Sales from a Biblical Perspective
Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: Christian Life
We will attempt to apply to salesmanship a Biblical covenantal analysis, that is, find its place in the larger picture of the Covenant of God, find the ethical principles for doing sales, and then also, find the judicial limitations to the profession of a salesman.
Book of the Week:
– The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor
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Welcome to Episode 22 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about sales, and the job of a salesman. We are not going to be talking about it from your typical, so-called “business” perspective; there will be no technical advice here as to how to make more sales. We want to be covenantal and comprehensive in our approach. We will attempt to apply to it a Biblical covenantal analysis, that is, find the place of salesmanship in the larger picture of the Covenant of God, find the ethical principles for doing sales, and then also, find the judicial limitations to the profession of a salesman. It is going to be a serious challenge, for this topic is enormous, and 20 minutes are barely enough to start even scratching the surface. But stay with me, we will give it a shot, and if there’s a need for more, we will cover it in a future podcast.
I must say at the very beginning, shame on me. For very many years of my productive life I have been in sales. I used to be a sales rep and then district field manager for Procter & Gamble, then the same for Reckitt Benckiser. Then I was sales consultant for a technology company. Then show room manager for a plumbing supply company. Then a financial advisor, which is for the most part a sales job. For 16 years, I was in sales in one form or another. I can’t say I was the best salesman of all, let’s say I was above average. But shame on me because all these years I have been a theonomic Christian, and I never thought of applying my faith to the specific job of a salesman. I just followed the guidelines of the specific companies I was working for but I never did anything to vet those guidelines against the standard of the Law of God and try to bring redemption where it was needed. It was only recently that I started thinking about applying the principles of the Covenant of God to sales, mainly watching two good friends in their work. One is my real estate agent in Houston, Jay Anderson; and yes, I know, real estate is not exactly sales, but it still involves the same principles. In case you need a realtor in Houston, Jay is your man. The other friend is Manny Garza, a salesman for Honda in McAllen TX, whom I have only observed from a distance, through his FB posts. Both these men – solid Christian men, committed and productive – made me start thinking of how to apply the Gospel to sales. So, Jay, Manny, if you guys are listening to this, you are the inspiration for this episode, and I devote it to you.
The first question I had to deal with when I started this study was this: Is the salesman even necessary in an economy? We use to joke with each other back when I was a salesman that we probably won’t see each other in heaven, for heaven doesn’t need salesmen. Because what really is the job of a salesman – at least what the public perceives of it? It is to convince the prospective buyer that he has a need that the buyer doesn’t really have. Obviously, if the need was real, the buyer would have been aware of it and would have bought the thing without the salesman. In a smooth economy, it is perceived by many people – and many economists, too – it is the real needs, the real demand that will drive the economy. Producers will simply respond to the demand, and thus everyone will be happy, and there will be no waste of resources for producing more than what is needed. And if nothing is produced more than it is needed, then there is no need for salesmen to try to sell the surplus. Marx believed that this surplus of capitalist production will bring about the demise of capitalism: when capitalists produce more than is needed and can’t sell it, the capitalist world will enter an economic crisis, he thought. Communism was then supposed to be “rational,” that is, only producing what is needed, so that the economy was rationalized based on needs. In fact, one of the many slogans that I grew up with as a child in a Communist country was exactly that: “We don’t sell goods, we satisfy needs.” I still remember that slogan painted on the side of a vast apartment complex in Varna, Bulgaria. So if we don’t sell goods, we need no salesmen. We only need to know what the customers need, and produce it. And there we have a smoothly running economy.
The only problem with this is that “real needs” have no real material measurement. Just like the perceptions created by the salesman, the “real needs” of the buyer are also perceptions, conditioned many different factors in the society around him. Even if there were no salesmen around, the very society would be the salesman, creating in every individual the perception of what his “real needs” are. What do the “real needs” of a person include? Different kinds of food? A walk-in-closet full of clothes and shoes? A two-story family house? Air-conditioning? Just a hundred years ago these were not needs, these were luxuries. How did they change from luxuries to needs? Did people one hundred years ago “demand” all these luxuries and thus prompted the economy to supply it? How many consumers 100 years ago even knew that air-conditioning, or computers, or cell phones, were even possible, let alone perceive them as “needs”? If the economy was really driven by needs, as socialist economists say, then mankind would have never progressed beyond the level of bare subsistence.
