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How to Resign from Your Sales Job Gracefully

“More than 7.5 million workers quit their jobs in April and May, up from 4.3 million during the same period the year before,” the Wall Street Journal reported on July 26, 2021.

What’s the story behind the numbers?

“A wave of employees looking for promotions, better pay and more flexible working arrangements say in surveys that they’ll be seeking new jobs in the coming months. About 26% of workers said they would search for a new gig when the threat of the pandemic decreases, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey conducted in March.” And faced with the call to return to the office, many employees are opting to continue to work from home by seeking positions that make that reality possible.

My previous article, 12 Signs that You Should Quit Your Sales Job (and Look for Something New), included what others have told me were among the key reasons that influenced them to leave their employer.  This article describes how to do so gracefully, without setting one’s bridges aflame, so to speak. What you do today might come back to bite you. It’s a small world, you know.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. Above all, re-read (or read!) your compensation plan. Study the section titled Termination. Know every clause and make sure you understand what you are entitled to, and that you have identified the loopholes (they’re there). When I resigned from one sales position, I did just that, and learned that the company owed me over $3,000 in commission that was mistakenly assigned to other salespeople. In the words of the HR Director who investigated my claim, “This is bizarre. People all over the country were paid on sales that should have been credited to you.” Although it took several weeks post-resignation, the company ultimately paid me what they owed.
  2. Be resolute. You’ve brought yourself to this stage, so don’t back down or waffle. If what you really want is to keep working at your company, but with a better territory, higher compensation, or more job flexibility, the best time to negotiate is before telling your boss that you’re quitting.
  3. Inform your manager before announcing your resignation to the rest of the company. Put yourself in his or her shoes: you’d be aggravated or embarrassed if everyone learned one of your staff decided to quit, and you got the news at the same time.
  4. Practice, practice, practice your conversation before you meet with your boss. You’ll gain needed confidence. Role play with a trusted colleague, partner, spouse, or other person who can offer honest feedback about what to say – and what not to.
  5. Communicate your resignation in writing – not just verbally. Most HR departments require this formality, anyway. Make sure to keep your communication positive, simple and brief. Even one sentence can suffice. Don’t include grievances – there will likely be opportunities to express them during your exit interview, and you will need time to carefully consider what you say and how you say it.
  6. Express gratitude. For many salespeople, this might be the hardest part, especially if the road leading to your decision has been rocky. But it’s important to defuse the possibility of defensiveness or negativity. You don’t need to be specific, fawning, or insincere. Generic works: just thank the company for the opportunity you received when you were hired and that you appreciate whatever support you were given during your tenure.
  7. Anticipate your company’s reaction – and plan for how you will manage the likeliest scenarios. One coach outlined three that are common. Your employer may
    • offer more compensation (see #2, above),
    • tug at your heart strings (“After all we’ve done for you! . . .”), or
    • express sincere congratulations and best wishes
  8. Expect to be de-credentialed from your company’s CRM and other support systems, and prepare accordingly. If you suspect you’ll be de-credentialed immediately, make sure you have reviewed whatever might be crucial for you to have, know, or retain. To avoid litigation, read the sections of your employee handbook that delineate what information you’re allowed to take with you – and what you’re not.
  9. Prepare for the transition by helping to ensure your successor can be successful. This can be difficult too. Finding out that the next rep couldn’t hold a candle to your revenue attainment might provide schadenfreude, but do what you can to avoid this outcome. Instead, leave your territory in good order by making a full effort up to your last day, and by preparing your key accounts for your departure. Importantly, your CRM and other records should be up-to-date and clean so that the next rep can hit the ground running.
  10. Make a clean break. After all, moving on to a better situation is what motivated you to quit in the first place.

Your resignation – and how you handled it – will likely be the last thing your soon-to-be-former colleagues will remember about you. It’s also what they’re likely to remember best.

12 Signs That You Should Quit Your Sales Job (and Look for Something New)

In the late 1990’s, I had an ideal job in IT sales. My company innovated great products, and I loved selling them. My income grew. I was having fun every day, and I felt immensely fortunate.

There’s a saying that all good things come to an end, and this idyllic sales job was no exception. My company was bought by a publicly traded conglomerate, and everything changed. Revenue pressure from investors pierced the sales organization, setting off a vicious spiral of onerous quota increases and declining commission payouts. The treadmill for making goal sped up from a challenging fast jog to a daily sprint, with no room to catch one’s breath.

