BRKeenan & Associates, LLC

Towards a More Ethical Salesforce

HouseTV’s House would often say, “Everybody lies”.  And, unfortunately, he is right.  Some people believe that, a 100 years ago, people were inherently more honest.  And, these people would be wrong – people are people: subject to minor ebbs and flows and cultural variation, the dishonesty ratio has been relatively constant since the Garden.  Perhaps it is more visible today, but visibility does not change actuality only awareness.  Jupiter’s moons were always there with or without Galileo’s telescope.  Top of the list of dishonest professions are attorneys, used car salesmen and politicians in that order, but any sales person is often treated with suspicion.  Without trust, it is said to be ten times harder to close a sale – not impossible, but harder.  Not only is honesty the best policy, but in the long run, it is the most cost efficient policy (1x vs. 10x effort).  This blog is about improving the ethics of our salesforce, and all employees, for that matter.

  1. Ted Roosevelt Rides Up a Social Media Hill (Never Lie)

In this classic – and true – story, Mr. Roosevelt’s 1912 re-election campaign had prepared 3 million pamphlets embossed with his picture.  One day before the mass release, someone noticed the pamphlet’s cover photo was copyrighted.  To use the photo without permission would have caused a gigantic scandal, a huge penalty, or both!  What should they do?  Under advice, the campaign telegraphed to the copyright holder the following message: “We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Roosevelt’s picture on the cover. It will be great publicity for the studio whose photograph we use. How much will you pay us to use yours? Respond immediately.”  It worked, and the copyright holder coughed up $ 250 so that the campaign would use his photo.  Importantly, the telegraphed message was completely accurate: they were planning on distributing millions of pamphlets and it would be great publicity for the studio.

Rule #1 – Never lie.  Never say white is black or black is white since clearly they are not.  But you also don’t have to call white white. White can be “bland” or “colorless” or “void of hues” or a hundred other accurate descriptors.

  1. It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is (Dissembling is Not Always Wrong)

Clinton’s infamous line was pure dissembling and much more; on that particular point, most observers would say Clinton out and out lied.  To dissemble means to hide or conceal one’s true motives, feelings or beliefs.  However, Clinton notwithstanding, at times dissembling is necessary and even proper: for example, it would be mean spirited and cruel to tell a 6-year old that he or she is no Van Gogh or Mozart.  False, over-exaggerated compliments are no better.  While it would be wrong to equate a kid’s finger-painting project to a Jackson Pollock canvas, it would be very appropriate to declare: “My, what a lot of colors and swirls you have.  Wow!”  Technically, that line would be dissembling since you hid your belief that your child better do well in math because the arts aren’t working for him.

Rule#2 – Occasionally it is better to dissemble than to speak the blunt, unvarnished truth.

  1. Acorns Falling From Trees (Know Your Audience and Personae)

As a lawyer, I am often lumped into the broad category of people who have had their ethical souls ripped out.  Unfortunately there are many unethical lawyers out there.  Even more unfortunately, unethical behavior is not limited to lawyers: rogues can be found in every profession, from competitive eaters[i] to plumbers[ii].  As stated above, if you were to name three professions with little if any credibility, most people would probably list attorneys, used car salesmen and politicians.  Since I am generally lumped into the less-than-credible group, I must overcome that bias by being extremely sensitive to and scrupulous of honesty and straight talk.

Rule #3 – if you bring (or are accused of bringing) dishonesty baggage into a professional or personal life, your range for dissembling is very, very narrow.

  1. Huffing and Puffing (When to Exaggerate and When Not)

An attorney’s role is to advocate for his or her client’s rights or position, in short, to present the client’s argument in the best light possible.  Suppose I am representing a plaintiff whose ankle was sprained when she tripped over a cracked, uneven sideway outside a retail shop.  In making her case, I could argue that my client has never endured such pain and can barely stand it.  Clearly these statements are opinions rather than facts.  However, I must not argue that my client’s ankle was broken or the ligaments torn because neither statement would be true.  “Huffing and puffing” on opinions and subjective matters are permitted, and to some extent, expected.  Blustering on or embellishing factual statements is called lying.  Lying is not only perjury but short sighted.  As the Brits would say, “the truth will out”.

Rule #4 – Huff and puff only about opinions, give accurate statements as to facts.

  1. Obstructing Justice (Do Not Omit Critical Information)

You can get in trouble for saying too little rather than too much.  Yes, there are exceptions since the proverb “discretion is the better part of valor” did not develop from thin air, but unthinking application of any axiom is unwise.  Let’s go back to my sprained ankle hypothetical.  In representing her, I could also state that, since the accident, my client has had trouble getting to work on time.  That statement is true enough: she was chronically late for work since the accident.  But it was also true that, prior to the sprain, my client rarely made it to work on time even when she was completely healthy.  In this particular hypothetical case, I could be accused of withholding key evidence, or of obstructing justice by stifling or suppressing evidence that I knew was being sought.  Leaving out key information is not the better part of valor, it’s lying.

Rule #5 – Speak accurately and with necessary completeness.

  1. I spin, you spin, we all spin for ice cream (A Balanced Presentation)

In a court of law, witnesses are sworn to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.  In reality, it doesn’t really work that way.  Witnesses are sworn to honestly answer questions put to them; they are not obligated or even allowed to volunteer additional information.  In real life, people expect the whole truth to be reported without resorting to opposing counsel to ferret out the rest of the story.  We may expect spin from attorneys, used car salesmen and politicians, but we do not like it and, thus, we rarely give them our full trust.  Their “spin” is tainted.  As a result, it takes more time and energy to get to the truth of the matter.  Yet, we all spin.  Most Facebook pages are mere homages to positive spins; the annual Christmas card is so full of “well-dones” that neither Outback nor Ruth’s Chris can compete.

Rule #6 — It’s laudable to accentuate the positive, but it is also a form of spin.  When seen in others, like politicians, we abhor it.  A bit more discretion on our part might prove wise.

In writing this blog about a more ethical salesforce, I intentionally omitted many sales examples.  When commissions are at stake, the pressure to slide down the ethical slippery slope is very, very tempting.  Money often confuses ethics: it shouldn’t.  In blogging, I wanted to present examples where money was absent, and hopefully, bring a bit more clarity.  These rules are entirely valid when climbing up the sales (or any professional) ladder.  In summary, you should:

Never lie
Know when to appropriately dissemble and when to speak more plainly
Know your audience and how they perceive you
Exaggerate opinions (maybe) but never, ever exaggerate facts
Be complete in your presentations: do not leave out critical information
Practice some professional humility: less spin will lead to more trust


Brett R. Keenan is a Business Coach and Retained CFO/General Counsel for Small Businesses.  Based in Chicago IL, BRKeenan & Associates has helped numerous large and small companies with Finance, Law, Operations and Strategy since 1999.

©BRKeenan & Associates, LLC. November 2014