And the Bible clearly shows that economy is not driven by needs. God commanded Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth even as they felt no need and had no need of anything. They had their basic and perceived needs completely covered; there was enough food in the Garden, and there was no need for shelter or clothing. And yet, they were supposed to expand the economic order of the Garden to the whole earth. Their needs didn’t drive that expansion. There was something greater than simply perceived needs. The Dominion Covenant was not driven by man’s need; it was driven by God’s command to higher productivity, irrespective of the perceived needs of man.
The truth is, the economy is driven not by needs and demand, it is driven by productivity and supply. The active part in the economy are its producers and entrepreneurs; they not only produce to satisfy the current perceived needs of the consumers, they also innovate and produce more than that: to open the eyes of the consumers for more opportunities for them to make their lives and work more productive, more efficient, easier, more pleasurable, healthier, etc. Mankind has never “needed” these things to survive. But without these things, mankind has been less than a conqueror over the earth, and has lived life in subjection to the environment rather than a master over God’s creation. But once these new things are on the market, and the consumers are informed about the new possibilities to make their lives more productive and victorious and pleasurable and easy, they become “needs.” We just need a family house. We need two or three cars. We need air-conditioning. We need a new grill in the backyard. Etc.
Obviously, then, needs are not a material given. They are psychological perceptions. True, there are real material goods behind these perceptions. But the perceptions themselves are conditioned, they are never “real” or “natural.”
Given these facts about economy and economic growth, it is obvious that a significant part of the work of an entrepreneur or producer would be to convince his prospective customers that they “need” his product. This process of persuasion is not unnatural; it is not some sort of swindling people of their money for something of no value. Well, in certain cases it may be swindling; but it doesn’t have to be so by nature. By nature, and by its economic purpose, such persuasion is simply delivering new information to the consumers about the new possibilities before them. An automobile is better than a horse and buggy, but a society who’s never seen an automobile will have no idea what to expect of it, and how and why it is better than a horse and a buggy. Even today, when everyone knows what an automobile is, there is such variety of vehicles with many different characteristics that the producers still have to educate the consumers about what best fits their specific situations. The economy is always driven by the producers, not by the consumers; the producers are the active part in it, and it is the producers who educate the consumers what they can ask for, and what their “real needs” are supposed to be.
Thus, it should be clear what the proper place of a salesman is in the Dominion Covenant of God, and therefore in a healthy economy. A salesman is supposed be an educator. More than that, he is supposed to be an evangelist of a sort – in a relative way, as someone who brings some “good news” to other people, not in the Biblical sense of preaching eternal salvation; although, one can say that making a high quality product at the right price is a sort of temporal salvation. Try to survive without an AC in Texas during the summer, and you’ll consider an air-conditioner a real salvation. The job of the salesman must be to make that connection between what is materially possible – and materially invented and produced – and the ideal perceptions of the customers who may not even know what is possible. His job is to focus on his product, then, not on the perceived “needs” of his customers. They may not even know what they need, after all. If a subsistence farmer thinks he needs a new hoe, a good salesman will try to bring him to realize he needs a tractor, or something else that would increase his productivity way beyond that of a new hoe. As we know, the entrepreneur is expected to foresee the future and what consumers will need in the future; his salesman is expected to bring those consumers into that future, where their life and work will be easier, more productive, and more pleasurable.
The salesman, then, not only has a legitimate role in a healthy economy, his role is indispensable. In fact, for an economy to be functioning, all of us need to be salesmen in one sense or another. No matter what we do, we are always selling some product or service. Even when we are looking for a job, we are looking to sell our services to someone who needs them for his business. In any economy, no one is only a buyer; everyone is both a buyer and a seller. Everyone has to sell something before he buys something. The economy is driven by those who sell – and thus, the salesman has a central place in it.
(As a side note, the only way to be a buyer without being a seller is to have the power to force others to sell you their products and services for a commodity of no real value. That is, if you are the government. When a net buyer dominates the economy, the economy suffers.)
