The role of the salesperson as an advocate for their customer is rarely questioned in business-to-business sectors. In a similar vein, media stories about selling to consumers assume that salespeople should be doing their best to meet customer needs. On behalf of their readers, they expect that each individual salesperson should have a moral compass that prevents them from delivering misleading messages and manipulating vulnerable consumers. It is the sales profession in general that gets the rap when something goes wrong in consumer markets. It is called mis-selling, not mis-marketing, mis-training or mis-strategising. Perhaps this is fair. Anyone can walk away from a job which requires them to do harm to customers, and anyone can blow the whistle to regulatory bodies – in theory.
Apart from the obvious personal concerns about paying the mortgage and feeding the family, jobcentres are unlikely to regard ethical concerns as a trigger for benefits, and the next interview for a job could be tricky. Once you have encountered one dodgy employer, you assume the next one will see you as a troublemaker if you voice concerns about a policy.
The individuals who do walk away from the companies that demand high-pressure selling of high-priced offers provide evidence of a toxic culture. They tell newspapers that they are under intense pressure from managers and paid on commission only or enticed with huge bonuses. They allege deliberate targeting of vulnerable consumers such as the elderly. They describe training, coaching and scripting that encourages a view of the customer as an idiot who deserves all they get.
Scripts are not written by the salespeople. Bonus schemes are not designed by the salespeople. Decisions on market segmentation are not made by the salespeople. Undoubtedly there are some rogues in sales, as there are in all professions, but mis-selling as we know it in consumer markets such as financial services, utilities, home improvements and telecommunications is at the end of line of orchestrated strategic disregard for customers as human beings.
Marketing strategists would argue that customer retention and loyalty are the drivers of long-term shareholder value. Some research suggests that companies that have superior “Net Promoter scores” (i.e. more customers who would recommend them to a friend rather than complain about them to a friend) usually grow more than twice as fast as competitors without such loyal customers. Intuitively, this sounds like common sense. Of course, it unravels if all the major players in a sector are unconcerned about their customers, and all play the game of passing on the cost of fines to customers. Building customer loyalty and advocacy takes months and years of delivering superior products and services, which requires superior management in all functions. Why do the hard stuff when anyone can dream up a dubious short-term, quick-fix?
Let’s imagine a world where bank cashiers, call centre workers and doorstep salespeople were empowered to be ethical professionals, with some protection if they refuse a manipulative script or walk out of unscrupulous training. If the government wants to do something about mis-selling, protecting salespeople is just as important as legal protection for customers. Misrepresentation has been illegal since 1967, and yet it has embedded itself in many companies’ cultures. Politicians need to try something different. The vast majority of salespeople do have personal moral codes and do leave companies for moral reasons. Providing them with a framework for integrity in selling would be helpful. If any party included it in their manifesto, which organisation would be foolish enough to lobby against it?