I love my sales job. I realize I am in a privileged position to be working together with a team that puts customer relationships and helping customers first.
I spend my days elbow-deep in people’s revenue data, helping SaaS businesses think about why metrics like churn or LTV really matter. For me, selling is above all about helping customers and that makes me happy.
My experience has led me to believe that this combination between ability — to help customers succeed — and working for an ethical sales organization creates benefits all around — for the sales rep, the company that employs them, and, most importantly, for customers.
So, today I want to tell you more about the business case for sales ethics.
This post is based on a roundtable discussion I led at Predictable Revenue’s “Own Your Growth” virtual event. It wouldn’t be half as useful without the valuable contribution of all those who joined me in that discussion — for which I want to thank them.
Check out the recording for the full discussion from the event:
Below you will find a summary of the most important points about the topic along with a few stories from the trenches.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. What is sales ethics?
What is sales ethics?
Sales ethics is a code of conduct or a standard that you hold yourself and your team accountable to in your sales operations. It helps the people on your team navigate hard conversations and make good decisions without having to resort to asking superiors for guidance all the time.
While working on this topic, I asked my peers if they had a definition of sales ethics and realized that for many people it’s not a concept that rolls off the tongue easily.
It’s really easy to put emphasis on sales outcomes like hitting targets and quotas, but I would argue that the way you get there is just as important.
In the next section, I want to show you why sales ethics is important to your business.
Why is sales ethics important?
I was working on the sales team for a different software company a few years ago. There was another person on that team, who was selling the product on the full price from the 1st day of the month to the 15th day and then at half-price for the rest of the month.
His behavior was flying under the radar in the company and management was happy because he was always hitting his quota.
Imagine the surprise (and not of the pleasant type) when two of our customers ended up chatting over lunch at a conference, only to learn that one company was paying double what the other was for the same service.
This event really opened the conversation within the company about the practices of salespeople, but the damage to the relationship and the brand overall was already done.
Stories like this are enough to show what’s at stake when it comes to sales ethics, but consider this as well — the research clearly shows that businesses that demonstrate a high level of ethical standards report higher customer satisfaction, customer retention levels, and often see a lot more active referrals.
Hopefully, by now you are convinced why sales ethics is important. Unfortunately, agreeing on the importance of sales ethics does not mean our teams are going to become ethical on their own. It helps to understand what it takes to build an ethical sales culture within the organizations you lead and participate in.
Before you get to the level where you can develop the culture of a whole team, I encourage you to nail down your own sales ethics.
How you can develop your own ethics
Uynghiem Ngo, one of the participants on the roundtable, shared an interesting story from his own background:
I have been in different capacities in sales for over 10 years. I didn’t really start to think about and work on developing my personal ethics until I worked selling credit cards over the phone for 2 years. Even though I was great at it, I felt horrible because I didn’t feel like I was doing a service to the people I was speaking to, but just giving them more credit.
This is a great story that puts the pin on why sales ethics has to start with building your own values.
Start with your personal values
When I was interviewing for what was to become my first sales job, I had to pitch myself during the interview.
I was feeling extremely anxious because I lacked any formal experience in the field — I hadn’t even worked as an SDR and here I was, applying for a position as an account executive.
I looked at the website of the company and what stood out to me was that they were looking to hire for 3 very specific values — they were looking for someone who was happy, hungry, and humble (shoutout to Chris Wilson of Function Point!)
Armed with this knowledge, I pitched myself against these values and successfully got the job. The curious thing is that these 3 things have stuck with me ever since — they have become pillars of my sales moral code.
It makes me think about how I show up and do my job every single day. I always want to be providing value, I want to bring light to people’s companies, I want to make sure I understand what’s keeping them up at night. It’s only once I’ve done that, I’ve earned the right to be selling to them.
Developing your personal idea of ethics will be fundamental to your career no matter what company your work for or what you sell. That said, salespeople everywhere will tell you that it’s easier to maintain your ethics when you believe in the product you’re selling.
Create value for the prospective customer
I like to think of myself as a relationship-oriented person. So, when I’m selling, I don’t like to be salesy and pushy, I like to feel like my activities are fueled by integrity.
One way this manifests itself is in the emails I send out — even when doing cold outreach. I like to do research on the person I’m emailing and personalize my message as much as possible.
I took a job at a startup once and on Day 1 they gave me a laptop and said “Here are your 9 email addresses”.
What do I need 9 addresses for?!
They explained to me, that I was expected to break Gmail every day and email as many people as humanly possible through the 9 emails. Then, I had to go back and filter through the inboxes to make sure we were connecting with the people who respond to our mass outreach.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with outreach — it’s a process people use to contact other people and start conversations with them. However, you want to make sure you’re sending messages that at least have the potential to create value for the person on the other end, not waste their time.
Experiencing something like what I just described, can really make you lose faith in the process you’re using to sell. While that’s always disappointing, it also encourages you to start thinking about how you want to evolve as a sales professional. You will probably have to stub your toe a few times (at least I did) before you find the place where you feel confident and happy.
Believe in what you’re selling
Going back to Uynghiem’s story, he continued with this on our discussion:
When I started working in sales at a Microsoft partner, I realized your ethics can really impact your performance. If I tried selling the platform on things it couldn’t do, then someone from product or engineering would come to me and say “Why did you promise something we don’t even do?”
