Tag Archives: sales_governance

On My Honor as a Salesperson. A New Look at Why Sales Ethics Matter

Which risk poses the greatest threat to a company’s market value – Pandemics and natural disasters? Terrorism? Product defects? Patent infringement? Theft of intellectual property? Lack of moral boundaries?

If you answered anything but the last choice, think again. The decimation of market value at Tyco, Worldcom, and Enron – three of the most prominent ethical meltdowns of our time – illustrates what can occur when a company lacks ethical footing. According to Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, the cumulative decline in market capitalization resulting from fraud at these three companies was $136 billion.

The financial impact of Covid-19 on the global stock market may never be fully known. But one thing stands out: unlike most risks, companies have ultimate control over their moral conduct.

Many corporate scandals are hatched in the executive suite and metastasize into the organization. The sales operation is a fecund spot for seeding schemes because it is directly connected with the most watched measurement a company maintains and shares: revenue.

Sales is also the linchpin for the trust between a company and its customers. For example, the Wells Fargo consumer credit card scandal was the consequence of stock-price bonus incentives granted to then-CEO John Stumpf and a cadre of senior executives. To enrich themselves, they usurped customer trust and exploited employees by encumbering them with onerous performance quotas, and followed through by browbeating them into hitting targets that would be attractive to investment analysts. The rationale was that when thresholds were met, analysts would make buy recommendations for Wells Fargo stock, elevating its price. The scheme worked for a while before the business media uncovered the story. In the end, Stumpf was fired over the scandal and his bonuses clawed back or terminated.

Bad ethics can take root elsewhere in the hierarchy. When governance and audit controls are ineffective, they can easily spread, infecting employees, suppliers, channel partners, and customers. In 1998, ethical violations at Prudential Insurance Company’s sales organization became so pervasive that the company’s management eventually estimated its liability from the pending class-action lawsuit at $2 billion. Among the voluminous courtroom testimony from the case was this statement from a Prudential sales rep: “Your judgment gets clouded out in the field when you are pressured to sell, sell, sell.” More than two decades later, sales reps face the same difficulty.

How can harm from unethical behavior be prevented? First, accept that no company is immune from facing ethical dilemmas, and second, understand that there are no guarantees that ethical decisions will somehow prevail. This is especially true for companies proclaiming themselves “customer-focused” or “customer-centric.”

Companies must purposefully and actively reduce the opportunities for unethical behavior to enter an organization. Taking key steps such as developing and communicating a corporate code of conduct, modeling ethical behavior in the C-Suite, implementing strong governance and accountability, and making it safe for employees to speak up without fear of retaliation are vital. Importantly, companies must take prompt and decisive action when incidents are reported.

Still, when it comes to acknowledging the possibility of malfeasance in their organization, many senior executives are dismissive. I often hear, “that type of thing could never happen here,” quickly followed by “we don’t hire those kinds of people,” as if “those kinds of people” are easy to spot in the interview. In fact, in companies large and small in any industry, the potential for making unethical choices always exists. If the risks aren’t acknowledged, understood, and managed, stakeholder harm becomes not only probable, but certain.

One “sales-driven” company I worked for felt immune to ethical risks, and their hubris cost them more than $1 million from a scam that began with one rogue sales employee, “Travis Doe.” Travis was a reseller account manager. He was tall, charismatic, confident. He was good at golf. At sales meetings, Travis could always be found in the center of a group of colleagues, sharing a bawdy new joke, or regaling them with something useful he learned over his long career in computer sales.

Travis’s compensation plan earned him a comfortable six-figure income. But he figured out a way to augment that. Travis began his scheme with a transaction my employer made routine: he established a new reseller account. In this case, Travis gave this one a bogus name, bogus address, and bogus line-of-business. Bogus everything. He even anointed himself CEO – a move that came back to haunt him.

The cleverness of Travis’s scheme came from the fact that resellers received 40% discounts for all IT hardware. When customers and prospects sent requests for quotes or placed orders, Travis circumvented them to his bogus company. In this way, Travis pocketed a healthy margin on every order his bogus company processed. There’s more. In addition to that revenue stream, my employer also paid Travis commission on his “reseller’s” sales because, of course, the bogus company was in Travis’s portfolio.

