The Social Contract of Sales

In IT we tend to deal with more sales scenarios than most business positions will do.  An accountant, for example, is rarely in a position to buy equipment, software or products for their business, for example.  Positions that do buy things regularly, such as the housekeeping department, tend to buy small ticket items like bleach, window cleaner and garbage bags.  IT, however, tends to buy large cost items, with big margins, with great regularity making it have a need for understanding the world of sales and marketing far better than nearly any other department.

Because of this, understanding concepts like the Social Contract of Sales is far more critical for IT workers than for nearly anyone else outside of the business tiers even though this is just a general social contract that everyone in society is expected to understand intuitively and is just common sense.  But due to the very high danger of misconstruing this social contract in an IT context, and because IT workers are often hired with this specific area of competence ignore but then expected to work specifically around it heavily, we need to discuss it in this context.

The social contract is this: “Sales people represent a product or vendor, are compensated and to some degree obligated to push their product.  They cannot lie, but their intent is to convince.”

This should be ridiculously obvious, and yet there is an incredibly common belief that sales people will act against either their own self interest or the interest of their employer (which would be unethical) in order to act as a friend, adviser or possibly even engineer for customers.  This makes no sense.  Not only are they not paid to do this, they are specifically paid not to do this.   And there is the obvious social contract that tells everyone involved that they are sales people and no one should be surprised when they attempt to convince you to purchase whatever it is that they sell.

We have social or natural contracts like this all over the place and we need them to operate intelligently.  If you are walking in the woods and you meet a bear you have a natural contract with them that says if you try to touch them, they will try to eat you.  No one expects a bear to act differently from this and it is silly and pointless to hope that your interaction with a wild bear will be different from this.  But, you are free to test that contract.

The social contract of sales, or anything, does not make it ethical for a sales person to lie.  That would be an impossible situation.  But it is also considered to be part of the social contract that all sales, promotions and marketing only deal with the concept of “truth” when dealing with quantifiable factors and never qualifiable ones.

For example, a car salesman is always free to claim that their car is the nicest, prettiest, or most comfortable regardless if anyone believes that to be true.  But they are not free to lie about how many seats it has or the gas mileage.

Likewise, IT professionals both in house and paid advisers, have a social contract to represent their employers and to obviously protect them from sales that do not make sense.  Our professional has a responsibility in our handling of sales  people.  We are the gatekeepers.  No one else in the business has the expected ability to know when services or products are sensible or cost effective to meet our needs.  No one else is in a position where any contact with sales would make sense.

If we, as the IT gatekeepers, become confused as to the nature of the social contract and think that sales people are “on our side” looking out for our interests instead of their own or their employers, or we forget that only quantifiable facts are meaningful we can be easily misled – often by ourselves.  It is all too tempting to feel that sales people are there on our behalf, instead of their own.

A common sales tactic, that is incredibly effective against IT buyers, is the offer of free work.  IT decision making can be hard and, of course, sales people will happily take decision making off of our plates.  This is handy for them, as they can then make decisions that involve buying their services or products.  The decision to allow a sales person to do our jobs for us is a foregone conclusion to buy their products.  No one allowing a sales person to do this can make the reasonable claim that they had not made the decision to go with that vendor’s products at that point.

Doing this would, of course, violate our own social contract with our employers.  We are paid to do the IT work, to make the decisions, to make sure that sales people do not take advantage of the organization.  Handing our role over to the “enemy” that we are paid to protect against is exactly what our job role exists to prevent.  If our employers wanted sales people to simply sell the company whatever they wanted, they would eliminate the IT role and just talk to the sales people directly.  IT’s purpose instantly evaporates in that scenario.

Also within the social contract is that anyone that works on behalf of a vendor or a vendor representative (like a reseller) is a salesperson as well or, at the very least, partakes in the shares social contract.  They are employed to promote their products and have an obligation to do so even if their role is primarily technical, account management or whatever.  It is common for vendors to have employee positions with names like “presales engineer” or resellers to brand themselves “MSPs” to make it sound like they might be purely technical (and the implication of being “above” the sales world) or being customer representatives but neither is logically true.  Working for an organization that sells products, everyone who works there is a representative of those products.  Titles do not alter that social contract.

As IT Pros, it is our responsibility to understand and recognize the social contract of sales and to identify people who work for organizations that cause them to fall under the contract.  An ethical sales person cannot directly lie to us, but they will almost always happily allow us to lie to ourselves and that is one of the most powerful tools that they have.  We want them to be our friends, we want to be able to take it easy and let them do our job for us… and they will let us believe that all that we want.  But what we have to remember that as part of the assumptions of that social contract is that we know that this is how they are tasked with behaving and that it is our responsibility and no one else’s to ensure that we treat them like vendor agents and never confuse them with being our advisers.

One thought on “The Social Contract of Sales”

  1. Sir i enjoyed this article a lot. I thought your bear analogy was hilarious btw. I do believe the point that I came away with as being the most important is in your last paragraph where you said sales people will let us lie to ourselves all we want to. I think that is just too true. Sure it is obvious when your some distance away from the situation but we often all need to be reminded of that in our meetings and buying process. Good post.

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