This important place of the salesman – and of the concept of sales as an occupation and a calling – in the Dominion Covenant gives us not only the necessity of the salesman but also the scope of his work; as we said, it is to be an educator, a sort of evangelist. But this also leads us to the ethical boundaries for the work of a salesman. It should be obvious: any job, any calling that are legitimate within the framework of the Dominion Covenant need to abide by the ethical standards of that covenant. They don’t need to be civil laws enforced by the state – the vast majority of the commandments in the Law of God are laws for self-government, and only a very tiny portion is supposed to be civil laws enforced by the courts. So, like any other legitimate occupation and calling, the salesman has a covenantal purpose, and the purpose justifies the means, but the purpose and the means must be God’s purpose and God’s means. A salesman, obviously, is not supposed to be centered on the perceived needs of his customers but on his product – the perceived needs are just a temporary thing, the product and its usefulness are the real economic factor. But a product or a service are a real economic factor only to the extent they really contribute to the wealth of their customers.
The two ethical principles regulating the work of a salesman, then are, first, does the product in general increase the wealth of customers, and second, does the particular customer benefit from the product.
So the first is the nature of the product itself. It’s the moral duty of a salesman to assess the nature of his product and whether that product is really beneficial. You may have heard certain people who have amazing gifts of persuasion brag, “I can sell anything to anyone!” Perhaps you can, but from the perspective of the Dominion Covenant, ethically, you may not. As a salesman, as the most active person on the market, you are under a moral duty to vet the products and refuse to sell what is obviously harmful and destructive to your buyers. A godly salesman, then, will carefully assess the place of his product in the Dominion Covenant, and will stay away from products that are specifically designed to decrease the wealth of the society rather increase it. There aren’t many products and services offered today that are in themselves harmful, but there are a few, and very often it is for these products that there is a large demand for skillful salesmen, and many young men are attracted by the opportunities. One example would be selling credit card debt, as well other types of consumer debt that is not backed by present assets and is not predicated on some increase in productivity (which would be business debt). The only premise for consumer debt is greed – increasing present consumption beyond one’s present means. (Although, there may be a precious few cases where it is a necessity, but they have to do with charitable debt, and the Bible regulates that kind of debt.) Another concrete example would be hard narcotics for recreational use. While we should be against government regulation of those – for the obvious reason that the Law of God doesn’t allow the government to control what individuals put in their bodies – prospective salesmen should be aware of the destructive nature of these. Another example would be different Ponzi schemes and other similar frauds: they do not increase the wealth in the society.
The list can become longer given the complex nature of our modern economy, and of the society as a whole. A salesman needs to make sure his employer is not exaggerating the qualities of his products in order to gain more customers or to drive up the prices. He should also decline to withhold information about the products that would be critical to the decision-making process of his customers.
But it doesn’t stop there. Salesmanship today is employed in different non-economic activities as well, especially political campaigns. A recent article written by Paul H. Jossey, an employee for a political action council (PAC), titled “How We Killed the Tea Party,” he explains how salesmanship has been used to defraud millions of conservative and libertarian donors of their money through political donations. Many of these PACs absorb, for their operational expenditures, more than 90% of the donated money. Jossey himself, after witnessing this megafraud for hundreds of millions of dollars, decided to quit and start his own firm, where he is open and transparent and redirects the money to its designated purpose. This is what an ethical salesman is supposed to do when he finds out his skills have been used to commit fraud – even if he himself is not directly responsible for the fraud.
The salesman, then, is supposed to be one of the lines of defense of the society against its dissolution of capital. Being a middleman, right in the middle between his product and the society, being informed about his product and its effects on the economy and the individual wealth of its buyers, he is in the unique position to provide the moral corrective for those producers and entrepreneurs whose goals is enrich themselves without providing a valuable product or service in exchange. Such a position is a position of responsibility – as is always the position of those who are middlemen of one kind or another.
The second ethical demand to a salesman is to understand the specific situation of his customers and whether his product benefits them in their specific situation.
Now, in all cases where the product is not a destructive product per se, it’s the right of the customer to want to buy it, even if, as far as the seller can tell, the product is not going to serve the customer in his specific situation. Thus, if a rich person wants to buy an expensive product that doesn’t practically serve his situation, but he wants to buy it for other than economic reasons, a salesman has nothing to say. But in most cases a salesman must be aware not only of the usefulness of his product but also of the usefulness of his product in the specific situation of the customer. The principle here should return us to the Dominion Covenant: A salesman is not morally free to sell when he can see that there will be net increase in the wealth of his consumers.
