Would you buy a car from that man? Reputation is personal

I’ve been pondering reputation.

Reputation, of course, is central to the public relations profession.

But in my own household, reputation is also very personal.

You see, not only am I a PR consultant (a so-called spin doctor), my husband is a car salesperson (of used cars, no less).

That places us toward the bottom of most discussions about trust and professions. And when it comes to annual trust surveys, my husband’s profession is the perennial lowest rung of the trust ladder.

This morning, media airwaves are full of the news of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari being sacked as deputy senate whip. But when discussing the Senator’s character, an Adelaide radio show host – mocking the Senator’s personal character – said he would make a good car salesperson.

It’s the kind of slur you get used to. And members of the media are used to it, ranking very low in trust surveys, themselves.

In Australia, trust is a yearly discussion when  Roy Morgan’s annual Image of Professions Survey is released. “Car salesmen”  has been the lowest-rated profession in every year the survey has been conducted since 1976. (Note, the descriptor is not ‘salespeople’ or ‘women’, who are rare in the industry. It appears to be the only reference to gender in the list).

Results of the Roy Morgan survey are a cyclical media feature. The rankings – particularly those top-ranked and those lowest-ranked – are highlighted across newspaper headlines, and discussed on TV and radio talkshows. Thus, Australians hear – year on year – about car salespeople being mistrusted by most of the people surveyed. It’s an annual reinforcement.

Why aren’t other sales people listed? Real estate agents and insurance brokers are the closest related-occupation in the list, in terms of their occupational drive to make a ‘sale’. (And they’re also toward the end of the trust scale). Where are the direct marketers, furniture sales people, cosmetic consultants, mobile phone retailers, jewellery sales people, whitegoods sales people, and clothing sales people? You might say it’s not realistic to include every type of sales person, but when you single out one or two occupations which rely on the sale for their living, it’s easy to build and maintain a mythology about their trustworthiness – to single out the car salesperson as the pushy, desperate and untrustworthy salesperson when in fact they’re the only salesperson on their list.

Who among us enjoys walking into a clothing store and having a staff member approach and ask if they can help you? And do we really believe them when they poke their head into the changerooms and tell us those jeans look great on us? Do you feel comfortable walking into a telco retail outlet and negotiating a new telephone deal?

The Roy Morgan survey is a telephone survey (this year conducted on the nights of May 22-24) of 648 Australian men and women aged 14 and over. Respondents were asked: “As I say different occupations, could you please say – from what you know or have heard – which rating best describes how you, yourself, would rate or score people in various occupations for honesty and ethical standards (Very High, High, Average, Low, Very Low)?”

In this year’s Roy Morgan survey, nurses were most highly regarded once more. According to Roy Morgan, “Nurses have topped the annual survey for 23 years running since being included for the first time in 1994”. They were followed in the list by doctors and pharmacists.

In the US, Gallup takes an “annual look at honesty and ethical standards among various fields”. There, nurses again rank at the top of the list and car salespeople are listed second-to-last (behind members of Congress). This is also a telephone survey – of interviews of a random sample of 1,028 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. Question 8 explicitly calls out the occupational type (see this PDF of the poll methodology). Thus, occupations you can choose from are nurses, engineers, journalists – and of all sales people types, specifically cars salespeople.

In the UK, Ipsos Mori conducts annual trust in professions research and has done so since 1983. It’s difficult to compare directly with the Roy Morgan survey here, as it doesn’t list nurses for example, and doesn’t appear to list car salespeople. The question asked is: “Now I will read you a list of different types of people. For each, please tell me if you would generally trust them to tell the truth or not?” In the top 24 list, doctors are listed as most trusted, while estate agents hover toward the bottom of the heap once more. This research comprised face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,019 adults aged 15-plus across Britain.

Other interesting research into professions is emerging, including the Australian National University’s Australian Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Science report. It includes a section on perceptions of what some professions contribute to society, and their level of prestige. PDF report can be found here http://www.science.gov.au/community/Documents/REPORT-SCAPA172001-CPAS-poll.pdf

We could debate why car salespeople (and estate agents and insurance brokers) may be lowly-ranked. Is it because we know their salaries are linked to the outcomes of their interactions with us? Is it because their skillset can be somewhat rubbery and not as ‘quantifiable’ or ‘trustworthy’ as a medical degree? Is it because when we engage with them, we expect a tussle and a negotiation; this pulls us out of our comfort zone and we resent that?

But the two questions I pose today are:

  1. Is it valid to offer a rigid list of occupations to choose from, which specifically calls out “car salespeople”?
  2. Does the annual discussion of this list in the media just reinforce next year’s answers?

NOTE: I am not a journalist; I have not contacted companies like Roy Morgan for detailed insights or context as to why and how occupations are chosen for inclusion in their surveys. There’s no doubt that the longevity and stability of questions is important. I am happy to hear from them, should they stumble upon this post, and certainly would share any response in Comments.

PS: for a great used car, ask for David at the Enfield yard of Adelaide Vehicle Centre.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Di Thompson says:

    Great article. After owning an IT business for many years it was no different for sales people. People forget that they have to buy from someone and they are salespeople.

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