in a certain ethical approach is like killing two birds with one stone.

Once alone, the temptation is great

With 132 French salespeople from multiple companies, we have therefore been interested in the relationship, which has been studied many times, between the performance and turnover of salespeople. Even if some studies fail to show a significant relationship between these two variables, most conclude that there is a negative relationship: the lower the performance, the higher the turnover.

Our findings paint a somewhat more complex picture. The relationship between these two variables seems to be moderated by the ethical climate. The more successful salespeople are, the more likely they are to want to leave the company if the ethical climate is weak. All the more so since, because of their results, they are highly employable on the job market and are offered good opportunities in other companies, whether or not they are competitors, but with a favorable ethical climate.

The less successful, on the other hand, will tend to stay with their current company, as they will be in low demand on the labor market. In order to achieve a certain level of performance, they will also find it easier to adapt to a lesser ethical climate.

But how can we create the ethical climate that attracts the best and brightest employees? Because of the uniqueness of the profession, this does not seem obvious at first glance.

One of the characteristics of sales people is that many of them have a double independence: physical, as many of them are in the field, and especially psychological. Alone with the customer or buyer, they must find solutions, answer questions and sometimes face pressure. It is therefore easy and tempting, in certain situations, to "settle" and thus engage in behaviors that can be described as unethical or unethical.

However, several simple tools can easily be used to promote a virtuous climate, such as setting appropriate and attainable quotas. It is clearly proven that the higher the quotas, the greater the temptation to vice.

Beware of incentives

Rather than using "production" quotas, and therefore sales quotas, it is better to propose quotas on more qualitative items, such as customer satisfaction, or assessments of key behaviors to be adopted or mastered during the sales process. Strong control and close supervision with rather subjective indicators is preferable, from an ethical point of view, to control that is more focused on results. Beyond that, the challenge is also to maintain or even strengthen the customer relationship.

In the same vein, contests and other sales challenges launched by a large number of companies can also quickly go awry. Especially if one is not careful to set objectives that are adapted to an ethical vision and consistent with the company's strategy.

More broadly, the remuneration and motivation package of sales people is in question. Many studies show, for example, that it is always preferable, from an ethical point of view, to give preference to a fixed remuneration rather than a variable remuneration with commissions based on sales.

Guardianship and safeguards

It is also important to mention the key role of the manager, who can be both the initiator and the promoter and guardian of the company's ethical spirit. As an exemplary person, he or she will show the way to his or her employees, who will then be less inclined to venture down tortuous paths. His or her attention to these issues seems to be focused from the moment the team is recruited.

However, these actions may not be enough. Finally, it is important to mention the relevance for the company to adopt a code or a charter of ethics, a key element in fostering the emergence of a positive climate. In a few lines, the main rules of behavior will be formalized, to which sales representatives can refer in case of doubt or questioning of certain practices. This formalization of ethics is an important safeguard that will not eliminate all unethical behavior, but at least limit it.

Of course, it will not be possible to avoid 100% of the deviant actions of its sales people, but the implementation of a few simple measures can be of great help. Sales and ethics are not an oxymoron.


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Christophe Fournier's articles and books via CAIRN


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