The Truth About Ethical Sales Cultures and Why It Matters


Integrity and ethics sales cultures matter, to business leaders and to the customers they’re competing for

by Steve Schmidt

There’s no shortage of people talking and writing about ethics, values and integrity in business today. But all that talk doesn’t always translate into significant change back in the workplace.

This point was made abundantly clear when we conducted an Integrity in Selling Study a few years ago, where we surveyed business development and training leaders from a range of industries. While a full 95% of those respondents told us that integrity is one of their organization’s values, only 72% agreed or strongly agreed that employees at all levels operate with honesty, integrity and respect for others. Even fewer — 62% — believed that their employees can be trusted to keep their promises and commitments.

And now a new survey by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) has found that while more employees are reporting incidences of misconduct, they’re being punished for doing so in ever-greater numbers. That’s the bad news. The worst news, says Pat Harned, the ECI’s chief executive, is the minimal progress companies have made towards creating cultures that employees think are strong and grounded in good values.

Clearly there’s a gap here between what companies say they value and what’s actually happening, and the respondents in our survey revealed why this gap represents a serious concern for today’s organizations. When asked whether integrity impacts customer perceptions of service in their company, a resounding 90% told us that yes, they believe it does.

Integrity and ethics matter, to business leaders and to the customers they’re competing for. As Salesforce has noted, these qualities are often the cornerstone of a customer experience strategy that can set one company apart from all the others in a crowded marketplace: “Buyers are more likely to buy from a brand they trust, that much we know. And trust can also be a strong factor in creating a positive customer experience.”

Of course, it’s not just your customers who care about things like trust and ethics and purpose. Increasingly, leaders are competing for another group as well, one that will be pivotal to the business’s success and viability going forward.

Much has been written about the rising tide of Millennial employees and what they expect both from the companies they buy from and the companies they work for. They’re purpose-driven and personal-brand focused, and that means they feel more inspired and empowered when they can align their personal values, ethics and brand with that of their employer.

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth advises, “Organizations need to appreciate the degree to which the latest generation joining the workforce is making employment and consumption decisions based on CSR efforts.” It’s not enough to pay lip service to ethics and integrity or to have a well-crafted values statement.

Building an Ethical Sales Culture

So, how do you bring those well-intentioned statements and initiatives to life? Consider this: If you’re a sales leader in a market that’s becoming more and more commoditized, where consumers are doing their own research online before they ever even talk to a salesperson, only one thing truly separates you from all the others: your people and, more specifically, the way they embody your organization’s values. And one of the most visible and tangible ways to manifest that competitive advantage is through having an ethical sales culture.

With that in mind, many organizations will put together some sales training to support their culture-building goals. Unfortunately, they’re often left frustrated when they realize that not much has changed in terms of behaviors, overall performance and alignment with company values. The reason is that, in many of these cases, the approach is more teaching-based than developmental, focusing on things like product knowledge or sales techniques and skills. Those can be helpful, but they’ll only take you so far. Essentially, you’re asking people to fit into the mold of a specific “ideal” salesperson. You’re teaching them how to be someone they’re not.

The research and work we’ve done with companies over the past four decades has repeatedly confirmed these two key points:

  • Establishing a competitive advantage is often less about strategies and products than it is about the day-to-day actions of sales professionals.
  • Success for the sales professional has more to do with “who you are” than “what you know.”

If you want to build an ethical sales culture, your sales training should focus on helping your salespeople be more of who they are, not less. When you feel good about what you’re doing, when you can tap into your own values and beliefs and be your authentic true self, there are a lot of positive implications that go along with that. You’ll be more engaged in your work and feel more connected to your company’s purpose. You’ll release the inner motivation and achievement drive that propels you forward, even in the face of setbacks. And you’ll deliver more value for your customers, who will, in turn, view you as a trusted advisor and become promoters of your business.

To move beyond lip service, start by looking at your definition of sales. In an ethical sales process, selling is defined as uncovering and fulfilling a customer’s wants and needs and building relationships that create value. When you ground your sales training and processes in the underlying behaviors that promote an ethical, trust-based culture, you’ll be able to attract, develop and retain salespeople who will consistently deliver value, well beyond the products and services they’re selling.

Download our free guide for tips on building a value-driven sales process.


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