For a time, the top-heavy organizational hierarchy bobbed along, riding the vicissitudes of stock price changes based on what securities analysts said about the company’s revenue. Territory staffing, bloated before the buyout, remained unchanged. Branch sales managers still reported to district managers who reported to region managers, who reported to the corporate VP of Sales. The company kept the tap wide open on its generous car allowances and expense accounts. But the writing was on the wall: Sales was an operational boat anchor, a fat target in the CFO’s budgeting crosshairs.  With a flurry of mouse clicks from his West coast office, he converted rows of SG&A costs into zeroes. Organization, flattened. Not bad, for a few minutes work.

Expectedly, pink slips flew like popcorn from a popper. Overnight, people I’d worked with for years were gone. Jim, the pre-sales technical specialist in Philadelphia, along with Mary and Ashok in the same office. Atlanta and Boston?  Same story, different names. Deciding not to stick around, I got busy sending resumes and soon accepted a sales position outside the company.

I remember how disappointed my branch sales manager was when I told him. Sitting in the front passenger seat of my car after we made a sales call together, he confided how he planned to have me on board till the end of the quarter to close what I had in my pipeline. After that, he was going hew to his boss’s demand to chop down his team, leaving one salesperson to cover all of Virginia – who, by the way, wasn’t going to be me.

In deciding to bail, my process was easy.  I used a key skill I gained over many years in selling – situational awareness – to assess my situation. And no matter how I sliced it, my situation wasn’t good. I was far from alone.

While I’m not advocating that salespeople abandon their company at the first sign of trouble, every rep should have his or her exit strategy ready to execute. And bone up on your personal situational awareness – it’s an invaluable exercise.

Here are warning lights indicating that it might be Go Time:

  1. You are underusing your skills. Evidence: you’re bored and don’t feel challenged.
  2. You are not following your passion. Evidence: you don’t care whether your customers buy. / You are unmotivated to start work each day. / You constantly think about how happier you’d be if you were doing [name of something else], or [name of something else], or [name of something else] . . .
  3. The work environment is unhealthy. Evidence: you feel chronically stressed, and/or your mental health is deteriorating. / The company’s culture is antithetical to your values and how you like to work.
  4. There are no opportunities for growth. Evidence: the company is not investing in your personal development, and other than getting fired, there is no career path for you. / You emphatically don’t want your boss’s job.
  5. Your company’s future looks bleak. Evidence: Relative to your competitors, the company’s innovation pipeline is sparse or horribly slow. / The company’s revenue or industry revenue is steadily declining. / The company is not adding staff, only reducing. / The company’s reputation has taken a beating, and it’s not being addressed.
  6. Your ethics are being compromised. Evidence: you are asked to do things that don’t comport with your personal values. / The tactics promoted in your sales training sessions make you uncomfortable. / Management ignores – or encourages – unethical behavior at the company.
  7. You are under-compensated. Evidence: your colleagues in similar territories earn substantially higher income. / Your average earnings are significantly below other salespeople in your industry. / You’re making quota, but haven’t earned the “on target” compensation you were promised when you were hired.
  8. You are no longer able to fulfill your job responsibilities. Evidence: You feel overwhelmed and hate coming to work. / You repeatedly set deadlines for quitting, and let them lapse.
  9. You wouldn’t want your friends to work there. Evidence: A position opened up at your company, but you decided not to share it with anyone you love or care about.
  10. You’re consistently underperforming.  Evidence: You’ve been placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan” more than once. / You’re routinely assigned to remedial training not required of on-target producers.
  11. Your company has an unending pattern of breaking its commitments and promises.  You spend too much time dealing with customer complaints about your products and service delivery. / The company repeatedly fails to honor its contracts with employees and customers. / Your manager never gets around to delivering what he or she told you they’ll do.
  12. Your situation is unfixable. Evidence: Other than compromising your needs and expectations, you see no workarounds for the conditions driving you to quit.

A recent Gallup survey about the Millennial Generation, a group that comprises a large chunk of today’s sales professionals, found that only half strongly agree that they plan to be working at their company one year from now. This compares to 60% of non-Millennials. Extrapolating that finding to the sales force, I see copious employee churn on the horizon. Great news if you’re a sales recruiter, but a trend that has Chief Sales Officers chugging Maalox.

