How To Sell With Integrity

There is no doubt that integrity matters in business and sales.  To become a successful sales person, you must be trustworthy, honest and dependable.  In today’s transparent marketplace, salespeople who will do or say anything to earn a sale are a liability that is simply bad for business. 

For instance, in 2001 the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to George Akerlof, for revealing the specific factors that increase buyers’ perceptions of risk when making a purchasing decision.  One of these factors was a lack of integrity.  Akerlof explains, “Dishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market.  The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”[1]  In other words, sales people who have a lack of integrity hurt both buyers and sellers. 

There is no doubt the profession of sales has room for improvement in this area.  This was evident in a Gallup Poll that asked people to rate the level of integrity of various occupations.[2]  The following are the percentage of those surveyed who rated each group as having high levels of integrity: 

  • Nurses 83%
  • Medical Doctors 61%
  • Pharmacists 68%
  • College Teachers 59%
  • Police Officers 59%
  • Clergy 56%
  • Journalists 25%
  • Business Executives 18%
  • Lawyers 16%
  • Insurance sales person 12%
  • Car salesman 7%

Occasionally, I meet sales people who contend that to sell in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace they must compromise their integrity.  To them I say one thing:  get out.  The profession of sales has no place for anyone who is not willing to sell with full integrity.  What’s more, if someone feels he must compromise his integrity to get a sale, he clearly has deficient sales skills and needs to be trained how to sell.  The reality is that selling with integrity is the only way to sell because it will enable you to both sell more and have no regrets about the sales you make.

How can you consistently sell with integrity?  The key to keeping your integrity is to understand how it can be lost.  Rarely does this happen in a single poor decision.  Rather, integrity slips away slowly, one small compromise at a time.  However, this does not have to be the case.  Here are three strategies that will guide you in selling with integrity.

1.  Create A Don’t List

The best way to sell with integrity is to actively commit to it.  Think through and decide what you will and won’t do to get a sale.  This is important because without a firm commitment to refrain from unethical behavior, when faced with a questionable, yet financially lucrative opportunity, you will be more likely to yield to temptation.   Although, if you have already made a commitment regarding what you will do and will not do, then all you must do is live out that commitment, which research shows increases the likelihood you will.

Creating a don’t list involves thinking through and writing out the actions you will not engage in regardless of the circumstances or consequences.  For example, one sales person’s don’t list may include:

  • I will not lie
  • I will not exaggerate or distort the truth in any way
  • I will not cover up a mistake, but will own it and make it right
  • I will not steal time from my employer
  • I will not compromise what I believe to be right, regardless of the circumstances

The key is to decide what should be on your don’t list and then document it.  It is also recommended that you re-read it periodically to keep it fresh and at the forefront of your mind.  These pre-loaded decisions will help you fend off the temptation to compromise your integrity. 

2.  Be Authentic

A number of years ago a friend (we’ll call him Will) had begun working at a new job as a sales account manager. I visited him soon after he started his new position.  As we chatted, he informed me that he had developed a new sales technique.  This technique was based on the sales person who was in the office next to him, who was a top performer.  Will told me that he had begun copying the sales person’s speech patterns in the hope that he would experience similar success.  The sales person Will was mimicking was from a rural area and spoke like a good ol’ country boy, in a very slow, unassuming manner that included plenty of “ums” and long pauses.

Of course, I informed Will that pretending to speak like another sales person would not improve his sales, but would actually hinder them.  Buyers would sense that he was not being true to who he was, which would erode his credibility.  After I said this, Will confessed that thus far the technique had not produced any of the desired results.

Unfortunately, Will is not alone.  I have witnessed many sales people lie about enjoying certain activities, the age of their children, where their children go to school, what cars they drive and even their religious or political beliefs, all in an effort to earn favor with prospects and sell more.

Yet, buyers are savvy and when sales people pretend to be someone they aren’t, buyers will pick up on the lack of genuineness and this will breed feelings of distrust.  In contrast, there is something refreshing about blunt authenticity.  It naturally attracts people.  So I would encourage you to resolve to always be you.

3.  Have Congruency Between Your Words and Behaviors

One of the core ways that a lack of integrity is made evident is when a person’s words don’t match their behaviors.  When I think about this, I remember the Church Ladies.  Who were the church ladies?  Many years ago, when I was in high school I was a manager of the McDonalds restaurant in my town.  Every weekday at approximately 10 am a group of ladies would come into McDonalds.  They had just come from Mass and were deemed, “church ladies” by my staff.  Due to their extremely rude behavior these ladies were disliked by everyone who worked at McDonalds.  The cold reality was that though they may have gone to church nearly every day of the week, no one from McDonalds would have ever gone with them.  Why?  Because their behaviors did not match what they said they believed about kindness and treating others with respect. 

Selling with integrity means both following through with what you say and making sure your claims about your product or service are accurate.  In essence, it’s making sure that you live out your words.  This is not just the right thing to do, but it has also been proven to significantly boost revenue.  One study found that those companies who had managers who followed through on their promises and lived out the values they preached were more profitable than companies who had managers lacking in integrity.[3]  The study also identified that this, more than any other management behavior that was measured, had the most significant impact on company profitability. 

What is Success?

How do you define success in sales?  For me, success is not just measured by how much you sell, but also by how you sell.  That’s the thing about integrity, it’s not something that you can claim; you must demonstrate it to others every day.  By deploying the three strategies that I’ve shared you can improve the likelihood that you will exhibit integrity when you sell.  Because when it’s all said and done, integrity is one of those things that is remembered.  I can think of no higher compliment for a sales professional then for others to say that you sell a lot and sell with integrity. 

[1] George A. Akerlof.  “The Market for ‘Lemons’:  Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.”  The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 84, no. 3 (August, 1970).  p. 495.

[2] Saul Kassin, Steven Fein & Hazel Rose Markus.  Social Psychology:  7th Edition.  (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth, 2008).  p. 194.

[3] Tony Simons, “The High Cost of Lost Trust,” Harvard Business Review, (September 2002).

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