It took an alert order administrator who spotted a part number anomaly to unravel Travis’s scheme. When she called the “reseller” to explain the problem, she was told, “Our president, Travis Doe, will call you back.” The order administrator reported Travis, and he was quietly fired about a week later.

Travis’s scheme created only losers. A characteristic common to all ethical breakdowns. If Travis’s immediate boss knew about his dishonesty, why didn’t he stop him? If he didn’t know, what excuse could he offer for being ignorant about a scam happening in his own office? You know it’s a bad day when any answer you provide isn’t a good one.

In their desire to move on, many executives at the company looked no further than blaming Travis. “You’re always going to have a ‘bad apple,’ or two,” senior managers somberly told me. A convenient rationalization, but very misleading. Other people, from the CEO down, were culpable. Sales Administration allowed account managers to establish reseller accounts without any oversight. Internal audit didn’t see a glaring opportunity for fraud in the order entry process. Contracts administration had no vetting rigor beyond “can you fog a mirror?” Flush with sales orders, the company blithely looked askance despite ongoing grumbling from staff that large dollar orders were routinely being processed through a “reseller” whose qualifications were murky, at best.

This incident happened before social media platforms became ubiquitous. The total direct cost from Travis’s scheme totaled more than $1 million. But that’s without adding the incalculable cost of broken morale and corroded trust. The company issued no press releases or public explanations. No trade journal carried the story. The cost of this scam got paved flatter than a pancake into company’s Income Statement.

Any discussion of ethics involves drawing boundaries. But drawing boundaries for sales ethics is much easier said than done:

“I’ll sell an early version of my software that isn’t fully tested, but I won’t sell anything that I know doesn’t work.”

“I won’t bring up the fact that I’m missing a key feature, but I won’t lie about its absence.”

“At the end of the quarter, I will commit resources I don’t control so I can win the sale, but I won’t promise my prospective customer anything I know cannot be delivered.”

“I won’t overcharge anyone, but I won’t sell at the lowest possible price, either.”

“I’ll look out for my client’s best interests but only if doing so doesn’t jeopardize my business.”

As author David Quammen writes in Wild Thoughts From Wild Places, “Not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.” An individual’s ethical interpretations are rarely constant. Rather, they’re a combination of of a person’s current emotions, situation, values, experience, logic and personality. What makes a practice ethical or not can be difficult to define.

This is why evaluating what’s ethical, what’s the right thing to do, or how to get the right thing done requires having conversations about dilemmas. Unfortunately, that idea is heretic in many sales cultures today, where perceiving things as black or white is often considered a badge of honor. “Never lie!” and “A half-truth is the same as a lie,” were among the opinions readers posted when I asked about resolving ethical dilemmas on LinkedIn sales forum. The problem is, judging actions as “right” and “wrong” discourages conversations about ethics in the first place. Most situations business development professionals encounter are not that clear.

Mitigating ethical risk is a vexing challenge for organizations – particularly those with global operations – because ethical standards must first be defined, documented, communicated and followed. In addition, companies must remember that their employees don’t enter the workplace a tabula rasa. Corporate expectations for ethical conduct will always be interpreted through an individual’s awareness of his or her own values.  Even then, we can only be protected when people have the motivation and resolve to act accordingly.

Companies should embrace ethical dilemmas by fostering a culture for open, candid discussion about them. That means  encouraging salespeople and marketing personnel to identify issues, confront them, and take action before they spiral out of control.

Malfeasance thrives in the eye of the perfect storm 1) high financial incentives for fraud, 2) lax audit controls and governance, and 3) non-integrated processes. We need a tocsin to sound in the boardroom and executive suite. Ethical lapses can destroy the best business plans, corporate and personal reputations, and brand integrity. There are too many opportunistic Travises in the world, and too much value at risk, to ignore the warning signs

Do Salespeople Lie More Than Other Professionals?

 

Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):

Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%

Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.

Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:

  • “My answer is short and simple – no.”
  • “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
  • “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
  • “just don’t do it.”

These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”

“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.

One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.

The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.

Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.

That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.

At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.

According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.

For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.

I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.

A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:

1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.

What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”

2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.

What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”

3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.

What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”

I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.

I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”

Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:

Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.

Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.

Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.

If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:

  1. Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
  2. Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
  3. Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
  4. Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
  5. Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
  6. Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.

P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:

“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”

As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”

I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.

Is the Voice of Risk Being Heard?

