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The Ethical Genie

By Beacon Staff

When it comes to business ethics, there’s usually a pretty clear definition of the line between the unethical and the occasionally, accidentally unethical (ie: honest).

The accidentally unethical will stumble now and then and make a mistake that, in many cases, they didn’t even realize was a problem.

These folks are the reason why even the most jaded person needs to start by giving these situations a second look or the benefit of the doubt prior to dropping the hammer. Sometimes, you’ll find that easing into these situations will work to your advantage.

I had just that situation occur a few years ago. Back in the Wild West days of the Internet, I caught a competitor using my product name in his web site’s keywords – something that no ethical website designer or business owner would do.

This is a problem for the same reason that I can’t put “Goodyear tires” on a sign in front of my tire business that doesn’t sell Goodyear tires. It’s misleading / wrong / illegal to use someone else’s trade names to attract customers to your business.

Not to mention it really ticks off customers who pull in wanting a pair of Goodyear Eagle GTs only to find that you sell nothing but Chinese-made retreads.

Back to the story. When I first found this website, I was angry about it. This was back in the days when website keywords mattered a lot more than they do now.

At the time, I was in the middle of the “climbing to altitude” phase of my business. We were fighting for every inch and not interested in giving any of it back to a thief.

But…something inside told me to tread softly, so I called the guy and explained the situation. He sounded sincere when he explained that he didn’t know that it was illegal to use my business name and product name in his website keywords.

Note: It’s certainly ok to use a competitor’s brand and name in product/service comparison discussions on your site. It’s not cool to use them in ways to “game the system”. We’ll skip the geeky details for now.

The twist
As I explained the problem, he got it and agreed to remove the terms from his website…and then a funny thing happened.

He offered to sell his business to me.

At the time, he was my biggest competitor. If we lost a sale to someone during that period, more often than not it was to this guy.

So of course I jumped on it. Not only was it a chance to take over a sizable chunk of the market, it made us much stronger and gave us another product.

The gravy: the guy was well-liked in the business, so his enthusiasm about getting out of the business and selling it to someone who would treat his customers properly gave us a nice word-of-mouth boost.

The other kind
I don’t mind competitors. In fact, several of the local ones are friends.

More recently, I caught a local guy using the byline of my blog to advertise his internet marketing business. Unfortunately, he’s shown that he is the other sort of unethical person.

The kind that knows it and doesn’t care if you catch them at it.

When I told him that it was uncool to use my business slogan to promote his business, he refused to stop, claiming he somehow randomly arrived at the same slogan – down to identical words, capitalization and punctuation – despite “never seeing my blog and never hearing of me.”

Kinda makes you wonder how he treats his customers.

A friend of mine has a saying: “When you move on, the only thing you leave behind is your reputation.”

That’s a genie that you can’t get back into the bottle and the economy is no excuse.

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a business, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site or contact him via email at mriffey at flatheadbeacon.com.

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