Salespeople seeking a new position should understand their risks. Some of my former colleagues bolted from a selling situation they loathed, only to discover their new position was infected with the same problems. Therefore, before you bail from an untenable job situation, make sure you’re heading to one that’s truly better. Or, at least, portends to be. And, while you’re at it, keep the bridges behind you intact.

How to Knock the Competition without Ever Having to Say You’re Sorry

“Never knock the competition!”

The admonishment emerged in the early stone age, and it has enjoyed a long life, immune to skepticism and philosophical challenge. Unfortunately, this once-useful wisdom has become stultifying to salespeople, causing them keep an important arrow in the quiver, so to speak. I recommend a refresh.  Our hyper-competitive times require adding just a single word to the end: “Never knock the competition stupidly.”

Knocking the competition is a selling skill, as essential as establishing rapport, qualifying opportunities, and closing the deal. Telling a salesperson to never knock a competitor makes as much sense as telling them not to be “too salesy” when they’re paid commission and the word Sales is in their job title.

Knocking the competition can be defined as any statement intended to diminish a competitor’s appeal to a prospective customer. The operative word here is intended. Done wrong – as it often is –  knocking the competition can backfire, explaining why it has been roundly pummeled as a sales tactic. The bad rap also comes from the fact that some people associate knocking with unfairness, not “playing by the rules” and dishonest behavior. That’s wrong.

Some overcome their dissonance by saying that when facts are being presented, it’s not knocking. Ahhh. But let’s not get hung up on semantics. I have an article to finish. We can discuss the finer points over a beer after everyone has been vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m sticking with my definition. When performed with planning and insight, knocking the competition is a vital part of the salesperson’s arsenal.

How might prospective customers perceive these competitive knocks? You be the judge:

  • “Our meantime between failures (MTBF) was independently benchmarked as 30% better than [competitor X].
  • “Our advantage is that we’re a much smaller company than [competitor X]. That means we get much closer to our customers.”
  • “I don’t know much about the [competitor X]. They’re new to this industry.”
  • “Someone told me their CEO was accused of bullying staff at his previous company.”
  • “Not everybody knows this, but [Competitor X] secretly builds all its products in offshore factories with child labor.”

Evident in this small sampling is that competitor-knocking can stretch from outright mendacity to speculation to unassailable fact.

Do salespeople even need to knock their competitors? Many already do – and they likely do a damn good job of it!  In virtually every opportunity, salespeople must accentuate their company’s strengths and advantages. Some simply “throw spaghetti at the wall” to test what sticks. But experienced salespeople promote benefits more strategically, by juxtaposing them with a competitor’s known flaws, shortcomings, weaknesses, and yes, skeletons in the closet. All is fair in love and selling.

Knocking competitors can be especially advantageous when:

  1. the prospect has shared that they perceive all solutions as “pretty much the same.” A fundamental mission for salespeople is to identify meaningful differences between their products, and clearly contrast them to competitive offerings.
  2. the prospect has specifically requested competitive comparisons.
  3. the prospect has provided the salesperson clear specifications about their needs, concerns, and expectations.
  4. the salesperson has information could be important to the prospect, but might not be easily discoverable. For example, a regulatory action against the competitor, or the recent loss of a key customer account.

When knocking competitors, some important do’s and don’ts:

Do stick to unassailable fact, such as independent survey findings, and benchmarking by third-party testing laboratories and government agencies.

Do share information that your customer can independently verify.

Do make sure the customer knock is relevant. Does it really matter that years ago, the competitor’s CEO was an alleged bully?

Do strategically select the appropriate situation to knock your competitors. The first meeting might not be the best time.

Do align your strengths against your competitor’s vulnerabilities.

Do demonstrate respect for competitors. That doesn’t mean don’t knock them, just make sure you’re doing it without a hint of derision.

Don’t spread rumors and hearsay. Keep scuttlebutt to yourself until it becomes fact.

Don’t give information that is restricted, to be held in confidence, or that violates a Non-disclosure agreement.

Don’t pile on. If a prospect shares negativity about a competitor, there’s no need to amplify it.

Don’t “lead with your chin.” Leave your competitor’s dirty laundry out of the conversation if your company has the same stinky clothes.

Don’t give your competitor an opening to turn the knock back on you. Assume that your competitor will get wind of your claim. If given a chance, they will make every effort to discredit you.

Knocking competitors is an invaluable selling skill. One that requires situational awareness, thought and constant practice. Done right, no apologies are needed.

