14 October 2016: To gauge the size of the image problem facing the sales profession, we only need glance across the Atlantic. Is this what they think of us? asks Andrew Hough, CEO of the Association of Professional Sales.
“Donald Trump is the consummate salesman. Rules, tradition, even the truth are only relevant in so much as they help seal the deal.” Anthony Zurcher, BBC North America reporter, 27 September 2016
“I don’t think he’s racist. I think he’s a salesman. I think he’s a salesman playing to the most racist segment of the country.” Michael Che, in a podcast interview with Politico, 3 October 2016
“Salesmen like Trump have been with us from time immemorial. This time, however, never have the consequences of being duped by a merchant of snake oil been so high.” Professor Paul Stapleton, in the South China Morning Post, 25 September 2016
“I… learned so much about chutzpah and salesmanship watching him… I’m a medium salesman. He’s an amazing salesman. And what we see in the presidential election today is a phenomenal salesman selling the American people… (But) I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be a less effective leader.” Barbara Corcoran, real estate mogul, speaking to the Business Insider UK, 30 September 2016
“If we were electing a salesman-in-chief, Trump might be a good choice. But his record as a manager tells us he would make a poor chief executive.” Michael d’Antonio, author of the book The Truth About Trump, writing on CNN’s website, September 2 2016.
What is important about the statements above is not so much what they say about Donald Trump, love him or loathe him, but the assumptions they make about sales in general.
Each commentator assumes that sales people routinely fail to abide by the normal moral values of society. “Rules, tradition, even the truth” are sacrificed by sales people, who would feel free to insult the bereaved parents of war veterans or lie about their stance on the invasion of Iraq in pursuit of profit, implies Zurcher.
Sales people treat their customers as dupes, and sell “snake oil” – products that have no real value to the customer, says Stapleton. He implies that sales people are a nuisance, a kind of plague that has been with society “since time immemorial”.
More toxic still, Che’s assumes that sales people are such hypocrites and have such flexible morals that they may be prepared to spout inflammatory racist views that they don’t even believe in order to make a sale.
Corcoran assumes that the skills that define a “phenomenal salesman” are chutzpah and showmanship. Damningly, both Corcoran and d’Antonio agree that, by definition, people who are good at selling are unable to manage people, and cannot lead.
The case for change
If ever there was an argument that illustrated why sales is in crying need of a code of ethics, this is it. A clear and incontrovertible set of rules is needed that sales people can subscribe to, on a public register, if we are ever to start to undo the reputational damage that sales has suffered.
Customers have to be able to access the code, and the register, so they can complain if they feel a sales person has fallen short.
The register must be administered by an independent body, or it will never be seen to be impartial. It must be backed up by sanctions.
We have to convince people that sales is able to put its own house in order if we are to win back trust.
Walking the walk
Words are not enough. We need action. We have to demonstrate that when we say we will “do the right thing and thereby get the right results”, we mean it.
You and your organisation can start the process by signing up to abide by the APS code of conduct, and working towards professional registration.
Registration is not a sticking plaster. A sales person or organisation cannot buy a place on the register, but must undergo a rigorous process of study and practice over a period of months before they earn the APS quality mark.
It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be.
The Association of Professional Sales provides development, standards and leadership to the profession. Click here to join us.