The traditional sales procedures and the metrics used to measure success is changing.
The business world is transitioning from using metrics like number of sales and transactions to provide evidence for success, and rather looking at things centered around customer satisfaction and loyalty. This means sales personnel are no longer going to be judged on the rate of sales but instead on their ability to create lasting relationships with high paying customers or clients.
Customers who develop brand or product loyalty are sure to come back and make future purchases. It also means they’re more open to trying other products and services offered by the business or brand. This is why Consumer Relationship Management (CRM) is becoming crucial in sales.
Sales people are willing to spend time and money nurturing a select number of relationships because they will create future sales thus bring in more money. Developing a high number of surficial relationships likely end in one-time purchases, which creates less of a profit for the marketer and their business.
Companies will give sales personnel hefty sums of money in order to help them create a lasting relationship with their customers or clients. Extravagant dinning, parties, and gifts are just a few common examples of this. Spending some money to make more money is the understanding of benefits in regards to client relations.
The issue with this, is where the lines are drawn between ethically and manipulatively using a basis of relationship to advance a personal agenda.
This question is kind of the foundation for what I want to investigate.
I first will be looking at the norms and strategies that sales people are exposed to by analyzing resources used by these professionals. I also want to look at these sales strategies through a lens of bullying. Comparing the manipulation that bullies use against their victims with the manipulation being used in the sales world could help address this question of ethicality, which is the other piece of my research I will also be including.
Based off of what I discover about the relationship between bullying psychology and selling psychology, I want to look closer at how ethics plays a role in the dynamics of this and what that means for selling, as well as ethics in the greater business world.
Like addressed earlier, Relationship based marketing has become the common trend in sales now a days.
Relationship based marketing, often known as Customer-Relationship-Management, is the “Segmenting of customers based on needs or profitability, and designing and implementing programs to allocate efficiently/ effectively the appropriate resources to each customer” (Arnett & Badrinarayanan 2005).
This is different from traditional methods because firms were not focusing efforts on their clients, but rather on the actual advertising and marketing campaigns of the products or services. CRM campaigns for high levels of rapport with clients to push a sale rather than advertising.
In order for relationship marketing to be successful, there are 3 factors that must be present, they are trust, relationship commitment, and communication (Arnett & Badrinarayanan 2005). Business professionals spend a lot of money in order to make sure that they can develop quality relationships with their customers.
With this new wave of creating friends out of your customers, it’s interesting to look at what professionals in the sales realm are being taught about creating relationships to sell their products or services.
One of the oldest and most known books in the sales world is Winning Friends and Influencing Others by Dale Carnegie. This book was originally published in 1937, but after a surprisingly popular release, multiple editions were published and adapted for the use in the changing business world. The point of this book was to give business professionals some insight on how to up their business game. Carnegie says “about 15% of one’s financial success is their technical knowledge, and about 85% is due to skills in human engineering—to personality and the ability to lead people”.
While Carnegie researched what to write, he conducted interviews with people like Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt to understand their person-relations, or essentially, how they earned and sustained popularity. He takes an in-depth look at different ways “The Greats”, or people like Lincoln and even Al Capone, used speaking strategies to convince people to follow them.
This book, like in the title, gives readers examples of how to be influencers to those in their lives.
I thought this idea of influence and trying to navigate people’s thoughts to achieve a desired outcome was interesting because it sort of mimicked manipulation.
Though relationship-based marketing seems like an acceptable approach to selling, there’s a manipulative factor that draws a red flag. The mental manipulation that occurs in this idea of relationships and selling made me question whether or not this could be tied to the psychological manipulation that bullies used against their victims.
I was able to get insight into the psychology of bullying from an article by Hannah J. Thomas in which she described theories and frameworks around, why bullies bully.
The psychological tactics used by bullies laid out in these theories and frameworks seemed quite similar to the psychological strategies that relationship-based sales literature were encouraging professionals to do.
This is where ethics come into play for everything.
When it comes to marketing and selling, ethics is a widely discussed and a truly important subject to consider. As we make this transition from conventional methods of selling to relationship-based selling, professionals should always make sure that their behavior and decisions meet an appropriate ethical standard.
Johannes Brinkmann in Business Marketing Ethics as Professional Ethics defines many approaches, concepts, and typologies when it comes to making ethical decisions in the professional marketing world.