The best concrete – and rather extreme – modern example would be supplying light bulbs to nomadic cultures who live in tents. Perhaps a salesman can make quick buck by selling his supply of light bulbs on a sales pitch that would exploit the naïveté of a backward culture. He may even tell his buyers the truth: that the light bulbs produce light at night but they need the infrastructure of a modern civilization, like power stations, power grid, or at least local generators. In their backwardness, they may not be able to understand all that is needed. Their only focus may be on the promise that this little shiny thing produces light at night. May be they think of it as magic, and are willing to part with their hard-earned savings for such magic. Should a salesman of light bulbs take advantage of them and sell to them, even if he had done his technical part of explaining everything to them? Not at all. Even if his product is legitimate and indeed increases the wealth of those who buy it – in the right circumstances and the right infrastructure – it would be useless to tent dweller who have never seen a power grid or a generator. The salesman should re-direct them to a salesman of oil lamps or kerosene lamps, as well as a supplier of oil or kerosene.
Again, in our modern complex economy, with many different kinds of commodities and services, such moral principle becomes even more important. While the issue of infrastructure is usually a minor issue in the US, our economy and policies create a moral demand to salesmen to try to assess – as much as it is possible, and in certain situations – the means of their customers, and whether the service or the good will serve them within their means. As an owner of rental houses, I have made the mistake of leasing a house to a family which obviously couldn’t afford the rent I was asking; they could only afford to pay less than two-thirds of what I was asking. In the final account, the family went near bankruptcy, and I had to forgo two-months rent in order to avoid seeing the family with three children being financially destroyed. I should have refrained from selling to them, I should have re-directed them to a lower-rent option. Mortgage sellers usually try to get people signed up without making much of an effort to assess their situation. Car dealerships are quick to sell expensive cards to young people in the beginning of their careers, when the young person should be advised to buy a lower-cost vehicle and save his money for the future. In all these situations, selling doesn’t increase the net wealth of the buyer; it only takes advantage of his greed to make him more dependent, less productive, and in the final account, increases the discrepancies in the economy.
It is, of course, not always possible to convince a person that certain desires of his heart are detrimental to his wealth and future. As I said earlier, a salesman is supposed to be an evangelist. But an evangelist is only a bringer of good news, and where he does mission work, he needs to make sure that the good news are not twisted or misapplied in the local context of his listeners – or their final state will be much worse than before they heard his message. (See Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees in Matt. 23:15, as well as his parable of the clean house in Matt. 12:45. Good news misapplied, or not develop to their practical application in the specific context, can lead to results worse than the starting condition.) Among many signs in our times of the abdication of the American church from her task of teaching the nations is that modern salesmen have long ceased imitating evangelists in their work, and instead have turned to psychological manipulation of their prospective buyers. Sales is not a work of good news anymore; it is rather a voodoo-doll practice, where certain occult rituals (they call them “sales practice”) are supposed to elicit certain automatic responses in the prospective buyers, often leading to placing the buyer in a worse condition than before. And unfortunately, many evangelists in the church – and pastors, and ministry leaders, and missionaries – have adopted the pagan practices of modern salesmen. And one of the signs of a revival in the church will be that the ministry of evangelist is restored in its Biblical glory, and the salesmen of the world will learn from the evangelists how to do their sales in accordance with the Covenant of God and His Law.
Our time doesn’t allow us to go into other areas of the covenantal nature and ethical/judicial principles for the job of a salesman; God willing, we will try to cover them in a future episode. The book I will assign this week is The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor. While the authors are not explicitly based on Biblical presuppositions, the underlying motive in the book is that the innovator is the real engine of the economy, and that his business will grow only when established on an ethical/judicial foundation, that is, obeying certain moral principles. Especially making the correct choice between growth and profit.
And again, I would like to turn your attention to our mission in Bulgaria. I love doing these episodes of Axe to the Root, and I love my American brothers and sisters, and I am eager to minister to the church in whatever capacity God calls me. But my heart is out there, on the mission field, where I have worked hard to establish consistent growth in our mission in Bulgaria. I need your help to continue supplying the right books to the Bulgarian market. Visit BulgarianReformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter. Pray with us and for us. And donate. God bless you all.