Even with that understanding, it still took me a good few years to shake off this mentality completely.
It’s hard to sell highly technical solutions to professional buyers if you don’t believe in the product you’re working with.
And when you do believe in it, it is much easier to learn the product inside out and communicate the value it creates to the potential buyers you talk to.
Get formal sales training
This may sound odd, but I think it’s probably the most important of the 3 elements of building your personal sales ethics.
I’ve done a lot of learning on the fly, getting help and mentoring from more senior sales professionals, but one thing that really changed my trajectory was attending a course in relationship-oriented sales at Dale Carnegie Training in Vancouver.
Going through this course really helped me to improve my understanding of who I want to be as a sales professional and to develop my personal brand.
If you have an education budget at your company — use it! And if you don’t have one — ask to get one or ask to be trained. I can’t stress enough how important and beneficial that is.
And if you’re in a position where running a sales team is your responsibility, providing an education budget is just one of the things you can do to invest in developing your team’s ethics.
Let’s look at some of the other things you should consider.
Building highly ethical sales organizations
A common mistake is to think that to develop an ethical sales organization, it’s enough to hire someone with a strong personal moral code to lead the team. As we’ve seen in some of the examples above, that’s not nearly enough.
In this section, I want to discuss some of the methods I’ve seen that founders and sales managers use to overcome this challenge.
Develop your Sales Compass
When I was interviewing for my current job at ChartMogul, our Director of Sales Sara (who is now my manager) made me go through a short assignment.
The first page of the assignment included a short page titled Sales Compass.
When I read it I felt like I was given the keys to the kingdom!
Not only did this give me a framework to really understand how I was going to be evaluated and measured as a salesperson on a personal level, but it also helped me to start thinking about how ChartMogul did business.
So in the interview process, I could kind of start to understand what they would be looking at.
And then as a salesperson looking for a job, I could say “Okay, does this line up with who I am and the things that I believe in?”
“Does this line up with my personal methodology?”
“Do I feel like I’m really gunning for the right job right now with the right organization?”
And when I joined the team, I saw how this compass was helping us to get aligned — ChartMogul is a fully remote team and I’m the only person in Vancouver. Sara is in Germany and our CEO Nick lives in South Korea, so I often have to make decisions on the go. However, with the sales compass in hand, I know we’re always on the same page and I have the confidence to make these decisions.
Many organizations agree on the need to have such a compass but struggle with creating one. I think the best way to approach this is to start backwards — try to think about some examples of what unethical behavior looks like and what ultimately leads to it.
Ross Van Wyk shared an interesting example around this:
I took part in something I see as an unethical behavior at a seed-funded company I was working for. As a very new account executive, I was selling the product roadmap rather than what was actually in the product.
Now, I know there’s some discussion around that, but in my opinion, everything that’s more than 6 months out is unethical. And in every case, you should always state what’s real and what’s in the product pipeline.
Start defining examples like this and soon you’ll be finding the common values that make it easy to align your team.
Another thing you should examine is where the lack of defined and documented processes are leading people to try and bend the ethics of your team.
This is a perfect segue into the next part of our discussion, which is about creating your first sales playbook.
Document processes into a Sales Playbook
During our discussion, Scott Dore raised a very common concern:
I am at a small business and there’s isn’t much that is solidified in the processes we use. I am worried that this leaves a bit too much rope to bend the rules and can lead to some gray-area behavior on the sales team.
This is something I’ve seen quite often — an early-stage startup hires a bunch of salespeople and things somehow fall in place with regards to processes and revenue starts rolling in. Next, they hit the growth pedal, they hire 10 more salespeople, and then tell them “Just do what this guy did. Good luck!”
Oftentimes this lack of structure and the stress that’s typical to fast-paced startups can lead to unethical behavior. That’s why I advocate that sales leaders look into developing their sales playbook as early as possible.
Start documenting early! Take stock of the early processes (especially if they work well) and iterate to optimize them. Do this for your sake and the sake of your future hires.
Pick a sales methodology and train for it
Your sales methodology is another thing that belongs to your playbook. The earlier you pick one, the sooner you can make it part of your organizational culture.
There are multiple methodologies and every sales professional has a preference. This is not meant to be a discussion or a comparison — especially provided most methodologies include elements that are meant to address the need for strong sales ethics.
Whatever your preferred methodology is, however, make sure you make it part of your sales training. I’ve already discussed the need to provide formal sales training to your team, but that doesn’t replace the need to also make training — especially for new hires — an essential part of your onboarding process.
It is hard to find and hire people who not only have the skills and personal characteristics you’re looking for but are also familiar with the specific methodology you use, so making this part of your onboarding curriculum is a good way to ensure cultural alignment across your whole team.
Sales ethics is like an autopilot for your team
I hope I have managed to convince you why the question of your personal and team ethics should never be put on the back-burner.
By investing time and resources — to think about your personal and organizational compass and to develop your skills and your culture — you are creating a strong ethical code that can help guide your team through the trickiest situations.
It may seem like a waste of valuable time, but it’s actually one of the best investments you can make as a leader.