“If only HP knew how much HP knows, we would be three times more productive,” Hewlett-Packard CEO Lew Platt said.

Had Mr. Platt been talking about his sales organization, he would have pumped up the multiple. Sales teams possess a trove of valuable commercial knowledge. It’s not unusual to find reps who are fluent in finance, marketing, strategy, product engineering and customer support. Some have lived or studied abroad. Some are multi-lingual. Add street smarts about customer behavior, and you’ve got formidable brainpower.

Good for customers, but a mixed bag for employers. Knowledge and risk awareness go hand-in-hand. That can threaten mangers, especially when assigning individual quotas and sales targets. A bit less knowledge makes team members more compliant. Naivete makes management’s fuzzy planning numerology and “stretch goals” easier to swallow. “Team! Get out there and nail your quota!” Woe to the salesperson who tells her boss, “I have a 70% chance of making my number.” In sales culture, determinism is revered while probabilistic thinking gets ravaged.

More! Faster! Better! In this make-your-number-no-matter-what environment, the voices of risk get stifled. Problems don’t surface. Issues remain under wraps. Objections aren’t discussed. “We need to keep meetings short and use our time efficiently,” senior sales executives tell me. “Besides, we aren’t interested in dealing with stuff we can’t change.” Yes . . . But . . . There are significant hard costs when management cannot assess vulnerabilities, let alone, even know what they are.

More than ever, organizations need to be intelligent about uncertainty and risk. Something that former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf didn’t appreciate before he landed in a hot seat in front of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who eviscerated him with questions about his company’s widespread abuses. Stumpf got so flummoxed, he could hardly speak. Senator Warren provided most of the answers, too.

In fact, Stumpf’s management team brutally crushed the voices of risk as a way to insulate themselves from what was happening in the field. Using a cudgel called U5, management silenced internal dissent, enabling Wells to implement practices that exploited its customers and employees. U5, a federal form, was intended to prevent financial services employees who commit fraud and other violations from hopping from firm to firm and repeating their transgressions. But Wells Fargo’s management warped U5’s beneficial purpose to intimidate sales employees into submitting to their heinous demands.

When slapped onto an employment record, U5 carries serious consequences. To hiring managers, it means “don’t hire this candidate.” To employees, it means “Move to a Caribbean island and open a sunglasses stand because you’re not working in financial services. Not now. Not later. Not ever.” U5 made it possible for Wells Fargo’s Management to deliver an ominous message to its staff: if you have the temerity to speak out, blow the whistle, complain, resist, or express unhappiness or unwillingness, we will ruin you. And they meant every word.

We will never know with certainty which statements got silenced, but here are a few possibilities:

“These goals are impossible.”

“My customers don’t like our policies.”

“I’m uncomfortable doing this. It’s unethical.”

“The stress here is burning me out and making me sick.”

“No. This is wrong.”

The voice of risk, U5’d. A well-known verb in the bank’s HR Department, I am sure. With U5 and the repressive sales culture at Wells Fargo, untold millions of similar comments never reached the vocal chords – and keyboards – of its employees. A tiny few seeped out. Just not enough to awaken regulators and Wells Fargo’s board of directors from their slumber. It took an outsider’s report – an investigative article in the LA Times – to goad anyone into action. If you want to crush the voice of risk, here’s your model!

Voicing risk, pushing back, calling out red flags, blowing the whistle – use any terms you want. Wells Fargo used the threat of severe punishment to systematically turn off every communication management didn’t want to hear. An extreme case, for sure, but far from isolated. Where there’s disdain for knowing the truth, a company’s sales culture will reveal it:

“Sell what we’ve got!”

“I don’t want to hear how you aren’t going to make your number, I want to hear how you are!”

“Don’t give me problems. Give me solutions!”

“Stop making excuses!”

“Quit whining!”

One of the most effective ways to shut down the voice of risk is to brand an employee “not a team player,” or “doesn’t believe in the company’s potential.” It’s not U5, but punitively, it might be the next best thing. Try getting promoted or landing a better sales territory with those tidbits embellishing your personnel record. Management’s message: “if you want to stay here, do as we say, and don’t rock the boat.”

