From the May 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

If you trust in the karmic surety that what's done in this life will surely be repaid in future incarnations--whether by health or horror--you may agree that many of the business leaders over the past few years will be returning to this earth as entities approximating roach excrement. Some CEOs and their minions have shown, through dubious accounting practices and out-and-out thievery, that they believe ethics in commerce to be purely optional.

Ethics in sales may not be the quickest route to success--cutting corners is almost always a more expeditious, if short-lived, route to riches. But in addition to the morality of adhering to ethical business practices, entrepreneurs know that selling with a conscience makes good balance-sheet sense over time. Here are a few reasons to encourage your sales force to behave honorably in a frequently shameful world:

Reputation rules. Every business owner understands that an impaired reputation is death to trade. Selling ethically translates into treating customers, suppliers and employees with integrity. Shel Horowitz is the author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World (Chelsea Green) and is currently writing a book on ethical marketing. Horowitz believes that even your competitors should be extended the courtesy of an honest attitude. "Working together is going to accomplish more than fighting, and it helps businesses build long-term loyalty and referrals." Duplicity, adds Horowitz, "will not only prevent further sales but may trash your reputation."

Reps are your brand's emissaries. If a salesperson crosses the ethical line--whether by low-balling a price or making unrealizable promises--the client will not trust your product or service in the future. "Sellers are the brand ambassadors of a company--sometimes the only contact the buyer has with the company," says Sharon Drew Morgen, CEO of Decision Connection Inc., a sales training company in Austin, Texas. If the buyer cannot trust a rep, she cannot trust your company.

Cynicism is nipped in the bud. Having been burned by companies ranging from telecommunications to financial services, consumers are warier than ever. Working with clients in an aboveboard way helps you surpass less trustworthy competitors and make your company a safe place to do business. Since buyers crave comfort, when you create an ethical sales environment, you create a buying haven for consumers.

Repeat customers are a bargain. Smart entrepreneurs know that honorable and ethical business practices not only boost your reputation, but also act as affordable advertising vehicles. A company with a reputation for ethical behavior will almost always see long-term sales gains.

A culture that rewards doing the right thing is good for business. Dell Computer, for instance, encourages its employees to report integrity lapses. Dell's program was created to set high standards for employee conduct and give employees a forum to report suspected unethical behavior. Dell monitors standards and disciplines employees found to be in violation.

In establishing your own ethics parameters, be clear about which behaviors are acceptable and which cross the line, and then hold your employees accountable. In fighting the good fight, there will be times when you'll need to discipline, or even fire, an employee.

You must practice what you preach. Keep tabs on your employees by investigating credible ethics violations claims from co-workers and customers. The problem may be easily correctable by organizing a sit-down with the employee and taking time to reiterate company ethics policies. By requiring reps to sell with class, you'll prove to your staff you do more than just lip-sync empty dogmas about values.


Kimberly L. Mcall is president of McCall Media & Marketing Inc. (www.marketingangel.com), a business communications company in Durham, Maine.