Shoot yourself in the foot.

To Sell Is Unethical

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership, 3-LI

Well, I suspect that the title got some emotional responses. I am sure to see many emails from my friends in sales. So I might as well get started.


  1. to deliver or give  up in violation of duty, trust, or loyalty and especially for personal gain
    Betray – often used with out <sell out their country>
  2. (a) to give up (property) to another for something of value (as money)
    to offer for sale
    (b) to give up in return for something else especially 
  3. foolishly or dishonorably <sold his birthright for a mess of pottage>
    (c) to extract a price for <sold their lives dearly>
  4. . . . . Read More
To Sell is to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

You get the point, and the link above gives you the full Merriam-Webster take on Sell/Sold. To be sure, there are some positive definitions of “sell.” One is “to persuade or influence to a course of action or the acceptance of something <sell children on reading>.” I want to “sell” you the idea that in today’s world, to sell people in the context of 2.(a) above is unethical. Why? Because there is an exchange of property and value, not merely sharing an idea. Usually, we mean you get my product/service, and I extract money from you—directly or indirectly—for personal gain.


One of the definitions of “ethical” is “conforming to accepted standards of conduct.” Of course, “un” means to do the opposite, so unethical would mean not conforming to accepted standards of conduct. So what I am implying is that the accepted standards of conduct have changed. A growing segment of our population no longer takes selling as the norm. I think we sales and marketing folks (yes, I have a long history in technology sales and marketing) have ourselves to blame for that. We’ve allowed hyperbole, exaggeration, and outright lies to creep into sales pitches, so people no longer have confidence in what salespeople are telling them. Thus, when we hear that “nobody likes to be sold,” we are saying that they do not like to be lied to, cheated, and made out to be a fool.


I’m not going to inundate you with links–you can do your search to see for yourself. Data show that when people do search for a product, service, or information, they largely ignore any paid results. They go directly to organic results. And some go so far as to skip the first page of results and go to the second or third page since they believe that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) results are “corrupt” from the so-called “content marketing” on the websites. Elsewhere, data show us that ads are less and less effective. The growing use of Ad Blockers for browsers is significant. So the message from customers is pretty straightforward. “Stop selling. I am ignoring your ads.”

When I did my research, I found many blog posts and articles supporting sales and advertising. Generally, the people providing ads, sales training, and content marketing were the ones writing the articles. In other words, they were selling selling or selling ads—from my view, they are doing so in the face of evidence of diminishing returns for their customers. Is that ethical? Are we playing the caveat emptor game? Whose best interest is served—customer or vendor? I think those who sell are shooting themselves in the foot.


I think about my own life and how I buy things. I avoid speaking with a salesperson at all costs. They are being paid to get me to buy their product or service, not to do what’s best for me. How can I trust someone who makes a living getting people like me to place an order? They do not care about me; they care about their own need for commissions and quotas.

I do my research and then, 90% of the time, purchase what I want online without ever speaking to the vendor. I would say 95% of the time, this works out just fine. When I do go to a physical store, I know what I want ahead of time and rarely ask for help. I get what I need from the shelf and take it to the register. There are, of course, exceptions—like running shoes, which I have no choice but to get a salesperson to fetch from the inventory. Even then, once I know what brand and last fits, I will buy the next several pairs online.

In my practice—Executive Coaching—clients come from relationships and referrals, not advertising or selling. I go out of my way to provide information of value with no expectation of a quid pro quo. We let prospective clients buy as opposed to anyone “selling” them. Any outbound contacts made, usually by my executive assistant, are from connections and referrals, not cold calls. Inbound calls come from folks who researched their need/want for a coach and found me.

New Standard

That, I believe, is the new accepted standard of conduct. Yet one more business process disrupted by technology! As manufacturers and service providers, our job is to be found, NOT to sell. We must build relationships that add value, NOT sell. We must remove obstacles to buying, NOT sell. On a rare occasion, when a customer asks us to “educate” them about product or service details, we must do so with their best interests at heart and NOT sell them.