Sales Ethics: When Is Enough, Enough? Part II

September 29, 2010

I was being trained in the Wild West of car sales. Although I would later become Internet Manager for a major car dealer, early in my career I found myself working with a retired school teacher who was desperately trying to trade her expensive, high-end SUV with hardly any miles for a modestly priced new one.

It was a bad deal for her. She wasn’t interested in negotiating the price of our new vehicle, and even though she was furious with the low trade value management gave her, she just wanted to get the deal over and done with.

There was so much profit riding on this sale that I had three managers watching my every move. I had only recently been allowed to negotiate my own car deals, and all three were worried I would blow this one.  However, my problem wasn’t completing the sale. I successfully closed the deal and my customer was thrilled to drive away in her new SUV a short time later. My problem had to do with how identified I was with my customer and the ethical questions that brought up for me.

My Personal Ethicist

I called on my good friend Roger. He had spent 20 years as a Jesuit, then another 20 as a high-level business consultant to major corporations coaching executives to implement emotional and spiritual intelligence in their world of decision making.

As I outlined my ethical dilemma, he asked if the price on the new car was so high that it was beyond what was considered acceptable in the auto industry. I said, “No, there are actually dealerships in the area that charge more than we do.”

Roger’s next question had to do with the trade value. “Was your low offer a normal part of negotiating, or was it out of line with industry standards?” he asked. “This deal was no different than any other I’ve worked,” I responded. “It’s just that it was a perfect storm for my customer, where the individual parts of the deal came together to maximize profit for the dealership."

This sale had been the biggest net profit deal the dealership had seen for months. I also earned the largest commission check in my brief career in auto sales. I continued my explanation to Roger,"I felt sorry for her because she didn’t seem to have any capacity to negotiate or to grasp what was happening to her. And I haven't been able to resolve my inner conflict.”

Roger paused and then asked a critical question. “Are you responsible for her lack of judgment coming into a car dealership alone and unprepared?” I thought long and hard on this one. It’s true that I felt bad for her, but at the same time she wasn’t at all concerned with the price of the new SUV. Was this her lack of experience buying cars, or a reflection of her comfortable financial status? I knew she had done at least some research because when she reacted to the price of the trade she mentioned that she had been to Kelly Blue Book online to see what her’s was worth.

Who is Responsible?

In that moment I realized that my customer actually knew she was losing more than she should on the trade, and yet she still agreed to the deal. It now seemed that she had made decision to effectively leave money on the table, money that she knew she might save at another dealership. However, she wasn’t willing to invest the effort in trying to negotiate a better deal elsewhere.

Was I being cold-hearted, or pragmatic? Is there a difference beyond the label? Was this a situation where I was more concerned about her getting a good deal than she was? Is it ethically permissible to exploit another’s weakness? In this case, that would have been her lack of information and her impatience. Was it my job, for example, to fill her in on the range in retail prices of new SUVs of this model? Clearly my bosses didn’t think so. What did I think? Could I dodge my conscience by telling myself that I worked for management and not the customer?

The other factor is that I knew she had some wealth. But it didn’t soothe my conscience to think, “Oh well, she can afford it.” I knew that many thieves say a wealthy, ignorant or careless person “has it coming to them.” Whose side did I want to be on? What was the ethical true north on my conscience compass?

If I were going to stay in this business, I had better get clear on all these questions. Roger and I continued our discussion. More on that tomorrow.

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