“Sell” is a four letter word to most customers. And, less consciously, to most sellers as well. It is not an easy thing to pursue a profession that the dictionary—which after all simply documents what people really mean by a word—pronounces as mean-spirited.
Consider these entries and examples in the dictionary definition of “sell”:
· Sell out
· Hard sell
· Cheat, hoax
· To be employed to persuade or induce others to buy
· To force or exact a price for
· To accept a price for or make a profit of (something not a proper object for such action):
· Sell down the river
· Sell (someone) a Bill of Goods
Common to all those definitions is the root reason people find ethical issues with selling—the absence of a relationship context.
If you’re Robin Crusoe on a desert island, you can be said to live in a non-ethical environment (leaving aside animal rights activists and strict vegetarians for the moment). You cannot behave unethically if there is no relationship to an Other to be violated.
There are more than a few echoes of non-relationship thinking in sales: you can find it in people who define sales as “the fine art of separating the customer from his wallet.” You can also find it in technocratic, process-driven approaches to selling; they have sucked the soul out of sales by removing the relationship component entirely and replaced it with metrics and motivational incentives.
Such approaches go well beyond garden variety “immoral” sales behavior. If I know I’m tricking you, I may feel guilty, or not—but I know enough to pretend otherwise in most situations, I know enough not to admit it to certain people—I know I’m violating a serious social norm by cheating or hustling my fellow man. I am still rooted in relationships, even if I choose to violate them.
It’s completely non-relationship based selling that is non-ethical, or unethical. Those approaches treat the customer as Robinson Crusoe might treat a coconut—perhaps essential to his existence, but with no meaning beyond the nurturance of Crusoe himself. The customer as fodder, or as poker chips.
As the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute once said in typically outrageous fashion, “There’s nothing wrong with killing a million people; what’s wrong is killing them without thinking about it.” If you can stand his exegesis, the man had a point.
When selling is decoupled from human affairs, it is desensitized, sanitized, de-humanized; and it becomes an awful thing. The crucial human point of commercial contact—the sale—becomes an occasion simply for extraction of monetary value.
There is danger in over-metricizing process. There is danger in over-using terms like “human capital” which dehumanize humans. There is danger in the perversion of terms like “loyalty” and “relationships” into statistical detritus. There is danger in thinking that physicalist “explanations” like today’s neuro-noun buzzword are somehow more “real” than poetry.
There’s nothing wrong with hard sell. What’s wrong is wrong-sell, done without thinking. And selling without relationships is wrong-sell.