September 6, 2019

How to Handle Unethical Sales Training Practices

By Andrew Rudin, Managing Principal, Contrary Domino, Inc.

If your company promoted selling tactics that made you uncomfortable, how would you react?

The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs reports that, through July 2019, more than 50 percent of its solar energy company cases involve complaints over deceptive sales practices. The agency recently found one cause might be sales training. At a sales training session for Arres, a Cottageville, SC, solar installation company, “one of the participants was so disturbed by what he heard, he started secretly recording the training,” a local news station reported. The audio was submitted to state regulators.

What the Audio Revealed
At the outset of the training, the instructor advises the sales reps to avoid answering customer questions – particularly about cost:

“Anything [customers] say that I don’t want to answer, [tell them], ‘That’s a great question, and we’re going to get to that.” The instructor encourages reps to talk quickly by adding, “And I talk fast, but you know…you have to keep your excitement up.’”

A different instructor describes the company’s upselling tactics:

“The first step to a sale is you gotta have a problem. So I’m gonna walk in, and I’m gonna go, ‘Oh my gosh, we didn’t sell them enough panels…Boom! Now I’m gonna sell them another $20,000 deal. I’ll upsell ’em. I’ve been in the sales industry forever. If I don’t have a problem, I don’t have a deal.”

After the sales training recording was made public, a spokesperson for the company said it had broken ties with the sales trainer and highlighted its commitment to “ethical representation of the consumer experience.”

Suggested Responses to Unethical Corporate Selling Practices
Why did the Arres employee choose to disclose the training session recording to regulators? I don’t know. In fact, he might have tried to raise the issue internally, but possibly, 1) he could not find anyone willing to listen, or 2) he didn’t feel safe doing so.

Regardless, it’s understandable that reps would feel uncomfortable with the content of the training session. Yet choosing the right response can be daunting.

“If salespeople don’t like what they’re asked to do, they should just quit!” When I discuss ethical issues with clients, I often hear this response. But some salespeople have family or financial constraints, and they can’t quit easily. Or, they face other impediments that make job changes difficult.

When facing values conflicts at work, employees can speak up – an option that first requires understanding the other party’s motivations and rationale.

If I had attended the sales training session at Arres, I might ask in the meeting (or later, in a private conversation with the instructor) how his recommended tactics could affect customer trust. I’d ask whether the company could meet its revenue goals and ensure customer interests are never compromised or sacrificed.

I might also question how customers would perceive the approach the trainer was recommending, and what this might mean for generating repeat sales and word-of-mouth marketing.

Most important, I would have to maintain my resolve to voice my values, and to sell my vision to decision makers. Sound familiar? It should, because voicing values exercises the same mental muscles managers and reps use in selling engagements.

When advocating for ethical outcomes, it’s vital to preserve a “natural social contract” between employees and managers, according to Mary Gentile, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School.

Salespeople who raise ethical issues should:

  • Choose or ask for an appropriate time to initiate the conversation
  • Exercise care in expressing themselves, and be deliberate
  • Explain why the matter is important not only to them, but to the company
  • Understand or acknowledge the point of view of the other party
  • If possible, conduct a practice conversation with a colleague or friend before bringing the issue to a manager

Sales managers who face potential decisions about ethics in the workplace should:

  • Sincerely thank the salesperson for voicing the concern
  • Describe which steps the sales manager plans to take in response
  • Describe legal requirements (for example, with incidents of sexual harassment)
  • Let the salesperson know what he or she should expect (for example, whether actions will be taken; and, if so, when and what they will be)
  • Confirm with the employee that he or she can check in for updates on the matter

Above all, salespeople must empower themselves to speak up when their values are challenged. And they should feel safe when choosing to do so.

Ethical outcomes are more likely when corporate culture encourages employees to raise concerns. Together, sales reps who are practiced and skilled at voicing concerns, and sales managers who encourage open dialogue, offer the most effective risk mitigation money can buy.

Andrew (Andy) Rudin is managing principal of Contrary Domino, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in revenue strategy and governance, risk, and compliance (GRC). Contact him at arudin@contrarydomino.com or on Twitter @contrarydomino.