Selling: The Profession, distinguishes between two different segments of ethics. Those that are written down (deontological) and the ethics that look at right and wrong based off what the decisions outcomes are (teleological). Most commonly in Business Ethics, “executives’ responses to ethical problems are predominantly utilitarian” (Lill & Brown 2016). As we look at relationship focused selling it’s reassuring to know that there are ethics that should be in place, especially when they’re focused on ensuring the greatest amount of good for the largest number of people.
With ethics involved, it would ease the threat of the mental manipulation occurring in relationship-based marketing, however we also need to consider the self-interest of the sales professional and how that interacts with the ethical decision-making process.
In a study done about self-interest and conflict of interest, self-interest is described as something that is done automatically without consciousness. Because of its unconscious automaticity, “its [self-interest] influence on judgement and decision making is difficult to eliminate or completely correct” (Moore, 2004).
Self-interest is important here because a sales professional makes their living off the commissions of what they sell. They need the sale to provide for their basic needs, and this is why there could be conflict of interest with their ethics.
In order to say ethical codes avert the malicious mental manipulation in sales, we need to consider the self-interest of this job, and how that can intentionally or unintentionally impact the reliability of a code of ethics in preventing manipulation.
In the early stages of my thesis I was originally going to look at three print sources that sales professionals use to get insight and coaching on their relationship based selling tactics. However, after doing some more research and evaluating my plans, I think it’s important to take into account online sources as well.
As of right now I’ve began analyzing How to Win Friends and Influence Others, and SPIN Selling. These are the actual books I’ve chosen to analyze because they were the top selling help books listed on google, so they’re popular and read often.
I’ve also chosen to analyze a college text book, Selling: The Profession because I wanted to include a different realm of literature. Most business professionals won’t be reading college text books, but I think it’s important to include because this is teaching college students how to sell and get into the selling world.
I’ve only chosen to do 3 books as of right now because trying to do more in this time frame would be unrealistic, however just having two examples wouldn’t be enough to make any preliminary conclusions above coincidence levels.
The final sources I’ve included in my analysis are web articles from popular websites used by selling professionals. I thought these were important to include because my original sources were just physical literature sales professionals would have to buy to read.
In today’s society, people have massive amounts of information available at the touch of a finger. People aren’t reading traditional books as much, so only analyzing the strategies from physical sources wouldn’t be an inclusive enough analysis.
These were the first few websites that had come up on the day I had searched them, so I thought these would be a good start because people read, most often, what they can find on the first page of a google search.
As I continue with my research I will need to find a few more online sources to better represent the vast amount available, but as for my preliminary data I’ve chosen those three.
To create the lens of bullying and manipulation I was going to do my research through, I developed an 8 point criteria to classify an action as bullying, and specifically mentally manipulative bullying.
The 8 point criteria is below:
The blue line separate points 1-4 which are concerned with identifying an action as bullying, and points 5-8 determine the bullying as mentally manipulative.
I took my sources through this criteria to ensure that there was actual reason that this could be bullying and nearly all of them met the 8 points, however, Selling: The Profession, the college textbook, didn’t meet the 8 points.
I don’t want to completely count out this book, however because a lot of the strategies lacked some of the manipulation evidence I think it’s safer to say this particular source doesn’t involve bullying aspects that the other 5 sources have.
After ensuring that the strategies and tactics discussed in the other 5 sources were close enough linked to manipulative behaviors used by bullies, I began a comparison of sales psychology and bullying psychology. I looked for examples of these following strategies that manipulators use against their victim in bulling:
- Positive Reinforcement
- Negative Reinforcement
- Intermittent or Partial Reinforcement
- Traumatic one-trial learning
- Lying by omission
- Selective inattention or selective attention
- Guilt tripping
- Playing the victim role
- Vilifying the victim
- Playing the servant role
- Projecting blame
- Feigning innocence
- Feigning confusion
- Brandishing anger
Data & Analysis:
From the bullets listed above, there were 6 specific ones that reflected trends in the sales strategies. They were…
- Positive reinforcement
- Negative reinforcement
- Lying by omission
- Playing the servant role
The other points haven’t been directly evident in what I’ve researched however, they could still possibly come up.
An example of positive reinforcement that I found in my sources came from How to Win Friends and Influence Others. In part 2 of the book under principle 2, the idea that humans have a natural desire to be important is discussed. The selling principle that came from this idea is that you should be complimenting and appreciating your clients to make them feel important. By doing this you can manipulate their emotions and “schmooze” them into buying.
