People’s morals are like snowflakes. Some may be similar, but no two are identical. All of us have our own unique standard of right and wrong. Ethical standards, in themselves, are by no means universal. And as the world gets bigger and more confusing, standards blur.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines ethics as a set of principles of right conduct; a theory or system of moral values. When confronted with an ethical crossroads, people may agree on an approach in personal circumstances — don’t lie, don’t cheat, and don’t steal. However, when that same situation is placed within a business context some people tend to leave their values by the wayside.
Perhaps we have become too jaded from stories of unscrupulous corporate execs, insider trading, or politicians. Though, despite recent horror stories of corporate excess and unbridled greed, ethics and the “Golden Rule” are musts in business today.
Putting customer interests first (and not just paying lip service to the statement) is a key to responsible business management and growth. As the economy tightens, customers will wield their newfound power by choosing to only patronize proprietors and establishments that treat them with honesty.
Honesty is the foundation of a trusting relationship and the basis for your customers to have confidence in you and your products or services. When you tell the truth, your customers feel respected by you. It makes customers “feel special.” In other words, you trusted the customer to tell him or her the unvarnished truth. It wasn’t about making a sale at all costs.
It was about meeting the customer’s needs whether that in turn was a lower-price-point sale or no sale at all. Customers return to businesses and individuals that make them feel appreciated. It’s almost irresistible. They will turn to you for advice, information, and merchandise because you established a feeling of trust and goodwill. They are confident that you won’t, well — lie, cheat, or steal.
Job No. 1 for your business is to put your customers’ best interests first and consider their needs above your own pocketbook. Educate them about your product or service and lead them into making sound decisions for themselves and their families.
Let’s imagine that you have done a pretty good job of building strong and trusting relationships with your clients but in this tight economy, you’ve recently “fudged” a little.
If so, you’re not alone. With sales drying up and resources stretched to the breaking point, many companies are getting “creative” with ethics. Salespeople are being encouraged, if not to lie, to toy with the facts to get the sale.
Customer service representatives are overpromising and underdelivering on support. And, the empty promise of “the check’s in the mail” is being heard from vendors and clients alike.
Short-term gain (or even survival) in this very tight economy has caused business owners to adjust their ethics. The temptation to play fast and loose with the truth in exchange for a buck is all too real. Tough times become the rationale for compromising integrity. But remember, one day the tough times will pass away, but the memory of your unethical practices will remain.
Customers rarely forget it when you break their trust. It’s a betrayal and betrayals are remembered for a long time, forever in many cases. If a customer feels that you’ve violated their trust through unethical actions, you very likely will lose that customer and every other person to whom he or she tells the experience.
Don’t underestimate the damage that can be done. Disgruntled customers like to talk, and they usually talk to everyone — friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Regardless of how tenuous the connection between the two parties, individuals are likely to believe negative information about your business even if they barely know the messenger.
Losing customers is the first step in losing your business. Stop the bleeding now by rededicating yourself to the highest ethical business practices. Then follow these simple rules for behavior.
- Only promise what you can deliver.
- Always deliver on what you promise.
- If you have misled a customer, admit it (even if the customer didn’t “discover” the transgression).
- Ask the customer to forgive you.
- If the customer tells you how to make amends and it’s in your power to do so, promise that you’ll do it. Then, keep that promise as though your business depends on it. (It probably does!)
If you’ve resisted the temptation to backslide in the tough times, as so many businesses have, you have an opportunity to reap the rewards of your impeccable reputation. Ask for testimonial letters from satisfied customers and use those to distinguish yourself from your competitors.
Maintain professional ethics that are above reproach. Let your solid ethical compass guide you both personally and professionally to greater heights of success.
Exercise Your Ethical Muscles
The following scenarios are designed to help you determine your own business ethics. There are no right or wrong answers. We have offered our opinions to each situation as food for thought.
Scenario 1: A supplier in another city desperately wants your business. He has invited you on an expense-paid trip to see his operation. You have no immediate plans to change vendors. Your current supplier offers the best price, service, and quality.
However, your parents live in the other vendor’s city. You haven’t seen them in a year and your money is tight from starting your own business. The trip would be a great opportunity for fun and a family reunion. What do you do?
Our thoughts: This individual has provided a legitimate opportunity to see his business operation. He has not offered you a vacation. If you know you won’t be changing vendors soon, decline the invitation. If you consider switching suppliers in the future, notify the person then.
Scenario 2: Your best client is financing a business trip for you to meet at their headquarters. You have been asked to make your own arrangements and have received comparable quotes from all the major airlines. You are a frequent flyer on one carrier.
The points you’ll get on this trip will put you over the top for a Hawaiian vacation. Which airline do you use?
Our thoughts: If the client has asked you to make arrangements and the prices are equitable, you shouldn’t feel guilty about using the airline of your choice.
Scenario 3: You overhear a friend, who is in a similar line of work, discussing a price quote received from a vendor you both use. The price is considerably higher than the price you pay. What do you do?
Our thoughts: This is a touchy subject. Your friend’s order may seem comparable to yours. However, you don’t know the whole story. Their order may be a smaller quantity, different quality, or a rush job.
If you want to get involved (and that’s a big “if”), tell the friend that you are a great negotiator and offer tips for getting the best price possible.
Scenario 4: You own a party planning business. A client hires you to arrange an exclusive dinner party. Afterward the catering company sends you a very expensive gift to thank you for using them for the occasion. Do you keep it?
Our thoughts: Your first instinct may be to keep the gift and figure it “comes with the territory.” But, let’s look at it from another perspective. If your client were to discover you received a high-priced present, would she think you hired the best caterer at the best price or someone who would provide you with personal gain? Is it worth the risk to lose the client’s repeat business over a present? Decline the gift and ask for a testimonial letter detailing your hard work and skills instead.
Scenario 5: You are a real estate investor who specializes in wholesaling. You’ve found a sweet deal with plenty of profit potential for you and the retailer. You e-mail the details to your buyer’s list with this note. “The first person to give me a $10,000 assignment fee gets the deal.
” Within 20 minutes, your inbox is filled with offers. The last one is from an acquaintance who desperately wants a house in that neighborhood for his twenty-something daughter. He offers an additional $5,000 to get the deal. Since all the offers came within minutes of each other, does it really matter if you accept the one that will give you a $15,000 payday?
Our thoughts: Your word is your bond. Your note said the “first person” and by rights that should be the individual whose e-mail arrived first.
Remember, these questions are designed to make you think about what your own conscience dictates. When presented with an ethical challenge, think the situation through. If you are ever in doubt as to which action to take, consider this simple test. Think about how you would feel if your decision and ultimate action were published on the front page of the local newspaper. This will help guide you in making the right decision.