The Ethics of Persuasion in Your Small Business

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Persuasion is crucially important to small business.   Without persuasion, you would have no advertising, no salespersons, no promotions—in short, you would have no marketing.  Without marketing, you would have no business.  However, the word “persuasion” itself often has a negative meaning for many people—including some struggling entrepreneurs.  The word brings up images of manipulation or coercion in many people. Some might even find it a “red flag” word loaded with negative emotions. The use of unethical practices, whether they are intentional or not, can add to the negativity. As a small businessperson, you can maintain high ethical standards in your persuasive techniques and be even more persuasive than someone using less ethical approaches.
When you think of it, plenty of evidence is available in the business world to support a suspicious attitude toward persuasive tactics. Pyramid schemes, securities fraud, and advance fee scams are just a few examples of persuasion used in unethical and destructive ways. These illegal activities wind up costing thousands of people millions of dollars a year. According to private investigator Bill Branscum, Internet scams and frauds are flourishing along with the technology to deliver them.  You likely have had a friend or relative who has been thus “ripped off” if it hasn’t happened to you personally.
The old saying that “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. Les Henderson, author of Crimes of Persuasion details the almost endless ways that people are unethically persuaded to turn over their money to strangers. He says, for example, that fraud promoters “are masters of group psychology… It is difficult to resist this kind of appeal unless you recognize that the scheme is rigged against you…[because]illegal money-making ventures are modified and adapted to suit the victims.”
Here are just a few steps you can take to maintain consistently ethical standards in your business:
• Make promises only if you intend to keep them—and keep them, even if it’s tough to do so.  Much of what happens unethically in business is directly related to broken promises.  This area can be weak even in a business owner who has the best of intentions.
• Make claims about your products or services only if you can support with evidence. The things that you claim might well be correct, but have you—or has someone else—proven that logically and scientifically?
• Be truthful in describing the benefits of agreeing to your requests.  Much of what is perceived as unethical by customers is actually just exaggeration or overstatement, often delivered with reasonably pure intentions.
• Promise to maintain your customers’ privacy, and keep that promise.  We all know how controversial and sensitive privacy issues have become. 
The availability of new technology makes mass messaging easier than ever. Privacy issues may involve laws, not just ethics. Check with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state regulatory agencies before sending unsolicited messages out via fax machines. In 2004, Fax.com, Inc. was fined $5.4 million by the federal government for violating “do-not-fax” rules in sending out hundreds of unsolicited sales messages for its clients. “Do not phone” rules can be equally important.
These can also be standards that you require of others businesses you do business with. Good places to begin to find out whether your “too good to be true” opportunity really is too good include the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org/, the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/, and the National Fraud Information Center at www.fraud.org/, and the State Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Division at www.naag.org/.
Finally, in the process of protecting your own reputation and being wary of others, remember that today’s business world is beginning to place a renewed emphasis on sound ethics.  For example, it is nearly impossible to complete a college degree in business today without studying ethics in various contexts.  Making positive assumptions about most other businesses you deal with—unless you discover facts to the contrary—can temper the whole process.
As you maintain high ethical standards throughout the operations of your company, you will continue to be seen as credible and trustworthy. Overall, your long-term results will be better with a more ethical stance.  What goes around truly does come around, whether good or bad.
Lowell Lamberton is professor of management at Central Oregon Community College and can be reached at 541/383-7714 or llamberton@cocc.edu.  Leslie Minor is professor of sociology at COCC and holds a Ph.D. in social ecology. She and Professor Lamberton have co-authored three college textbooks in human relations and communication.  She can be contacted at lminor@cocc.edu.

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