The first answer to this question is: more than themselves. When you consider all the definitions of professionalism, they all require dedication to more than simple self-interest. In other words, professionalism is not simply a means to have a lucrative career, or to charge more, or to take advantage of people’s trust.
In most professions, there are two main areas that you should care about: your customers and the integrity of your profession. I believe some professions put their own integrity above that of their clients or customers sometimes such as when doctors cover up for other doctors, or lawyers who are more concerned with following proper legal procedure than for the well-being of the client, but in the sales profession, we have to put the customer above everything else, for after all, the acquisition, care and maintenance of customers is the principal focus of selling.
Also, as we will see in an upcoming post, customers have the ultimate vote in whether our professional conduct meets their needs and standards.
Sales professionals must put the needs and interests of their customers first. Even though they owe their loyalty to their employer, they should never forget this fact. There are times when their duty to the customer will conflict in the short term with their obligations to their employer, such as when they may be under pressure to move product even though they know the customer would be better off using a competitive solution. They must be able to find an appropriate balance, although I firmly believe that doing the right—professional—thing will end up benefiting the customer, himself, and his employer.
It’s obvious how putting the customer’s interests first helps them, but let’s look at how it helps the employer in the long term. First, suppose a sales professional tells a customer that in this particular case, they should pursue a competing alternative. A sale is lost, but what is gained? That salesperson will have a much stronger relationship with that customer based on trust and credibility. In the long run, it’s going to boost sales, but it also speeds up future sales cycles, because a lot of the early stage analysis, comparison and verification of sales claims is avoided. Looking at the even bigger picture, a company’s reputation and brand image are extremely important to it, especially in our socially connected age, where a loss of trust can have catastrophic consequences (Just ask Arthur Andersen). Finally, the rarity of the salesperson’s conduct will probably lead to much more referral business.
For these reasons, putting the customer’s interest first also helps the sales professional. But if the old saying is true that virtue is its own reward (and I believe it is), the self respect that comes from this is an intangible and no less important benefit.
Second, the sales professional has an obligation to excellence and professional standards, even though there is no accredited body which enforces them. Indeed, especially because there is no governing body, it is incumbent on those of us who care about the image of our profession that we act in such a way as to avoid giving cause for the continued complaints and jokes. Perhaps if enough salespeople act as if there is an agreed set of professional standards, their actions will become self-fulfilling.
Professionals care about excellence, which is an uncommon standard of consistent quality in their actions and relationships in which they give their best to their customers and their career. Personal integrity falls under the heading of excellence as well. In a prior post I wrote about Aristotle’s dictum that excellence is a habit rather than an act. The pursuit of excellence, then, leads to consistent actions in several areas, which is the topic of our next post, What Do Sales Professionals Do?
Finally, of course, a sales professional must care about his or her employer. Taking care of their customers and maintaining their integrity and professional excellence is not a recipe for ignoring the interests of those who are writing their checks. When you truly believe in the value you sell and the superiority of your solutions, there should not be any conflict. When you don’t, well… then remember your first two obligations and find another employer.