Negative reinforcement was also seen in my sources, as a specific example, here’s a quote from one of my online articles (1)
“Depending on what you sell, play up what prospects stand to lose by sticking with their decision not to buy. They’ll be more willing to take a risk if they feel that something they own is at stake”
Negative reinforcement is defined as a strategy that rewards someone by removing them from an unwanted situation. The quote applies to this idea because it’s suggesting that if we stress the negative consequences that will be faced by a client if they don’t buy, they will be pushed to make the sale due to the fear of said consequences.
Skipping to the 6th bullet point before going back to the last three, I also found some examples of playing the servant role through out my sources.
The most important example I’d like to highlight comes from Spin Selling.
SPIN Selling refers to a questions approach that is supposed to chaperon a conversation between seller and buyer to a discovery of needs. The goal is to serve the consumer by helping them realize where they have a weakness, and how the seller can help fix that.
This seems pretty logical however what is over looked is that these guiding questions are planned by the seller. They’re formulated to act as an invisible hand to ensure that the conversation ends with the outcome desired of the seller not necessarily the consumer. Thus, the seller is playing the role of servant, but actually serving the needs of their own agenda.
The last 3 bullets that are left to look at include, Evasion, Diversion, and Lying by omission. I’ve saved these for last because they’re similar enough to group together into this category of deception. Deception is one of the biggest manipulation tactics present in all of the sources I’ve seen, and I have continued to find examples.
Looking at that first article source, there was a case where over-exaggeration was evident as examples of deception. These are the specific quotes:
“Social proof is more powerful than you think, play up the number of customers your company has”
“Depending on what you sell, play up what prospects stand to lose”
“Emphasize the quick wins a customer can expect to see shortly– especially if the main benefit won’t come for months”
I’ve bold the words that I think contribute to this deception especially. The sellers are being encouraged to lie about the reality of their products and services to try and push the sale. Though these quotes don’t explicitly say lie, it’s implying that not telling the whole truth is acceptable.
Some other examples of deception can be found in How To Win Friends And Influence Others throughout a couple of different sections in this book. The following quotes are what I’ve found so far:
“Beginning with praise is like the dentist who begins his work with Novocain, the patient still gets a drilling, but the Novocain is pain killing.”
This goes back to the strategies being taught when I used the book as an example of positive reinforcements. What’s being encouraged is deceptive because it’s saying that by being nice and sugar coating things from the beginning, you can get away with the unwelcomed actions that are to follow.
In another example, manipulation and deception is seen by the encouragement of controlling someone ones thoughts to push your private agenda. This example is teaching selling professionals that they can make clients do anything as long as they frame it correctly. The quote is:
“Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest”
This is really the tip of the iceberg for when it come to my data collection. As I’ve read through my sources and discovered these examples, I’ve also came across another aspect I want to incorporate into my analysis which is the effect of personification on the mentality a selling professional has about their relationship with a client or customer.
Some examples I’ve found of personification are the following:
All of these personification examples are taking away not only the humanity factor of the consumer, but also their power as well. In each of these examples the consumer is being compared to something that is weak, easily manipulable, or obedient. I think this could have an important role in how the perception of the consumer influences the ethical decision making process of things.
Conclusion/ Next Steps:
After looking at all the data collected so far, there are some strong relationships between selling strategies and manipulative bullying. However, because this is just preliminary data, there needs to be more of an analysis before official conclusions or insight can be drawn from the information.
These strong connections are providing evidence that bullying is occurring in sales, but there are other factors that need to be taken into account.
One of the things I still need to examine is the role of ethics in preventing the maliciousness of selling manipulation. Business ethics are supposed to create this differentiator in the manipulation that happens in selling versus bullying. Because ethics do this, some of the tactics can be deemed as not actually manipulative due to their intentions.
With ethics in consideration though, I also want to explore the relationship between self-interest and the ethical decision making process because sales is a commissions based job.
In the most simplest of terms, what they sell is how they get their living, so self-interest plays an interesting role here. In one of the articles I talked about in my literature review section, it says that acting in self-interest is something that is unconsciously done by humans, but also automatically done.
With that being said, I question the effectiveness that business ethics would have on someone in sales and that’s why I want to explore this idea a little deeper.
I think this study could go a multitude of ways, and it’s could potentially bring light to other important questions in the business world. If bullying and manipulation is going on in sales and ethics isn’t preventing it, I wonder what other kind of unethical behavior is being done behind the scenes in business? and what is making that type of behavior justifiable or acceptable?
There’s still a lot that needs to be done, but I think I’ve developed a pretty good foundation to the future research I must do.