Friday, 14 September 2012

When did 'sales' become a dirty word?

It seems that 'sales' has become a dirty word in the UK financial services sector.

I am reminded of this as I read: Revealed: The bonus list that encourages 'pressure cooker' sales culture at Lloyds | This is Money.

The article says:

He has sent This is Money a document revealing how many points each member of staff 'scores' if they sell certain products as they aim to hit targets - and how this can result in customers not getting the 'best advice.'

At the same time, a bewildered This is Money reader who walked into a Halifax branch wanting to take out a simple two-year fixed savings account was left bamboozled when a financial adviser tried to talk her into taking out an investment product.

Commerce is based on the idea of creating products and services and then trying to sell them to customers. It's been going on for centuries.

The last time I walked into a mobile phone shop to check something on my contract, the floor staff tried to upsell me a new phone. Would I have upgraded at my own initiative? No. Did I need an upgraded phone? No. Did I want an upgraded phone? Yes, a little, once he'd finished the sales patter. Did I buy the upgrade? Yes.

My local car dealership keeps phoning to try and sell me a new car. He's not trying to sell me the most suitable car, or even trying to find out if I actually need a new car. He is simply trying to sell the new car that the manufacturer to which he is tied has just released. Again, I was not thinking about it myself, and certainly don't need a new car, and yet am strangely tempted (although I've not actually bought a new car yet).

My point is, people are trying to sell us stuff we probably don't really need all the time and their bonuses depend on it. And cars are fundamentally as complicated and dangerous as retail financial services products. (Your choice of car could contribute directly to your death, so they're much more dangerous than financial services products!)

Of course, if the salesperson is dishonest or misleading in the representations they make to the customer, we're no longer talking about 'sales' we're now talking about 'fraud'. That undoubtedly is a bad thing. Likewise, there will always be rogue traders and cowboys, just as there are in other sectors. These too should be hounded out of town.

But I think it is time we stopped demonising the very concept of 'sales' in financial services, and recognised that for a sale to take place requires both a willing seller and a willing buyer. I am not advocating no regulation and no control - quite the contrary - but I do believe that there should be greater sharing of the responsibility for outcomes between both the seller and the buyer.