“But . . . nobody wants a department full of Chicken Littles, either!” Fair point. There are clear strategic advantages to being picky about the information one accepts before making a decision. Managers must be granted the flexibility to determine what’s useful and valuable, and what to eschew. After all, in sales and selling, there are no universally recognized standards for framing the truth. Look at any B2B sales organization, and you’ll see different managers using different dashboards, and no two turning the same dials and knobs. Vive la difference!

Yet, there’s a distinction between healthy selectivity and willful ignorance. Sales culture should never be an accomplice to the latter, yet the problem is epidemic. The annals of corporate failures are littered with companies that subdued the voices of risk, and created horribly skewed versions of reality. “Employees are our greatest asset! Amazing that none of them are doubters or naysayers!”

Make sure the voices of risk are not silenced at your company. That begins with the board. In an article, Culture: The One Element Most Critical for the Board’s Management of Risk , Jay Taylor, CEO of EagleNext Advisors, recommends six questions to ask:

• Is the CEO active in creating the culture for the organization? Is he or she modeling the right behaviors?

• Is there appropriate tone at the top, both during and outside of board meetings?

• During strategy, product, and investment discussions, is there transparency around business assumptions, openness to respectful but challenging views, and identification of emerging risks to the business model beyond the immediate planning horizon?

• Is there a willingness to bring forward bad news? Is there an understanding that failure may occur, but the business cannot grow and prosper without taking smart risks?

• Has the board established clear expectations for timely identification and handling of risk, particularly those around business goals and objectives? Is there clear risk ownership?

• Not everything should be filtered through the CEO. Are other executives and risk owners present at board meetings and allowed to take questions directly?

The answers to these questions directly influence the culture within the sales force. They influence the strategy, tactics, compensation, and measurements under which business development teams operate. When salespeople believe that the board views risk management, governance and compliance as a crucial responsibility, an ethical environment can be established within the sales organization. The converse is also true: when it’s evident the board doesn’t want to be bothered with protecting the company’s stakeholders, [stuff] will happen. We saw how that works at Wells Fargo.

In addition,

1. It’s understandable that not every anecdote from the sales force constitutes an “action item,” but make sure it’s clear that salespeople will not be penalized for voicing issues to management.

2. Don’t limit account reviews to “wins.” In meetings and internal communication, allow frank discussion about what impedes selling, and make sure no person or department is held sacrosanct in the conversation.

3. Don’t condemn people for probabilistic thinking. Instead, embrace the approach! That won’t make anyone less determined, resolute, or rabidly goal-focused. In fact, the sales team and its managers will become more risk-aware.

4. Appoint at least one board member to serve as a direct point-of-contact for salespeople who want to elevate concerns about illegal or unethical practices, or any other activity that endangers the company, its employees or its customers.

Uncork the knowledge that exists in your sales organization. Giving risk a voice, and a safe way to express it, provides a measurable financial return. And in the case of Wells Fargo, it could have saved the company from itself.

Want a Customer-Focused Culture? Begin with Guidelines for Ethical Conduct

Politicians love to judge ethics – that is, everyone else’s. If their hypocritical self-righteousness somehow produced water, Lake Mead would once again be full, and thousands of golf courses and car washes would open in California. I think I’ll look into this before the election in November, while I’m guaranteed a cornucopia of raw material.

My family routinely reminds me that I, too, am in no position to finger wag about someone else’s ethical standards. I don’t argue with them, not that I haven’t tried. Ethical ambiguity flourishes everywhere, affording infinite ways to distinguish pretty much right from kind of wrong. I guess I’m just lucky to have made so many correct ethical decisions over the years. Winking Emoticon, #humblebragging.

Isn’t it ironic that the same people who gripe about other people’s ethics often strenuously advocate rolling back regulation, and eliminating “bureaucratic red tape”? Do they really think it’s best to abdicate our society’s best interests to . . . well, there are so many checkered people whose names fit in this spot. So, no thanks – I’ll snuggle with the nannies at FINRA, OSHA, the FDA, the FCC, the CDC, and the FTC. They help me sleep better at night.

If you think Big Government has piled legal red tape too high, I urge you to peruse Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which governs sales of goods. Without the UCC, companies would be stuck navigating the laws of every state, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, just to sell a simple container of shower curtain rings, and ship it domestically.

