While on vacation I read a very interesting article in the April 2006 Harvard Business Review titled How Low Will You Go?
The case study centered on a business owner who was expanding. He brought in a new VP of sales, a pro, who had a different way of doing things. That way involved what I would call old style selling – using the strip joint as the tool. Bring the male clients to the strip joint, build a relationship, close the big deal (In the study, the owner is torn as there is some initial success – he closes a huge customer that the owner had been trying to close for years and years).
This is a tactic that I have seen many times before. When I worked for a large storage vendor (Who recruited me from Dell), it was the status quo. It was expected that you do ‘everything’ to win those high margin deals – regardless of moral view. One story that I remember in particular was a deal won at a large bank, where they celebrated with a $10,000 one night bill at a strip club (There were many such bills prior to the deal).
All of this was done under the guise of getting it done at all cost, and at this company, salesmen (there were no women) were paid very well. Many made high 6 to 7 figures. I left after 5 months, without compromising my morals but very disgusted.
John Brown, one of the commentators on the study makes an interesting point (He does not support the process): “All business relationships require a foundation of trust. One of the most important things a client tries to ferret out in a sales process is whether the seller shares his or her core value system’.
This is an interesting statement, because it could go both ways. Taking core values out, it comes down to trust. What if the customer likes these types of places – even though he knows that it would be frowned upon corporately as part of the procurement process? In that case, a form of trust with the seller is created as they share a ‘secret’.
I have seen many people do this and have had many clients hint that it is something that they would like me to do for them. In each situation, I respond in a different way:
- To the customer who wants to do this: I do not make a morale judgment, that is not my place (Take the log out of my own eye, before moving the splinter out of my brothers). But, I do divert the conversation to activities that I am comfortable with and support – golf, go-karting (A GREAT corporate experience), dinner and on.
- To the sales person who participates in this process: I have three points of view:
Morally, I fundamentally disagree. The strip joint, in my opinion, degrades women (It is a conversation I have had with my wife many times – on this topic of sales and strip joints). In a society that is slowly evolving out of the male dominated mindset, to be truly equal we must eliminate things like this as they degrade our fellow human being in the same way that prostitution does.
On the business ethics side, I suggest that it is a slippery slope, and one that I would not trod on. What happens if they audit expenses (Even with that fake name on the receipt)? How do you explain the cash component of the expense receipt? What if someone else hears about it and a rumor starts internally or at the customer’s site? How do you do it while excluding the inevitable female at the client who will know that it is going on? How will it damage your reputation – internally (If people know you are that slime ball who takes customers to the strippers, surely female colleagues and many male colleagues will look down on you) and with the customer (Those people who do not come, they may know and look at you like that 1950 sleazy sales guy)?
Last point: In the article, Katherine Frank (Author of G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire and commentator on the case study), states ‘When I was a dancer, I appreciated business customers for financial reasons – patrons can be very generous when someone else is paying the tab’. I used to work with a guy who managed a strip club and he put it in stronger terms. He made it very clear that the women working at these places hated the men there, looked at them as slime, as a financial mark and many had a deep distrust of men (And many problems .. drugs, broken homes, etc.). So, to the patron, think about that point of view when they are looking at you.
I would encourage people to read the article – both sales managers who ‘turn a blind eye’ to that sort of thing (As the owner is doing in the case study) and sales people (Who need to know the risks and think hard on the implications). Thought provoking.
Personally, I have many sales awards on the bookcase. Many, many, many. I have never taken a customer to a strip joint because I am good at building relationships, trust and a compelling business reason for people to do business with me and my company. I don’t need this crutch and when I see people using this tactic, I wonder which of the skills above do they lack? If they were better salesmen (Again, a primarily male thing), they wouldn’t need this. For me, if a rep is doing this, it is a red flag.
As a final point, the advice that is provided suggests that the owner of the business needs to eliminate the ambiguity and clearly articulate the corporate values. By doing so, it becomes clear in that culture whether or not this sales tool is acceptable.