I am one of the salespeople in a large, privately owned furniture store. We work on commission, usually five percent of the pretax total of every sale we make; we also receive a guaranteed, semimonthly, minimum salary. It would be too little to live on, but it provides a basis for vacation pay and sick leave as well as a floor when business is slow. As in many other businesses where salespeople work on commission, management sometimes offers us extra commission, most often another five percent but sometimes more or less. Extra commission sometimes is on accessories, such as lamps, sold with a suite of furniture. I have no problem with that. But very often it is on certain lines or particular items, and not on alternatives that would bring only the basic commission. Manufacturers or distributors often arrange for this by giving retailers a discount, part of which is passed on in this way to the salespeople. Sometimes the store itself offers extra commission to promote more profitable merchandise or reduce excess inventory.
To obtain extra commissions, some of the other salespeople push products by lying—for example, saying the line or item is made better than others we sell, when it really is no better and perhaps even not as good. I will not do that. But even without lying, you can push a line or product—for example, by drawing a cus~tomer’s attention to it at the right moment, calling former customers who might be interested in it, and so on.
Short of lying, just how far may a salesperson go in pushing a line or item in order to obtain extra commission?
This question calls for the derivation of norms for the work of salespersons. Merchants and customers should genuinely cooperate in mutually beneficial transactions fair to both parties. Since a salesperson acts as both the merchant’s agent and the buyer’s assistant, he or she should try to establish the necessary conditions for that cooperation. So, salespeople should be not only truthful but candid. They should entirely avoid deception and supply the information potential customers require if they are to choose, from what the merchant can supply, those items that will best meet their needs. But since a salesperson remains the mer~chant’s agent, he or she generally need not tell potential customers they could do better by buying from a different merchant. In pushing items, salespersons also must avoid unfairness.
Modern institutions often were shaped by a false philosophy of the human person, according to which individuality is natural and fundamental while community is artificial and secondary. This false philosophy also exaggerated the average person’s ability to identify and rationally pursue his or her self-interest. Moreover, many of those involved in organizing modern and contemporary markets for goods and services have been powerful people bent on increasing their status and wealth. Therefore, in some respects these markets embody unrealistic and unjust social structures. Among these is the assumption expressed by the slogan “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”) as it usually is understood: that a merchant has no duty to ensure the fairness of the sales contract to which he or she is a party but is obliged only to carry out its terms.
Contrary to this assumption, merchants and their customers should engage in genuine cooperation rather than in one-sided or even mutual exploitation. Cooperation occurs only when parties whose actions are interrelated share a common understanding of what they are doing and freely choose to act for the sake of a common good. The common good of a merchant and a customer is a relationship including transactions that are not only beneficial to both parties but mutually fair, that is, in accord with the Golden Rule.
A salesperson acts not only as the merchant’s agent but as the customer’s assistant, as is suggested by the question often used in greeting potential customers: “May I help you?” Serving in this twofold capacity, the salesperson bears a special responsibility for bringing about a truly cooperative transaction. Therefore, the salesperson should strive to establish the necessary conditions for cooperation. He or she does this by communicating honestly and sufficiently to bring about a common understanding of what is involved in the transaction, helping potential customers learn about and choose what will benefit them, and completing a transaction only if he or she believes it to be fair to both parties. These responsibilities are especially exigent when a salesperson deals with a child or an unusually defenseless adult.
Plainly, lying by salespeople is excluded not only as wrong in itself but as a betrayal of their proper role. Lying turns selling into manipulation by preventing mutual understanding and facilitating unfairness toward the customer. By refusing to be dishonest as some of your co-workers are, you maintain your integrity not only as a person but as a salesperson. Still, your question rightly suggests that in pushing one line or item rather than another for the sake of extra commission, salespeople not only must avoid lying but should observe other limits implicit in the responsibilities proper to their role. It seems to me these other limits are threefold.
First, some forms of deliberate deception, as distinct from lying, may be practiced in certain kinds of situations, such as games and warfare (see LCL, 409). In the present context, however, deliberate deception is as manipulative and unfair as outright lying, and so should be altogether excluded.
Second, in helping customers understand what will benefit them and encouraging them to choose only that, salespeople should try to ascertain each potential customer’s needs, then give all relevant information about merchandise their employer can provide to meet those needs. Therefore, in pushing one thing, a salesperson may not withhold information that might lead a potential customer to judge an alternative line or item preferable. In particular, if a salesperson believes a certain line or item is a better value and/or will meet a need better than any alternative, he or she should say so and give the reasons, even if that encourages the customer to choose something on which no extra commission is available.
Suppose a competitor offers better value or can provide merchandise that would better meet a potential customer’s need. Must a salesperson who knows that say so? In general, no. The salesperson remains the merchant’s agent, and fairness does not require, nor does the public expect, that a business’s agents impartially serve its competitors. Still, fairness can require a salesperson to turn away potential customers whose needs he or she cannot satisfactorily meet; and the poor deserve special consideration in judging what will be satisfactory.
Third, a salesperson should apply the Golden Rule to any tactic that might be used in pushing something, by asking whether it would seem objectionable for others to use a similar tactic on himself, herself, or a loved one; he or she should do nothing that fails this test. In pushing anything, therefore, a salesperson should not encourage potential customers to act contrary to their own best interests—for example, by burdening themselves with excessive debt.
These limits are not necessarily violated by the two tactics you mention: drawing a customer’s attention at the right psychological moment to something on which extra commission is available and notifying former customers who might be interested in it. However, I do not think even these tactics will be morally acceptable in every instance. Nor do I believe it possible to specify any other tactic that cannot be abused.
Someone might object that the norms proposed here are too idealistic, failing to take realistic account of a salesperson’s need to make a living and of most potential customers’ own moral defects. Three things can be said about that.
First, in this matter, as in others, the norms of Christian morality do seem very strict by conventional standards. But conventional standards, being an aspect of the fallen human condition, are distorted by avarice and are inadequate for people enlightened by Jesus’ gospel and raised up by his grace. Aware that humankind is called to be God’s family, Christian salespeople, following the law of love, should treat each potential customer as a brother or sister in Christ.
Second, many potential customers have their own moral defects, including some detrimental to merchants and salespeople. For example, some waste a salesperson’s time with no intention of doing business; some take delivery on merchandise, use it to meet a temporary need, then return it; some fail to pay what they owe. However, such injustices toward merchants and salespeople are not likely to be provoked or worsened by salespeople’s fidelity to their role. Indeed, a salesperson who does his or her best to establish and maintain a genuinely cooperative relationship with potential customers provides good example and motivation for them to respond in kind.
Third, competent and hardworking salespeople generally can earn a living without making moral compromises, since potential customers who are well-treated are likely to respond with trust and gratitude, become regular customers, and recommend such salespersons to others.