A copy of the UCC stays in my car, submerged in a beefy volume that includes cases, titled Business Law, by Smith and Roberson. I figure the book will come in handy in case I have to change a tire, and need a sturdy wheel chock. Several cases follow a pattern: Party A deliberately and flagrantly screwed over Party B, causing grievous harm . . . Others are fuzzier on culpability, providing fodder for lively debate over whether laws were broken, despite unfortunate outcomes. “Satisfaction as an express condition.” A discussion topic that fascinates me, and underscores why Chief Customer Officers need law degrees to accompany their marketing creds. You’ve probably guessed that I don’t attract large crowds at parties.

Make no mistake: when it comes to business conduct, laws govern a miniscule sliver of possible situations. While I heartily agree that some regulations are misplaced (does it make sense for the government to shut down lemonade and cookie stands run by ambitious grade-school entrepreneurs?), I don’t think of American business as over-regulated. Not by a long shot. In fact, most day-to-day business activity occurs in spaces painted in appealing shades of Legal Gray. A joyous region where men and women of all races, religions, and ethnicities frolic unencumbered, making and selling things as they see fit. Go us! Freedom from regulation – and not a law man or law woman in sight! . . . said the Marketing Director for the dietary supplements company.

Think of commercial laws and regulations as a paper umbrella, about the size of the one a bartender uses to adorn your Singapore Sling. If you want to keep dry in the rain, you’d ask for something more substantial to preserve your coiffeur, and keep your Armani suit dry. In capitalist economies, we depend on ethics – the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior – to fill a comparable role.

Fortunately, anyone from a spunky summer intern in flip-flops to a wizened CEO in wingtips can trigger ethical circumspection by asking, “what is the right thing to do?” But providing answers can be anything but straightforward.

For example, how would a member of your biz-dev team respond if . . .

• when bidding on a large project, she had access to proprietary technical or pricing information about a major competitor?

• a prospective client proceeded to buy your product even though your rep knew it wouldn’t perform well?

• he had the ability to reduce prices for a long-time customer who consistently pays list price?

Depending on context, the answers could change.

In the first scenario, what would your rep do if she got the information passively through a mistakenly forwarded email? Or, what would she do if a prospective buyer offered to clandestinely share a competitor’s comprehensive proposal? If the rep found that unethical, would she refuse the offer if winning the deal meant earning a large commission or an important recognition, such as Achiever’s Club? And what would happen if she were below quota, and losing the deal meant losing her job?

In the second scenario, how would customer knowledge influence the rep’s action? For example, if the buyer were aware of the deficiency, would the rep accept the order? What if the buyer were aware, but underestimated the consequences?

And in the third scenario, what if a previous Account Executive no longer assigned to the account had made a vague comment to the customer to “pass along savings” whenever they became available? Would the rep feel obligated to honor his colleague’s statement?

In individual situations of ethical ambiguity, management must answer two questions:

1. How would your reps likely act or respond?
2. How does the company want them to respond?

This analysis assumes that management has made protection of customers’ best interests as much centerpiece of its culture as “driving revenue” or “optimizing profit,” two pursuits that trample best outcomes for customers. It also assumes that companies prefer that their employees act both legally and ethically.

For the first question, the sales commission and incentive plan provides important, though incomplete, insight. Usually, an unsettling gap exists between the two answers, and the greater the gap, the greater the risk for employees, employers and customers. Many executives can’t answer the first question, and can’t agree on the second – creating risks that make bungee jumping with a frayed cord seem safe by comparison.

Communication that documents and prescribes Guidelines for Ethical Conduct (GEC) not only affirms a company’s commitment to honesty, transparency, and fairness in dealing with customers, it forces management to think about what those values mean, and how they intend to demonstrate those values – not just say them. A company’s GEC won’t necessarily define the right sales decision, but it should spell out characteristics of ones that are wrong.

The International Code of Ethics for Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI) includes a pledge to “personally maintain the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct in all my business relationships with customers, suppliers, colleagues, competitors, governmental agencies, and the public,” to “protect, support, and promote the principles of consumer choice, competition, and innovation enterprise, consistent with relevant legislative public policy standards,” and to “not knowingly participate in actions, agreements, or marketing policies or practices which may be detrimental to customers, competitors, or established community social or economic policies or standards.”

The Direct Marketing Association’s Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice dives deeper, covering a lot in 51 pages, including,

Honesty and Clarity of Offer – “All offers should be clear, honest, and complete so that the consumer may know the exact nature of what is being offered, the price, the terms of payment (including all extra charges) and the commitment involved in the placing of an order.”

