This was intended to be one of those oh so clever moments. I pumped the word “sales” into my thesaurus and was going to clutch in my dirty little fingers veritable proof that “sales” was synonymous with words like deceit, lie, fraud and what not.
Dammit. This thesaurus is defective. I never should have listened to that salesperson who told me it was unabridged.
One time I learned an important lesson about sales. I’ve told this story before but this time I’ll try to tell it shorter and better.
I worked for a big company. They needed to modernize an entire department. The estimated cost of the project, in 1995 dollars, was $25 million. To put that into perspective, later I ended up living in a small town that considered adding a much needed new bridge across a small river at a cost of $15 million in 2004 dollars. So yeah, the project was pretty big.
My promotion to management was part of that modernization project but I was not involved in its genesis. The evolution of the project worked like this: A few managers at the company recognized our company’s need. They found vendors to provide a solution. The vendors sent in sales teams who talked numbers and bamboozled a lot. In hindsight I realized none of these salespeople really understood what they were selling. The product was far too technical and complex.
The project did satisfy a need and made the department better. It really was something we needed. But did it deliver ROI and was it cost effective enough to pencil out as a Good Thing? I don’t know. I’m no bean counter, but it probably did. On the other hand, it only did about half of what the sales teams had promised up front.
Oops. That’s not good. There was a legendary incident where the department head hauled me into his office, opened a three-ring binder (provided by the sales teams) and pointed at various items. “Does the system do this?” he’d demand.
“Nope. It doesn’t do that. It never has and it never will. That’s not part of the design.” I said things like that a lot back in those days.
Eventually heads had to roll. Even though the project was generally a success, someone had to be held accountable for the things it didn’t do. Several mid-level managers were axed to appease the gods who live in the world of The Should.
The big question, though, was this: Would my company have pulled the $25 million trigger if they had known up front what the system would really do? Probably not. And therein lies the rub.
The lesson I learned? Sales is not a very accurate means of conveying information. It could be the result of dishonesty or just sales teams who literally don’t know the difference. Either way, though, the result is the same: Too much honesty and the sale might be blown.
I found myself wondering, like I always do, about business and ethics. Sometimes you’ll hear motivational types say things like, “Ethics can be a part of the business world.” Just the way they phrase it makes it sound like a tacit admission that normal business is unethical as hell. They make it sound like ethics is as a mythical land of that one might be willing to achieve if only one is willing to work at it hard enough.
That must mean there is not a lot of ethics in these here parts.
So I searched for data and found a Gallup poll that asked people to rate various professions based on honesty and ethics.
Nurses received the highest response with a favorable rating of 85 percent. Not too surprising, I guess, car salespeople were dead last at 8 percent.
The best five professions were (in order): Nurses, pharmacists, medical doctors, engineers and dentists. Poor dentists. But at least they bested psychiatrists and chiropractors who appear further down the list.
The poll didn’t ask about information technology types, like yours truly who is a programmer, but I’d assume we’re about the same as engineers at a measly 70 percent. Both professions are very much concerned with things like truth and verifiable facts. If we fail to pay attention to what is really true our outputs won’t function correctly. At least truth is something we spend time thinking about and work to put into practice. At least it crosses our mind.
Next, in sixth position on the list, were police officers at 58 percent. Is it just me or does that seem too damn low? And actually, when the poll is considered overall, I think you could make an argument that my hypothesis regarding ethics in the business world is fairly self evident. Most professions take it on the chin. Overall these are pretty dismal scores.
Interestingly, bankers at 28 percent edged out journalists at 24 percent. I don’t think that bodes very well for our perceptions about the news media these days.
What do you think? How ethical is the business world? Let’s conduct our own poll. (See below.) Feel free to explain your perceptions and why you voted like you did.
Honesty/Ethics in Professions
Results of Gallup poll, Nov. 26 – 29, 2012. Score based on percentage of Very High/High responses.
Medical doctors 70%
Police officers 58%
College teachers 53%
Business executives 21%
State governors 20%
Insurance salespeople 15%
HMO managers 12%
Advertising practitioners 11%
Members of Congress 10%
Car salespeople 8%