Sales is a Profession of Words. Choose Them Wisely

“Nothing happens until you sell somebody something.” When salespeople gathered in offices, this Zig Ziglar  quote adorned the walls. A nearly identical aphorism is attributed to a salesman from Minnesota whose name is lost to history, but not his product, which according to the record, was manure.  A product that does not sell itself, I’m guessing. I wonder how he pitched it?

Throughout the buyer’s decision process, there are myriad ways for them to acquire knowledge about vendors and their products. Salespeople, as we know, are the linchpin in that process, conjoining buyer and seller activities.

For sellers, words – and word choice – are fundamental for success. For hawking manure, would you start by giving it a more attractive appellation? Fertilizer sounds good. Would you highlight rapid decomposition and low-odor? Would you ship your product in unmarked, leakproof bags and tout that as a feature?

These questions point to a corollary to Ziglar’s quote: Nothing gets sold until something compelling is communicated. The raison d’etre for salespeople.

Today, sales communication overwhelmingly depends on written and spoken language. Accordingly, for salespeople, outstanding conversational and communication skills rank among the most desirable personal attributes. To succeed, salespeople must reach a pinnacle of sorts for communication: persuasion. A Herculean task, accomplished one conversation at a time, day in, and day out. This is not a job for mere mortals.

In Willy Loman’s time, salespeople could feed prospects a steady diet of schmaltz and “happy talk.” For example, “Our products are tops,” and “We’re committed to win-win.” The fluffier, the better. Today, these platitudes have mutated into the cliché patter of the archetypal pushy salesperson.

Persuading buyers to purchase a particular product, or to take a specific action has become increasingly complex. Compare today’s methods to just a few decades ago when the state of the art was for managers to admonish salespeople to “get in front of customers,” without offering a clue as to how. At that time, salespeople embarked on their mission after being told “It’s a numbers game! – go knock on some doors!” When salespeople weren’t “out on the bricks,” they were expected in the office “dialing for dollars.” In many ways, it was the dark ages.

Instead of pounding doors, today’s sales professionals pound keyboards. Their activities center on engaging with customers, a reflection of the technological, social, and economic changes that have upended sales strategies and execution.

New approaches, however, bring new problems. An unintended outcome of selling in the information age is the deluge of braggadocio directed at buyers. That has brought a new word into the sales lexicon: noise. Breaking through requires messages to be crisp, inspiring, and motivating – not just to us, but to customers. Duh!

Word choice presents just part of the challenge. The right message must be conveyed the right way at the right time. Do you send a new prospect a text message? What about using email? InMail? Twitter? Or, do you place a phone call?  Send a request to connect on LinkedIn? Should you initiate a relationship through Facebook? If so, when? Morning? Afternoon? Outside “business hours?” And which days of the week? How much outreach is too much? All are important questions. Employers want “aggressive” salespeople, but heaven forbid, they don’t customers to perceive them as “too salesy,” or to burn a bridge by violating an unwritten rule of digital etiquette.

When I started selling in the 1980’s, salespeople didn’t face such quandaries. Forty years ago, producing a written sales communication – the predominant method at the time, along with phone and face-to-face – was agonizingly slow, laborious, and expensive. I remember composing letters and transmitting them to the sales office’s clattering IBM printer, which, when it didn’t jam, dutifully spat my words onto company letterhead. From there, I applied lick-and-stick postage to the envelopes (to look more personal than metered postage) and dropped them into the mail. I often waited up to a week before placing a phone call to the intended recipient to “follow up.” Back then, laryngitis, icy roads, and cancelled flights impeded my sales efforts, not spotty Internet connectivity. Crazy, right?

If you were lucky, you had a secretary to manage sales correspondence. Among the books on her shelf (and it was almost always a her) were a well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. The secretary’s – or Admin’s – attention to detail and patience allowed salespeople to stay front of customers, while she dutifully prevented their writing errors from escaping the office.

Alas, the secretary has moved on. Hopefully, she’s received a well-deserved promotion, and a raise that fairly compensates her for the value she provides. Personally, I’m for progress, but that development has left us on our own, writing-wise. That’s both good and bad.

Good, because in a fraction of the time it took me to craft and send one sales letter, today’s hyper-efficient, micro-measured salesperson can draft targeted sales communications, merge them with other content, and transmit the whole shebang to millions of prospects.