Decency – “Solicitations should not be sent to consumers who have indicated to the marketer that they consider those solicitations to be vulgar, immoral, profane, pornographic, or offensive in any way and who do not want to receive them.”

The Direct Selling Association stipulates boundaries in its Code of Ethics :

“Our Code of Ethics requires independent salespeople affiliated with DSA member companies to adhere to the Code’s guidelines and ensure a high level of professionalism, customer service and business ethics when interacting with consumers.

• Independent salespeople must respect a consumer’s wishes to discontinue a product demonstration or a sales interaction

• Independent salespeople must market income representations and product descriptions consistent with company directives and ethics training

• Independent salespeople must provide a receipt from the member company that permits the consumer to withdraw from a purchase order within a minimum of three days from the date of the purchase transaction and receive a full refund of the purchase price”

[Note: In November, 2015, Herbalife, a DSA Member, settled a $15 million class-action lawsuit brought by a former salesman which “alleged that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme in which the company’s independent distributors earn more money recruiting new sales people than they do selling its products, an allegation Herbalife has repeatedly and vigorously denied, according to MyNewsLA.com]

These excerpts are not just pragmatic – they outline essential conduct for a customer-focused culture. In addition to providing guidelines to the biz-dev team for how to resolve ambiguity and possible conflicts of interest, a GEC

1. provides the operational foundation for internal sales governance. If there are no defined boundaries, there can be no governance.

2. serves as vital counter-weight to pressures for achieving short-term sales goals.

3. establishes standards for employee disciplinary actions or termination.

4. communicates to customers and employees a commitment to practicing and enforcing high ethical standards.

5. Aligns corporate values and purpose with those of employees.

When I talk with senior sales executives about instituting GEC, I often encounter skepticism. Here are some examples:

1. “The best sales reps already have a strong sense of personal ethics.” But not every top rep made his or her quota honestly or ethically.

2. “Our mission statement covers ethical behavior.” Most don’t scratch the surface, and ethical standards are tangential to mission statements, anyway. Aflac’s, “To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best insurance value for consumers,” won’t help a sales rep figure out how to evaluate a questionable approach.

3. “Those types of things could never happen here.” They can. And they do.

4. “We screen for honesty in the job interview.” Really? – How?

5. “Salespeople are ‘just wired’ to behave certain ways.” Guidelines won’t prevent anything. Possibly true. But in court, demonstrating that your company maintains GEC can be a more helpful defense than saying “we have never provided guidelines to our employees.”

6. “If senior executives model ethical behavior, reps will follow their behavior.” If you believe that, I have some land to sell you in Florida.

“An’ I’m never gonna care ‘bout my bad reputation. Oh no, not me, oh no, not me,” Joan Jett belted out in her song, Bad Reputation.

But I believe most people do care. It’s just that pressure to achieve short-term results makes the process of distinguishing right from wrong a bit . . . impure. Same for winning a presidential election, or a party nomination, for that matter. When the heat is on – or even when it’s not – a Guideline for Ethical Conduct will prepare your team to make better choices.

Should Inmates Run the Biz-Dev Asylum? The Case for Stronger Sales Governance

“I don’t care how you make your number, as long as you make it,” my district sales manager told me many years ago. Nobody accomplished a Big Hairy Audacious Goal while stressing over boundaries. I know how the West was won.

But my manager should have cared. Achieving a revenue target entangles many different behaviors. Some are laudable, like agility, tenacity, assertiveness, customer focus, and good personal hygiene. But others can be manipulative, unethical, or illegal. When conditions are ripe, bad behaviors spawn and fester. Occasionally, they are exposed, like a colony of voracious termites found under a fallen tree trunk that just rolled from its dark, earthy foundation. In June, 2016, Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion to settle claims resulting from its sales deceit. A mondo penalty for not caring how a number is made.

Volkswagen’s dishonesty was propagated through modern software technology, using flowcharts, decision boxes, algorithms, code, and computer chips. But other techniques for juicing the top line have existed since the invention of accounting records. As Karen Berman and Joe Knight wrote in their book, Financial Intelligence, “Revenue recognition is a common arena for financial fraud . . . the most common source of accounting fraud has been and probably always will be in that top line: Sales.” Channel stuffing and bill-and-hold. These crafty techniques have vaulted thousands of sales reps and managers into bonus-land. You won’t learn about them on Etsy.

