Going back to my first job in sales, I’ve fought the battle of just what is the level of ethics and honesty I needed to be at to remain in the business of selling.

My first true job in sales was for a car dealership that sold Pontiacs, Cadillacs and GMC trucks. As a young salesman I simply fit the part: A fairly well spoken, likable, tall, dark haired man. I even came from a GM family. These were hard working honest family men who made a good living at what they did. But none of them sold cars. So they never had to decide if what they did was an ethical or honest way to make a living. But I learned quickly I had that choice to make.

Kelly Kramer
Look, there’s nothing up my sleeve. Kelly Kramer believes there is no magic in selling flooring in an honest, ethical manner while still being able to beat the high volume sellers down the street.

On my very first day on the showroom floor of the dealership, the general manager and TV spokesman, “Cowboy Bob,” approached me. He said, “What’s your name kid?” Then he asked what I was doing. I explained my ignorance (no training) about his cars and I was looking at the information on the window stickers to get at least some small knowledge.

Bob then said to me, “What color is this car?”       

“Blue,” I responded.

“How old do you think this car is?”

“Well, it’s new.”

He then said something I’ll never forget: “You’re a genius, now get out on that lot and sell me a car.”

I walked out on the lot where a blue collar looking man had his nose pressed against the window of a station wagon. He asked me if this car had air conditioning. I looked at the window sticker and said it does. He then asked if he could take it home “today.” Without hesitation or knowing if that could happen I said sure.

During the walk to my desk I thought to myself, maybe Cowboy Bob was right. Maybe I am a genius. But that epiphany quickly went away because it turned out that my buyer was a GM factory worker with a GM employee discount. This was in the August heat of Michigan, he wanted AC, he had a large family that was going on a camping trip the next day and he had the best price he could ever get. So there was no reason for any selling techniques to be used.

Not that I knew any anyway. And even though I knew by now the title genius was a little strong, I still had sold my first car within 10 minutes at the new job. About two weeks after that, Bob called me into his office. He said, “Kelly, the paperwork you did on your first sale was figured out wrong and you sold the car below where it should be.” He then told me I had to get the factory worker back and get him to pay difference. If I couldn’t, I could keep my job but I would have to pay the difference out of my own pocket.

So I made the call and asked the buyer to come in. To prepare for the meeting Bob told me to do and say whatever I had to—even cry to get the additional money from the gentleman.

The three of us met in Bob’s office. Then, I simply explained I made a mistake on the paperwork as it was my first day at work. The buyer then said one of the most honest, insightful things I’d ever heard. He looked at Cowboy Bob and said, “This is your mistake, but Kelly was new and seems honest, so if you can fit the extra cost into my monthly payment I’m fine with that.”

I sincerely thanked him and asked how the family camping trip went and he left as a friend. Then Bob called me back into his office. He said, “Kid I’ve never seen anything like that before. If you can convince (he meant lie) someone to give back money to help you, you’ve got a big future in sales.”

I replied, “I wasn’t lying.” Bob was like, well whatever, and I left his office. As it turned out my ignorance to hard, unethical selling actually worked. In my first month on the job I was No. 5 in sales volume among the more than 20 salespeople on staff. But seeing what the other trained, unethical, hard closers did to make their sales, made me realize I did not want to be looked at in the same light as they were. I wanted to keep my innocent ethics so I quit selling cars and went down to road to take an opening as a salesman at a flooring store.

Same Old, Same Old

Still being ignorant, I didn’t even realize that this mega chain I was now working for was a real bait-and-switch operation. I just knew it wasn’t as bad as the car place. Fortunately for me it did have a fantastic product knowledge and estimating training program for employees. I used that great training to sell around the unethical tricks.

After about a year of “Selling Clean” (the name of one of my books) I was No. 2 in a store of 13 salesmen. To this day, my ego allows me to be second as long as I can keep my given level of ethics.

Often I get emails for advice on how to compete with the high volume flooring company down the street. These come from store owners and sales advisors who want to remain honest but are being pulled toward the methods of unethical but profitable selling.

In essence, they’re asking me to condone a watered down version of cheating. My answer is to always keep whatever your level of ethics is, but know more about your products than your competition, always do what is in the best interest of the buyer, and explain—but never bad mouth—the competition. Simply let customers know you’re on their side and that you have nothing up your sleeve.

Dishonest selling can make you big money. But I’d rather earn the title of Trusted Sales Advisor, make good money and sleep well at night.

Thanks for reading.