Bad, because whereas I might have sent an occasional cruddy letter, salespeople today are one careless mouse click away from blasting hideous and embarrassing marcomm to the entire planet. I routinely see incorrect word choice and other mistakes infecting communications. It’s that should be its. Misusing your and you’re, averse and adverse, complimentary and complementary, Capitol and capital, and perspective and prospective. Ugh! Like wrong notes in music, incorrect words contaminate and devalue otherwise decent copy.

Even when sales communications are grammatically correct, the risk of coming across as babble always exists. Jargon-saturated word groupings can leave prospects befuddled, evidenced by this example from a blog by Jim Karrh titled, Mangled Message:

“You know your company. And we know how to improve customer relationships. That’s why we listen to you and adapt our products and services to meet your needs. Together, we can create meaningful interactions that help you get the best from your business.”

According to Karrh, that passage drew snarky reader comments, including this: “What does that word salad even mean?”

Snark aside, I feel that reader’s pain. It would be an act of compassionate kindness to our customers if we asked that question more often.

Why have semantics and word choice in sales and marketing become so important?

  1. Advances in technology have upended the selling lexicon. Expressions such as “dialing for dollars,” “on the bricks,” “tire kickers,” and “rolodex” are fading as new, specialized parlance from emerging roles such as Podcaster, AI Chatbot Copywriter, and SEO Content Writer enter sales conversations.
  2. Cross-departmental selling. Strategies such as Account-based marketing means salespeople often communicate with employees across the organization. It is not uncommon for a single salesperson to hold conversations with executives in Finance, Legal, Logistics, Operations, and Human Resources – both in the buyer’s organization, and in their own. This development requires salespeople to possess an expansive business vocabulary.
  3. Time scarcity. It risks stating the obvious to say that today’s multi-tasking buyers have diminished attention span and less time to squander. However, for sellers, the significance of this trend cannot be overstated. During the buying-selling process, communications must be on point, or they will be ignored.
  4. Retention. Nothing is permanent, but digital communication comes close. Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of having a pungent tweet or online post from the distant past bubble up from the digital muck. Even seemingly benign sales and marketing messages have mutated into new legal risks for organizations. “Don’t say anything “Never post anything online that you wouldn’t want published on the front page of a major newspaper.” Wise advice for any CXO.

The importance of semantics and linguistic precision doesn’t stop with customer communications. It impacts the organization in numerous other ways.

When is chicken not chicken? In an article, Ambiguity and Misunderstanding in the Law,  Sanford Schane describes a case between  Frigaliment Importing Co. versus B.N.S. International SalesCorp. The plaintiff, Frigaliment Importing, ordered frozen eviscerated chickens from a New York wholesaler.

Stay with me. I promise this gets interesting.

According to the article,

“The [buyer’s] order called for chickens of two sizes: 1 ½ – 2 pounds, and 2 ½ – 3 pounds. When the shipment arrives in Europe, Buyer discovers that the larger birds are all stewing chickens. Expecting broilers and fryers, Buyer cries ‘foul’ and brings suit against Seller for breach of contract. The issue before the court becomes: “what is chicken?”

The plaintiff buyer contends that ‘chicken’ means a young chicken, suitable for broiling and frying. The defendant insists that a chicken is any bird of the genus that meets contract specifications on weight and quality, including what it calls ‘stewing chicken’.”

The judge determined that “the word ‘chicken’ standing alone is ambiguous,” and he “look[ed] to the contract to see whether it offer[ed] any aid for the interpretation of this word.”

You can learn the resolution by reading the brief.

One takeaway is not to assume that everyone will draw the intended meaning from a purchasing contract. Especially important in situations when sales words are legally binding. As author David Mellinkoff wrote, law is a “profession of words.” The same is true for the sales profession.

Word choice matters for protecting brand assets. Linoleum was once a brand name. That ended when the company fell victim to its own marketing success, and Linoleum, the brand, came to mean any equivalent flooring material. In 1878, British courts ruled that linoleum lost its proprietary status to become a word in the public domainFormica, the company that manufactures countertops and other products, appends the words brand surfaces to its product name. This  is not pretense. The policy is designed to mitigate the risk of suffering that same fate as linoleum, scotch tape, Kleenex, and other brands that lost control through inattention to word choice.

I wish we had a panacea for such problems, but right now, I would settle for some good solid help. Fortunately, it’s newly available in The Dictionary of Selling Terminology (DST) from Wessex Press. (Disclosure: I served as a pre-publication advisor.)

