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Sales People and Honesty: A Delicate Balance

Guest author Brad Shorr has agency, in-house, and entrepreneurial marketing experience. He writes frequently about social media, SEO, content strategy, and other business issues of interest to small and midsized companies. He lives in the Chicago area and has been blogging since 2005. Connect with Brad on Twitter.

Semi-wandering thoughts about sales, honesty, and customer loyalty.

Sales people and customer loyalty are a tricky business, because it’s easy for sales reps to fall into the habit of building personal loyalty at the expense of company loyalty.

What I mean by that is, sales reps often make their firms the bad guy. They will say things like, “I don’t understand our minimum order policy myself. I wish we could do something about waiving it, but my boss is a real stickler.”

Maybe the rep is trying to create a strong bond between himself and the customer when he makes statements like this; let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But this loyalty building strategy comes crashing down the minute a rep leaves the company or falls into disfavor with the customer. It’s a shortsighted strategy for reps, and a potential disaster for employers who let it play out.

Effective loyalty building requires reps to team up with their customers without badmouthing their employers.

So, perhaps the most important way a sales rep can build loyalty in a long lasting way is to speak well of his or her employer.

Does this mean a rep should defend or gloss over situations where his company screws up?

My answer might surprise you. Although the stock answer to this question is no, my answer is yes. A sales rep should defend or gloss over company screw ups — provided it is done only in certain situations and in the right way.

My feelings about this are based on many years of experience in the sales trenches. For example, as a sales rep, I would never feel a compelling need to tell a customer their delivery was late because the shipping foreman was drunk and shipped the order to Paris, France instead of Paris, Illinois. I’m perfectly OK with being less than forthright in order to put a good face on a bad internal problem.

What would you tell a customer in a situation like this? How much truth would you reveal?

How Much Truth?
The problem with situational ethics is it becomes difficult to know where to draw the line. In the hypothetical situation I described, I would not try to blame my customer for the late delivery: shifting blame is much different than watering down blame. It’s enough to say we had a serious internal breakdown and we’ve addressed it. Getting into specifics wouldn’t help my company or the shipping foreman, and would needlessly put a customer relationship at risk.

In most businesses, there are opportunities to tell customers white lies several times a day and good reasons to tell them. This fact of life creates a lot of conflict, because we all want to tell the truth, and yet we all want to hang on to every scrap of business we can. Especially now, when new business is not all that easy to come by.

White lies have the advantage of being a time saver and stress reliever for the sales rep and the customer. You could go to great lengths to honestly and fully explain some horrible screw up, and after expending a ton of effort and putting the customer and yourself through an emotional roller coaster, get past the issue. There are times when you can tell a customer more than he should know … or wants to know.

The Challenge for Entrepreneurs
A business owner seldom runs down his own company to build personal loyalty. In fact, the idea is almost unthinkable. But owners expect their sales people to think the same way, and they don’t. As a result, they don’t always pay much attention to how reps deal with customer issues. They should. Sales reps need to be coached and trained in this aspect of sales communication with great care.

(Note: Brad’s work experience includes many years directing local and national sales organizations and managing sales people. At Straight North, a full service Internet marketing firm in Chicago, he works with sales-driven clients that make everything from a GPS-based vehicle tracking system to operating room pressure monitors.)

IMAGE CREDIT: © Michael Brown #38230149 – Fotolia.com

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