I can’t fault my boss for being laissez faire. His attitude reflected that of his boss, his boss’s boss, and every boss all the way to the C-Suite, where information technology converts biz-dev complexity into integers. A process that cleanly extracts ethical messiness and other biz-dev slop, leaving executives room to “focus on the numbers.” Message to sales force: as long as revenue meets expectation, what happens in Sales can stay in Sales. “If I told you all that went down It would burn off both your ears.” No thanks. I’ll stick to analyzing my spreadsheets.

Corporate boards, beware. “The responsibility of the board to prevent scandals is more important than the responsibility to clean up the mess once it has emerged. Here most boards are still at the starting gate,” wrote Kirk O. Hanson in a 2014 article, Five Ethical Responsibilities of Corporate Boards.

It’s a global problem. In June, 2016, IndianExpress reported that “poor customer service practices of [Indian] banks have come under fire from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Despite the banking regulator putting in place Codes of Conduct and Charter of Customer Rights, the RBI has found that banks observed the code ‘more in breach than in practice,’ raising the possibility of a regulatory intervention.”

“We have taken cognizance of the fact that there has been mis-selling in third party products. We are going to take it very seriously. The banks should review how it is being done and be very careful that 75-year-old people should not be sold wrong products simply because salesmen require bonuses or compensation. It is something that we will undertake careful review of and if necessary take action wherever warranted,” said RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan in June, 2016. He could not have expressed this ugly reality in a more genteel way.

His statement points to an even darker story. Too often, companies don’t bother to govern the internal machinery that drives their revenue, leaving it up to the inmates to run the asylum. “You made goal this quarter. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Sales and selling has traditionally been a black box to the rest of a corporation, and many senior executives prefer to remain unknowing about what happens within the guts of its raucous machinery, and what goes on outside, where prospects are “engaged” deals are “closed.”

Ethical principles frequently clash with demands for quota attainment, and in the absence of governance, it’s not always clear or predictable which actions and outcomes will prevail. One thing is certain: when others don’t examine the black box’s innards, the likelihood of harming employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders increases substantially. As Mr. Rajan knows, bad sales ethics break customer trust, poison a company’s brand, undermine shareholder value, and corrode economies. Sounds like a governance problem to me.

What is governance? Corporate governance provides “the structure for determining organizational objectives and monitoring performance to ensure that objectives are attained,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 1999 publication, OECD Principles for Corporate Governance. “The OECD emphasized that ‘there is no single model of good corporate governance,’ but it noted that in many countries corporate governance is vested in a supervisory board that is responsible for protecting the rights of shareholders and other stakeholders (employees, customers, creditors, and so on). The board, in turn, works with a senior management team to implement governance principles that ensure the effectiveness of organizational processes,” wrote Peter Weill and Jeanne Ross in their book, IT Governance. Their ideas apply equally to governing sales.

A 2008 CapGemini Survey shared that “all sales executives stated that Sales Governance will become more important in the future. In addition, 86% of the Sales Executives anticipate their group management to put more focus on questions related to Sales Governance the coming three years.” The study covered 42 companies in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and defines sales governance as “the method used by management to drive the sales organization towards effectiveness and high performance and to promote a desired sales behavior.” The study’s authors represent sales performance in context – specifically, in relation to influence from competitors, customers, organizational culture, corporate strategy. So far, so good.

The study explains that “Sales Management is the core element of the Sales Governance Framework. It entails both a strategic and an operational level. At the strategic level of Sales Management, the sales strategy is aligned with the corporate strategy and short¬-term and long¬-term business objectives are defined. At the operational level, the activity plan is implemented and managed as required. Cross-functional co¬operation is a pre-requisite for achieving internal strategy alignment and operational efficiency. . . Sales Governance enables best practice identification and implementation, and ensures an adequate sales behavior.”

Given CapGemini’s inclusion of a method used by management in its definition of governance, there’s little surprise that “Sales Executives saw driving sales productivity and reducing non¬-value adding time” among the major benefits achieved from undertaking the program. Unfortunately, promoting adequate sales behavior (whatever that means) and driving sales productivity do nothing to protect companies and their customers from unethical and illegal activity, or its consequences. In fact, they might exacerbate the problems. When juxtaposed to the OECD’s governance standard of protecting the rights of shareholders, employees, customers, and creditors, I call CapGemini Governance-lite.