Authors Pamela Peterson and Kent Kubie wrote The DST through extensive research, compiling vocabulary from selling parlance and related disciplines. Recognizing the benefits of standardized lexicon in architecture, medicine, law, finance, and other professions, the authors sought to address the risks from ambiguity and confusion in selling and buying activities. The result: an easily accessible breadth of clearheaded selling terms and definitions. Advancement in any profession depends on a uniform use of correct terminology, especially for terms that could have several versions in the source language or several translations due to definitional differences.

Imagine the difficulties that would occur in constructing buildings if architects and engineers did not adhere to specific meaning for words such as foundation, beam and soffit. Or if medical practitioners did not have common language for the pathophysiology of pain.

Unfortunately, the sales profession is behind the curve when it comes to deriving similar advantages. Sales professionals operate without consensus over routinely used terms, words, acronyms, and expressions – evidenced by the widespread attempts to attribute meaning to customer centricity, customer delight, customer experience, and more.

The DST resolves the semantic confusion and ambiguities endemic to our profession. It achieves that by being both prescriptive and descriptive. The prescriptive aspect documents what is understood as correct use of a term, while the descriptive aspect reflects the actual use of the term. This pairing makes The DST more useful than lighter word repositories, such as glossaries and lists of selling terms. The DST also includes terms such as return on investment (ROI), widely used among financial decision makers and buyers. (Lexical items that describe concepts in specific fields are usually called terms instead of words, and The DST makes that distinction.)

The DST is particularly useful for answering vexing questions, such as “How do you describe how people acquire information?” To answer that, you will find a proper explanation of learning curve. Other jargon we bandy about has useful explanations – from familiar terms such as low hanging fruit, BHAG and WIFM to other terms that are less commonly used. Further, The DST includes terminology from other disciplines, drawing from accounting, economics, finance, legal and operations. Words with derivatives have comprehensive entries. Market, for example, has over twenty derivative terms.

You will find useful web links within the definitions. ICP (ideal client profile) includes a cross-reference to the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), and a link to a website that provides additional details.

The DST demystifies fuzzy expressions, for example, defining ethical congruence (“situation where one’s decision is consistent and aligns with the applicable set(s) of values”) and ethical standards (“extrinsic wide-ranging and non-specific rule set designed to guide decision-making processes to determine right and wrong conduct by weighing the pros and cons and or the competing values and interests”).

Word choice and clarity matter as much within sales mission statements, policies, processes, procedures, and codes of conduct as it does in stakeholder conversations. The edict to be customer obsessed might foster delivering delight, but the words are meaningless without articulating exactly what obsessed and delight mean.

Whether used internally or externally, this is a profound shortcoming of marketing hype. How do executives and employees parse obsess, a word that often carries pejorative meaning, into actions that, in an organizational context, must operate under a set of rules, regulations, measurements, and numerical targets?

The selling lexicon changes constantly. It has evolved to be both broader and more specialized. Words that originated outside the selling profession have been adopted into the everyday language of sales and selling. Accounting and operational words such as asset, velocity, throughput, and capacity. Theatrical words such as improvisation and mirroring. Street words such as sandbagging. Medical words such as pain. Zoological words such as bluebird. Sports terms such as game changer and playbook. The list goes on. In the future, look for more words to enter and permeate our lexicon, while others filter out. New words will come from disparate specialties, too. From information technology, artificial intelligence, law, and data science. They will originate from sources we don’t yet know. But many of them will become so embedded that we will scarcely think about their provenance.

Compared to our ever-elastic selling lexicon, the core mission of marketing and sales – stakeholder persuasion – has been more durable. According to Peterson and Kubie, “If you want to be more effective and efficient in your professional role, whatever that role is, you need to study and master the craft, which includes the language.” When it comes to finding the best words, or the right words, The Dictionary of Selling Terminology can help every practitioner.

Would an Idiot Do That? A Practical Guide for Ethical Marketing Decisions

In the fall of 2016, my son headed off for his first year in college. Compared to today, it was a halcyon time to leave the nest. I envisioned him frequenting bacchanalian block parties before Summer faded into Fall and his classes reduced the time available for such pursuits. Along the way, I reasoned, he’d learn moderation the same way I did.

