The importance of Ethics in Sales: the opinion of Nick Lee, Honorary Professor at Aston University, Birmingham
by Antonia Di Lorenzo
As water and oil for some companies or bread and butter for other ones, Ethics and Sales is one of the thorny problems which involves the new frontier of the business.
As if I were one of his students, Nick Lee, Honorary Professor at Aston University, Birmingham, explained me in an interview the importance of “being ethics” and how to connect this aspect to the main aim of making profit.
Author of Journal of Management, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Dr. Lee’s work has also featured in popular outlets such as The Times, The Financial Times and BBC Breakfast.
- Dr Lee, what relevance does ethics have in business and why?
I think it depends, there are a lot of ways you can say it is relevant. It depends on what you mean by ethics.
- What does ethics mean for you?
I think you talk about behaving in a fair manner. Essentially not taking advantage of the organization or customers in sales. In sales I think this is a very important thing. We have to be realistic. In sales the main objective is to make profit but automatically I think the important thing is to talk about long-term profit.
If we behave in an unethical way we tend to focus on the short-term. If we see companies having problems this is because they don’t have very good long-term prospects on relationships. Some of the reasons for the financial crisis was that there was too much short-term focus on making profit. If you think about long-term continuing relationships and continuing business, then ethical behavior is the natural thing to do.
- How would you recognize an ethical business? What characteristics do ethical business have in your opinion?
There isn’t a model that you can look at a business and you can say that it is ethical. You don’t have to say “we are an ethical business”. I guess what ethical organizations have in common is that they have good ethical role models, that is people who behave ethically and show you can be successful by being ethical. A lot of problems with ethics is that people make bad decisions. But they don’t make bad decisions because they are bad people, but because they don’t have experience or a knowledge what the right decision can be or they feel under pressure.
- What do you mean for “bad decisions”?
Defining what makes a behavior ethical or unethical is actually a difficult task. Everyone knows you are wrong if you go to a customer meeting and you hit your customer with a baseball bat. But what about if you are in a customer meeting, you have to make a target by the end of the week and the customer maybe is thinking he wants to delay the decision for two weeks. What do you do? Do you lie to the customer? You can say if he orders after the end of the week, his order will be not quick enough because many factory facilities are overstressed, so he has to order quickly. And it is lying to the customer.
Lying is unethical in a philosophy point of view, but you can look at a practical one. Is anybody really being hurt by unethical behavior? Do you just think of unethical because of the behavior or the consequences? This is one of the questions we always have to think when we talk about ethics. But also why people behave like that. One reason may be they are under pressure or they don’t realize the importance of behaving in a truthful manner or they don’t have a good role model as sales manager.
- What about Trust and Credibility? Firstly, how is possible to get the customer’s trust? How long does it take to develop a strong relationship with a customer?
If you have ethical behavior you can build trust. Sometimes people behave unethically because they are afraid. According to an economic theory, if you think someone is harming you also feel you can advantage of them. Building trust from the customer is always a difficult task. As every relationship, it takes a long time to build a good relationship but it doesn’t take very long to break the relationship. Usually in a long term is always an ineffective strategy to be unethical, but in a short term you can relate to a great performance.
- How much can the reputation influence a customer?
Company reputation can play an important role at the beginning of the relationship. It can help a lot to build trust.
- If credibility comes from performance and professional reputation, what is the role of the social media? How much can they influence what people think about you?
Social media plays an important role. I think it is easier to influence people in a bad way rather than in a good way. I think it takes more to build a positive reputation. A lot of campaigns were wrong because people who were running them didn’t expect how consumers will take that. A lot of companies don’t know what it is going to happen when you put something online.
- Can spending time together and sharing the same interests be a way to get the customer’s trust? If yes, which is the borderline?
Yes, it can. Psychologically we know that sharing interests can help to build a relationship together. But the important thing is to avoid to pass the “borderline” and be genuine. The company has to look genuine, in terms that you have to look real, not just an act.
- Do you believe there are many organizations currently adopting an ethical approach in terms of engagement?
I think it is hard to say. It is hard to really place ethical frameworks around what people are doing. There are a couple of things to be worried about: one is how important you think being authentic is unethical or to be presenting an image to the world that is not true. But companies do that as part of their job. But probably the image ethical concerning everybody, consumers and staff, related online, is the data collection and data protection.
- At the recent London conference by Ethisphere on ethics and governance one attendee suggested “sales trump ethics every time.” This was asserting that for most companies if it’s a choice between ethics and sales, the latter always wins. What do you think about that? Do you believe that sales always trumps ethics?
It is a kind of false choice. It is easy to say things like that, but we don’t have any reference. If you face people with the right choice you can always influence what they choose. But the problem is between Ethics and Sales on a long term prospective. On a short term basis perhaps that’s the case, for individual salespersons sometimes the choice can concern choosing the easier and the more beneficial outcome for themselves. What we have to do is showing very clearly the benefits.
People always choose the benefit over no benefit. That’s the truth. We have to present the ethical choice as long term benefit, rather than a short term benefit. The problem we had in the past concerns that there were a lot companies focused on short term performances and influenced by unethical behavior. Ethical behavior is more about long term relationships generation.
If you think about your personal life, for example, if you married with somebody you have a long term prospective or if you have a long term relationship, it is in your benefit to place wider criterion of your decision rather than your short term benefit when you are out on an evening or in a night club. Business is not different to life. If we have long-term prospective the ethical choice is always the highest performance choice. The problem is when we motivate people with short-term prospective.
If we have effective long terms wider intensive motivational programs, people will be motivated to behave more ethically. Our job is saving the long-term prospective as preference.