Although CapGemini addresses one important component of corporate risk, sales readiness, its governance model falls pathetically short for deeper risks. Using this model, the unethical practices in 2015 of GM, VW, Takata, Peanut Corporation of America, Wells Fargo, Medtronic, and many others would not have been thwarted. Sales organizations can be highly productive and efficient while institutionalizing seamy practices. “The dashboards look peachy! Keep doing what you’re doing . . .”

The case for board-level involvement in sales governance. Today, selling abuses make international headlines, and the case for board involvement in sales governance could not be stronger. “Boards must think about risk and strategy,” said Erica Salmon Byrne, Executive Vice President, Governance and Compliance of the Ethisphere Institute, in a webinar titled, Enabling Ethical Leadership: Equipping Your Board to Govern Companies with Integrity.

Ethisphere, which conducts an honoree program for the World’s Most Ethical Companies (WMECs), reported that 90% of its 2016 corporate honorees offer employees its board or a board committee as a conduit for reporting misconduct or raising concerns. “Boards are increasingly interested in measuring and cultivating an ethical corporate culture; 86% of WMECs update the Board on such efforts . . . Not only do WMECs more frequently evaluate their [Ethics and Compliance] programs (61% of honorees conduct annual reviews vs. 27% of non-honorees who annually review), but honorees tend to evaluate their program very broadly,” Ethisphere said in its 2015 report.

The duty of board-level sales governance. The line between board oversight for sales governance and management’s responsibilities can be thin and fuzzy. Board-level sales governance addresses strategic risks extending beyond salesforce productivity and efficiency. Primarily,

1. To ensure sales goals are balanced, and support corporate strategy

2. To ensure business development policies and practices are consistently legal, ethical and fair

3. To protect the customer’s best interests

4. To ensure effective mechanisms exist for identifying and reporting activities or events that threaten the above

Hanson’s Five Ethical Responsibilities of Corporate Boards provides useful guidelines for what boards must know or examine. He wrote:

1. Knowing the health of the company’s ethical culture. Most boards or their audit committees hear pro forma reports on ethics violations and lists of calls to their hotlines. Few know anything about the culture in which these violations arise. Do these behaviors reflect widespread acceptance of improper behavior — or a few bad apples?

2. Evaluating the ethics of the business strategy. Business models and strategies are being junked and reformulated everywhere in our modern economy. New sources of revenue are being sought; radical transformations of manufacturing and delivery systems are being implemented. Sadly, some boards are swept along by management proposals to change the nature of the business without asking critical ethics questions about the strategies.

Most boards have learned to ask whether the company is ready to monitor a China-based supply chain to insure worker safety. But few boards have discussed the ethics of tax inversions, big data mining strategies, or staffing strategies which make family life difficult.

3. Monitoring the real ethics risks in the organization. Every organization manages financial risks, and boards pay close attention to the level of that risk. Few senior managements and even fewer boards evaluate the ethical risk of entering new markets, extending the supply chain to new regions, or putting extreme performance pressure on a sales force that is prone to shortcuts . . . Boards are charged with oversight over the adequacy of this ethics risk assessment.

4. Monitoring the ethical behavior of the leadership team. No decisions are more complex than hiring and firing top executives. It is tough enough to find a prospect who has the skills needed to execute the company’s strategy for the next five years.

5. Verifying that the elements of the ethics and compliance system are strong. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines list seven to 10 elements of an ‘adequate’ ethics and compliance management system.

For sales governance, Boards should have access to, and regularly review the following:

• Sales Code of Conduct
• Corporate compliance and ethics policies
• Ethics training program or curriculum
• Misconduct reporting system
• The investigation process

In addition, boards should ensure that employees who report misconduct understand their legal rights, and have appropriate protection. Few people will want to report misconduct when companies exert draconian penalties on those who have voiced concerns.

“Make your number any way you can!” Right now, millions of sales reps operate under this heavy, boundary-free instruction. How will they behave? Which strategies and tactics will they use on their prospects and customers? What outcomes will occur? Corporate boards should care, and get involved.