“Every ethics question a business person could face comes down to a question you face on your very first sale: what are you willing to do for a buck?”, Philip Broughton wrote in his book, Mastering the Art of the Sale.

The question needs to be asked at every company. From the mom-and-pop Custom Cupcakes by Diane, to this week’s ethical letdown, financial behemoth American Express. The Wall Street Journal reported ongoing sales chicanery at the company, and traced its roots back to 2004 (American Express Gave Small Business Customers One Rate, Then Secretly Raised It), July 31, 2018).

Perhaps it began even earlier. AmEx reaped the benefits through 2018 – around the time Wells Fargo was accused of the same distortion. When it was publicly called out, an AmEx manager got nervous, and “told salespeople they would need his approval before offering prospective clients a margin of less than 0.70 of a percentage point, according to an email reviewed by the Journal. Current and former employees said the price changes were common knowledge within the forex business . . . Amex’s foreign-exchange international payments department routinely increased conversion rates without notifying customers in a bid to boost revenue and employee commissions,”  Journal reporter AnnaMaria Andriotis wrote in the article.

AmEx spokeswoman Marina Norville, responded, saying, “We constantly reinforce the importance of acting in the best interest of our customers.”

Current and former AmEx employees voiced a different take. They “describe an environment focused on bringing in as many new clients as possible and squeezing revenue out of them before they depart. Employees were told that the average forex [foreign exchange] customer did business with AmEx for around three years. ‘Who cares if they come or go? Let’s make money while we have them,’ one current employee said, referring to the attitude within the division,” according to the Journal.

Well, Amex, which is it? – because it’s not both.

The article describes AmEx’s tactics: “The salespeople didn’t inform customers that the margin, a markup that AmEx tacks on to the base currency exchange rate, was subject to increase without notice,” current and former employees were quoted as saying in the article. “Some time later, salespeople would increase the margin without informing the customers . . . Managers directed salespeople to keep the details of the payment arrangements hazy when speaking with potential customers and to avoid putting pricing terms in emails,” according to current and former employees.

This reveal got me wondering: how does this American Express division recruit salespeople? How do their online solicitations represent their selling culture and expectations?

This June, 2018 post for FXIP Manager popped up first in my search:

“FX International Payments (FXIP) is a cross-border payments solution developed to meet the foreign currency payment needs of small to mid-size corporate and financial institution clients. www.americanexpress.com/fxip.

The FXIP Manager reports to the Director FXIP Americas and is responsible for managing a portfolio of existing corporate clients. He/she will develop and maintain relationships, drive expansion sales of new product solutions, and make outbound calls to encourage transaction activity. The incumbent is responsible for achieving client revenue targets and overseeing the effective management across the end-to-end client life cycle, including, early engagement, loyalty and retention. He or She will work closely with colleagues in sales, marketing and operations to deliver superior service to our clients. This role includes a broad range of responsibilities, including: business development, relationship management, portfolio analysis, and requires interaction with both internal and external partners. This position will own and drive work streams and strategic initiatives to increase overall portfolio performance.

The candidate will have demonstrated success in proactively driving organic growth, client retention, revenue obtainment and related metrics in a foreign exchange environment focused on profitable expansion in a time-sensitive, well defined compliance and risk conscious environment.

Following this description, AmEx lists desired qualifications – eleven of them. Usual stuff: demonstrated experience in . . . strong knowledge . . . high proficiency . . .

Then, this one, halfway down the list:

“Must understand the individual and group responsibilities impact to department profit and revenue targets,”

And this,

“Demonstrated strong negotiation and influencing skills in order to handle objections [to] convert and activate prospects.”

Except for “deliver superior service to our clients” in the job description, this is a Revenue Focused job with a capital R, and a capital F, not unlike most sales positions. But this posting hints at the AmEx sales culture:

Drive organic growth . . . profitable expansion . . . revenue obtainment [sic] . . . Impact to department profit and revenue targets . . . Strong negotiation . . . influencing . . . handle objections . . . convert and activate . . .

Make no mistake: this is a high-pressure selling environment. If you like serving customers and relish a pat on the back for doing so, AmEx might not be the place for you. Unless, of course, you’re making goal.

What are you willing to do for a buck? And, what aren’t you willing to do? Two straightforward questions with complex answers that might vary, depending on a company’s momentary situation. Or, the sale rep’s.

This case offers a teachable moment for sales managers and salespeople to engage in conversations, and to answer further questions:

  1. Which conflicts of interest exist between AmEx and its customers? Do the same conflicts occur in our sales engagements?
  2. How might the conflicts be mitigated?
  3. Is intentional omission of facts during the sales process equivalent to lying?
  4. In the AmEx scenario, who is responsible for misleading customers? Management? Salespeople?
  5. Is it justifiable for salespeople to execute management requests, even if they perceive those requests are morally or ethically wrong?
  6. How would you resolve a conflict of interest if it happened with one of your customers?
  7. How should companies balance achieving revenue targets, and preserving the best interests of customers?

“This ought to be a moment when people stop and remember how dangerous the system is when you don’t have the proper protections in place . . . This is a wake-up call. It should remind all of us and firms that culture and compensation make a difference . . . How you reward people, how you motivate people and what values you hold people to matter,” former US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said. He was talking about Wells Fargo.

No company is immune to the corrosive impact of dishonest and unethical sales practices. If you’re not already discussing the issues, the time to start is now.