Still, I didn’t want my son to repeat my youthful mistakes. But forty years hence, any specific insights I might have imparted had fizzed from memory. Besides, in my son’s mind, my two-score head start on the college experience might as well be 200 – or more. Any wisdom I was to share had to be contemporary. Ergo, avoid verbosity, and compress all guidance into a single text message. So I turned to online search, where I was immediately rewarded with a fitting quote attributed to Dwight Schrute, a character in The Office:

“Before I do anything, I ask myself: ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And, if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing.”

Wise counsel for any young person about to be confronted by relentless temptation and moral ambiguity.

Also, valuable advice for business developers, from interns to C-Something’s.

Business development professionals routinely encounter situations where they must choose among different strategies and tactics, and the ethics of each are often murky. No epiphany that the distinction between ethical and unethical isn’t consistently crystal clear. Accordingly, business developers must weigh the ethics of each choice, and decide whether they comport with their personal values. “The answer is simple!” has gained popularity in business development among those who want to demonstrate their decision-making chops. With ethics, however, that’s rarely the case.

A few examples:

  • Is it appropriate to offer something of value to a prospective customer in exchange for an order? Does calling it a ‘gift’ make it ethical?
  • When does a marketing claim cross the line from exaggeration to misrepresentation?
  • Is it OK to withhold information about your company, product, or service from a customer if you feel that information could jeopardize your sale?
  • Should you attempt to sell your product to a prospective customer despite knowing a more suitable one could be sourced from a competitor?
  • Is it ethical to expedite a purchase by creating false urgency?
  • If you have unsubstantiated information about the performance shortcomings or dissatisfaction with competitor’s product, is it ethical to share it with a prospective customer ?
  • What are a vendor’s ethical obligations when they possess a clear information advantage over a customer?
  • When a prospect offers you access to a competitor’s pricing and proposal, is it ethical to accept such information?

When I consider similarly vexing questions, I always hear Dwight’s voice. Dwight’s advice doesn’t presume “right” and “wrong” choices. It doesn’t pander to religious or moral dogma. And it doesn’t demand conformity to impossible standards like “above all, never lie!” (I violate that admonition every time I tell a customer that I can’t lower my price. In those instances, the truthful expression is that I won’t.)

Still, ethical decision making adds complexity, and for some, only asking would-an-idiot-do-this?  is an insufficient bar. After all, Apple and Samsung made some astonishingly idiotic decisions, from which they rebounded.

When mulling the ethics of a marketing decision, ask these additional questions:

  1. Would I be embarrassed if another customer learned about my choice or actions?
  2. Would other business developers consider my decision ethically borderline or unethical?
  3. If I were confronted about this decision during a future job interview, would it disqualify me from consideration? Would I be able to convincingly justify my actions?
  4. Would I feel regret or remorse if I described my decision or activity to a family member?
  5. Would I be upset if someone else shared my actions on social media or in the news?
  6. Would I feel wronged if the same thing were done to me?
  7. If everyone engaged in this practice or activity, would society be worse off?

These days, I think about ethical risk every time I drive by a McDonalds outlet, purchase a product from Amazon, see an advertisement from Wells Fargo, read an article about Liberty University, or send a message on Facebook. No company is immune to the risks – a confusion I experience when I talk with senior executives who sometimes tell me, “that type of thing would never happen here.” The same attitude prevailed at BP before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

If there are ongoing ethical concerns at your company that cause you to answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may want to escalate your concerns. Some do’s and don’ts:

Do: Use introspection to know your personal values. Write them down – and be confident to advocate for them when they are confronted.

Don’t: Rationalize inaction by believing that you’re too [senior/junior/new/entrenched] to raise concerns.

Do: Document your objections, record what you observe, and the reasons you object. This helps clarify the issues and provides needed material should you decide to escalate them.

Don’t: Pigeonhole possible alternatives others suggest as morally “right” and “wrong”. This polarizes conversations, makes people defensive, and distracts them from ultimately achieving the best outcome.

Do: strive to understand the point of view of others who might not share your concern.

Don’t: attribute malintent or deviousness to others before fully learning the reasons for their action or recommendation.

Do: seek the support of others who might be similarly uncomfortable with a decision, policy, or practice.

Don’t: assume you’re the only one who objects.

By far, the most cost-effective, powerful mitigation for ethical risks is a values-driven workforce, empowered to speak up for themselves when they are confronted, and knowing that their employer makes it safe to do so. Advocating for one’s values is a skill that must be practiced regularly and often. It requires listening to your gut and recognizing when something feels wrong.

Asking whether an idiot would take a particular action is as good place as any to start.

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