What Goes Wrong
Selling lies at the heart of all business activity. There is nothing “dehumanizing” about selling goods, services, one’s labor, or anything else – except one’s integrity. Doing that involves a different sense of the word “sell.” A career in sales will not necessarily make a person materialistic, greedy, grasping, or superficial. It need not teach a person “the price of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde. A career in sales can be as honorable as any other.
Unfortunately, pressures unique to sales can produce less-than-honorable actions. Far too often, sales activity is driven by short-term contingencies–bonuses, commissions, numbers on sales charts. Not making the sale, regardless of the reason, is almost never rewarded financially. Almost never is an “ethics credit” put in the salesperson’s file for placing integrity above commissions. To reassure customers that what is said in the sales presentation is true, salespeople sometimes tell them that a sale involves no commission. In a field where such statements seem necessary, something is clearly wrong. Consider the following example of a salesman choosing among pressures:
Tebogo sells real estate. Not long ago, he sold a small house to a single parent, Otsile, who recently moved into town with her two children. She received no child support from her ex-husband and was struggling to make ends meet. She told Tebogo that she wanted to buy a house, in part, to build financial security, a prudent observation several years earlier when the real estate market was strong, but less certain now. In Tebogo’s town, real estate prices had been falling and had not yet bottomed out. As was his practice with every potential customer, Tebogo said nothing negative about the market to Otsile; it was not his responsibility. If he were to tell potential customers that real estate is not a particularly good investment, then few people would buy property. The market would get worse, setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Otsile showed the most interest in a house with many small problems. She was inexperienced in matters pertaining to building construction such as furnaces, wiring, and plumbing. Tebogo said nothing about small problems that Otsile did not notice herself. The house was most suitable for owners who could make a lot of minor repairs themselves; it was a “fixer-upper,” but Tebogo did not tell Otsile that. Tebogo justified rushing Otsile into buying that house partly because he was not pushing her into offering the highest possible price for the property. The owner had the house listed for P72 000, but Tebogo knew he would accept an offer as low as P60 000. To make a quick sale, Tebogo told Otsile that the owner had turned down an offer of P60 000 but would probably accept P63 000.
As Tebogo saw it, it was better for him to sell two houses at the low end of their price range quickly than to take a long time to sell one house at the high end. The world is full of people such as Tebogo – salespeople in every field who are not totally wrong in their moral thinking but who fail to achieve a proper balance among values. They believe that customers should look out for themselves, which is true, but not to the degree that Tebogo required of Otsile. He required more of her than was proper, considering her background and limited knowledge. Salespeople and their managers should establish a process that requires making more of an effort to understand customers’ situations than Tebogo made. Further, as a representative for the seller, Tebogo needed to keep the seller’s interest more in mind and make a stronger effort to get the highest price for a property being sold.