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Three Ethics Principles for Successful Technical Sales

“Anyone who sells a double-open-ended filter is a jerk.” This line was overheard at a recent event for industrial filtration. What this person meant by their statement was that a DOE filter is inferior technology that does not do an adequate job of filtering because of potential bypass and difficulty for changeouts. Better technology is readily available, and any decent company that has a DOE can also offer a single-open-end (SOE) alternative. If that company does not move its customer toward a SOE option, it is doing the customer a disservice. Doing anything less than providing the optimum solution for your customer is unethical.

Let’s think of an example with the financial services industry. If a parent who is 31 years old seeks to open a Roth IRA to assist in paying for her son’s college education in 18 years, the financial advisor would be doing a severe disservice by opening the Roth IRA for the client as the funds in the account will not be accessible without a severe penalty for 28 years. The Roth IRA is a retirement instrument, not a college savings plan. The financial advisor should shift the discussion to 529s, or other instruments, if saving for college is the end-goal.

A technical sales professional risks losing a sale by trying to make a recommendation that is not in line with the customer’s initial request. But the technical sales professional is ethically obligated to make the recommendations that best address the customer’s needs even if the customer asks for a different product. This requires a long-term view. Taking a long-term view is more advantageous in business than a blind pursuit of the now. A long-term view makes for a more sustainable growth model. It is far more expedient to manage a current customer than it is to hunt for, and earn, a new one.

What a Technical Salesperson Should Do

            What we mean by the word “ethical” is three things: (1) the salesperson should refrain from lying and deceptive practices; (2) the salesperson must forthrightly and completely answer questions from customers; and (3) salespeople must avoid steering customers, or allowing the customers to move, toward products that would cause them physical or monetary harm.

A salesperson can be successful and ethical by following three principles.

  1. Practical guidance. A salesperson has detailed knowledge of his/her company’s own products and those of its competitors. In B2B sales they have general knowledge of their customer’s business and their product’s place within that business. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the salesperson to be forthright in the information they provide, but also extensive in the questions they ask. A salesperson cannot recommend the right product or service without understanding fully the needs and challenges of the customer. It is the salesperson’s job to learn about the customer’s business and then assist the customer with selecting the best product to offer.

  2. Customer accountability. The salesperson must accept that the customer’s needs are the most important factor in the sale. The salesperson is ultimately accountable to the customer; if the salesperson does not provide a product or service that better addresses the customer’s needs relative to available alternatives, then the salesperson has effectively harmed the customer and will eventually lose the business as a result. If a salesperson is beholden to a quota, he or she will be more likely to risk the customer’s interests for one’s own quota demands. While this may work initially, eventually that salesperson—and his/her company—will wear that reputation and current customers will leave for other vendors and any prospective leads will vanish.

  3. Self-control. As humans, we are more moved by what is immediate than what is distant. We feel more intensely about what is near whereas what is far away, defined by either time or distance, affects our immediate decision less. This is where self-control comes into play. If we have self-control we can look toward the future and avoid ethically dubious decisions that can sacrifice a greater long-term gain for immediate gratification. The best way to accomplish this is to assume the role of problem-solver rather than just being the “typical” salesperson. If salespeople view themselves as people trying to solve problems and add value to customers, they will find it much easier to make the right choices for their customer and, by extension, themselves and their company.

Conclusion

While our specialty is industrial filtration, we are confident that our approach applies across the B2B space and especially to technical sales where the information asymmetry is the greatest.

We admit, our approach requires a long-term view with heavy upfront investment in time and energy but everything we have recommended will create a long-term benefit for the salesperson and his/her company. By adhering to the principles we have laid out, the sales person can secure stable and profitable relationships in which all involved parties benefit. Because of the time and effort it takes to develop a customer in a B2B setting, it is counterproductive to take a short-term mindset in which one would prefer a quick sale over a long, stable relationship based upon trust and mutual benefit. 


Lucas Hanks has worked in technical sales at Filtration Technology Corp. (FTC) for more than 7 years. Mark Macaluso leads regions technical sales for FTC. Kyle Scott has held various sales roles for most of his private sector career including his current role in international sales at (FTC). As an academic, Scott has written and taught extensively on political philosophy and applied ethics. He may be reached at kscott@ftc-houston.com.

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