Salespeople have gotten a notorious reputation for being dishonest. Some sellers do bend the truth, and worse, to put their product in the best possible light. 

In sales, as in all aspects of life, many people fall victim to someone else’s inappropriate behavior. I recall the case of a worker in a bakery who was about to dispose of stale bread. The bakery owner stopped the worker, demanding, “No, sell it as fresh bread!” Should the worker have followed his boss’ dishonest instructions or disobeyed them, throwing away the stale bread?

What if the worker could not afford to lose his job by refusing his boss? And, once the worker dishonestly sold the stale bread as fresh for the first time, would subsequent times become easier? A person becomes desensitized when performing dishonest behavior repetitively. Unethical behavior becomes easier to do.

A Better Way: Creativity

If you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, it is not always an either/or choice. There are alternatives if you think creatively. For example, the worker could have suggested to his boss that the bakery repackage and sell the stale bread as crispy breadcrumbs.

This alternative would provide the boss with a profitable, creative idea without misleading buyers. Why not? It works for bagels in Brooklyn: I remember the day-old bagels transformed into gourmet chips sold in neighborhood shops.

One of the most ancient frauds was a seller diluting wine with water and selling it as pure wine. Some people said diluting wine with water was not a crime if it was the local custom to water down wine, which is to say if it was known and sold at an acceptable price. Others said it was not permitted since it was an easily tempting deception.

To make matters worse, often in ancient times, the wine was thick and required dilution before consumption. The marketplace was in turmoil, and all the wine labeling was in doubt.

An astute salesman, looking for an alternative solution, thought about mixing a weaker wine with a stronger wine and selling this ‘blended’ wine at a slightly lower price. After many attempts, he introduced the first wine blend, and it was an overwhelming market success!

Sage Advice Applies Today 

Some sages feel that the act of luring a buyer is not misrepresenting the product since the buyer knows what is being offered for sale before deciding to purchase it. But the majority of the sages disagree since the seller is advertising a fictitious deal that lures the customer into the store.

The seller is stealing a person’s mind and attracting the buyer under false pretenses. Even if the actual sale does not happen, the seller is still fooling the buyer, so the seller’s behavior is unethical. 

There are many ancient examples of stealing the mind of a buyer. For one, there’s the practice of sprinkling a wine shop with a superior-quality, fragrant wine in an attempt to fool customers into believing that all the wine sold in the store is of the same high quality.

People rely on their sense of smell when purchasing products such as wine and oil. The sprinkling of fine oil or expensive perfume and then selling a cheaper product can be misleading to buyers.

In today’s times, did you ever buy a product online and discover that the advertised product appeared larger and better made than the product that you received? The deception of the eye is even more predominant than the deception of smell.

A seller should compete fairly, and the market rules should apply equally to all sellers. Some sages state that a storekeeper should not distribute treats to children because it lures the parents into a buying situation. But the majority of the sages agree that there is nothing wrong with such inducements. The storekeeper can say, “I may give out parched corn (popcorn), while another storekeeper may give out nuts.”

Bait-and-switch is unethical. However, the transparent attraction of customers can be fair. In ancient times, sellers captured the attention of customers by enticing their children, and, today, restaurants give away toys and have special rides for children.

Here are two important points to keep in mind:

First, there is no need to slander the competitor. You can benefit your products’ features, and by doing so, you will imply what the competitor lacks. You should always take the higher road.

Second, you should never manipulate a buyer by their fears. It is unethical. An effective salesperson can be persuasive and even forceful but never manipulative.

A wise man once said, “When you sell, do not oppress your brother.” That means more than overcharging a buyer. The emphasis is not on money but the human side of oppression. When you take advantage of a buyer’s trust, you cause distress. But, as you might well ask, “What if I have knowledge that could help win the sale? Shouldn’t I say so?” Yes, but you need to be careful and absolutely honest.

A buyer knows a competitive seller cannot be completely objective; even if his or her statements are accurate, they will be one-sided and subjective. A seller cannot be an expert advisor since he or she will always be subjective.

Salespeople may offer recommendations but should avoid giving advice and also not apply high-pressure sales tactics. In fact, when you sell ethically, your sales territory will grow through customer referrals.

I continually teach ethical lessons to my salespeople, such as the importance of selling without manipulating buyers, especially by using fear and treating competitors fairly. I even teach the benefits of recommending competition for the right reasons. I explain how genuine and honest intent is essential. First, you make the right decision; then, you reap the rewards of earning a customer’s trust and respect.

People in the business of sales can be innovative without being dishonest. Ultimately, customers will appreciate alternative approaches as long as they’re delivered with transparency. 

Joel Malkoff’s new book is Selling Ethically: A Business Parable Connecting Integrity with Profits.