I've been in professional selling most of my life and it's been very good to me. Notice I use the phrase, 'professional selling' rather than 'the sales profession'. In all of my writings you'll see that I maintain this distinction and I do so very deliberately due to a deeply held conviction - there's a problem in selling, we're not actually a profession and we desperately need to be. It's okay, I'm ready for the rocks - throw at will.
I think professor Neil Rackham understands this and has been working behind the scenes for many years with universities to make selling a post-graduate qualification. Mike Kunkle commented shortly after posting this that about 80 of the 4,000 universities in the United States offer a dedicated sales curriculum. The mission of the Sales Education Foundation is to change that, and elevate the sales profession through university education. Thanks Mike and also for your work with Neil Rackham in this regard!
Robert Kelly from The Sales Management Association also does great work in lifting professional selling. There are other associations and publications that also make huge contributions including Jonathan Farrington with Top Sales World and Gerhard Gschwandtner with Selling Power. In LinkedIn there are many groups that foster conversations, debate and information sharing including the 'Professional Selling' group moderated by John Smibert. All of this is valuable but it doesn't make selling a profession by any reasonable test.
Don't misunderstand me, I know that many sales people are professionals in every sense of the word, both with formal (university and post-graduate) qualifications and in how they operate. Some in selling have a university bachelor of psychology or business, possibly an MBA or even a masters, but almost none have a qualification in sales. But universities don't offer qualifications in sales, you're thinking... exactly - that's my point. Here's the big test: If you asked people randomly if they regarded selling as a profession, you wouldn't get a resounding, 'yes.'
Yet sales people earn as much or more than all other professions. Although selling is conducted professionally by many, these are the reasons why it's not really a profession:
- The vast majority of sales roles do not require a university degree. This is especially true in B2C but in the world of B2B, degree qualifications held by sellers are rarely directly relevant to the activity of professional selling.
- Very few sales roles require a license to practice which can be revoked. The financial services industry is one exception and licensing was introduced due to severe moral lapses within the industry post-GFC.
- There is no peak standards body. Unlike most professions, there are very few associations that represent the professional members. The Sales Management Association (SMA) being an exception but where is the association for sales professionals (individual contributors as opposed to managers) with a creed and code of conduct?
- A sales person does not lose their job for malpractice. Most sales people are adept at blaming others when a customer is lost. Uncompetitive pricing, a desperate competitor, bad luck - I've heard it all. A surgeon does not blame his client if he leaves an instrument inside the patient.
- Sales people regularly prescribe 'solutions' without proper diagnosis. Imagine if doctors prescribed without thorough diagnosis, yet many sellers push their 'solutions' as a cure-all remedy.
- Failure to take notes and keep accurate records. It staggers me how often I see sales people sitting in meetings failing to take notes and record actions; then fail to update the CRM when they get back to the office.
- Sending substandard proposals that do not accurately reflect the requirements and needs of the buyer. A real professional listens, understands and validates before sending a proposal or contract. They also ensure the document is not generic and does not have errors in it.
Think about all the recognized professions out there: accountants, managers, marketers, architects, engineers, lawyers, judges, doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists, pilots, and teachers. My wife is a qualified teacher and is now doing post-graduate studies with a college to become a counsellor. As I write this, we are in Vietnam on vacation and we met a lady from South Africa who is also doing the exact same program with the same college in Sydney but via their distance learning program - it's a small world. Sales people can easily earn double the income of a teacher or counsellor, yet the teaching and counselling professions require years of study and substantial cost just to earn the right to practice. But not selling; in many cases you just need the 'gift of the gab' and the right personality to plough through rejection and you're away.
Many trades are professions because the tradespeople have to do apprenticeships, pass tests and secure licenses that can be revoked. These include builders, electricians and crane drivers. The military adopts a hybrid model of professional qualifications (academic and 'trade') but every member of their team is thoroughly qualified for their role and is a professional in every sense of the term.
And we wonder why selling is often not respected - right up there with politics and prostitution.
What are the drivers for making a vocation into a profession, in the fullest sense of the term? Here is the surprising answer... When the public needs to be protected from poor practitioners. When I walk onto an aircraft, I don't want the pilot to be in command because he talked his way into the command seat. I want to know that he is qualified and experienced; and more than that, I want to know that he is regularly certified and tested. All of our lives depend on his competence and leadership. Review the list of professions in the above two paragraphs; any dodgy operator can cause significant damage to lives. This is why the financial services industry was forced to regulate their sales people - their advice can cause severe financial loss and the public needs protection from amateurs and unethical operators.
Can sales people cause significant damage by recommending products, services or solutions that are not fit for purpose or in the best interests of the client? Absolutely yes! This test alone justifies the need for professional selling to become a university degree qualification with individual industries also having regular certification testing and code of conduct. The good news is that there are approximately 100 universities around the world now offering sales qualifications. Take the time to follow Professor Neil Rackham as he is leading the way. Selling is a demanding field because you need the listening and questioning skills of a counsellor and psychologist, the diagnostic capabilities of a doctor, the financial abilities of an accountant, the analytical skills of an MBA, the solutioning capabilities of an architect and engineer, the leadership qualities of a pilot, the strategic thinking of a general, the ability to market and teach (The Challenger Sale), and the ability to communicate like Bill Clinton. No wonder employers are willing to pay so much to those who can execute.
[Since this original post: Jason Jordan wrote to me adding another important prerequisite for something being a profession: a profession needs to have specializations. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, and other 'professions' all have sub-specialties where they focus and hone their talents. For sales, there needs to be an acknowledgement that there are different types of sellers -- inside salespeople, key account managers, territory salespeople, and other specialties that have unique skill sets. AND it's okay to remain in one role for an entire career. Inside sales doesn't have to be a career path to outside sales... Different skill sets, different professional paths. Jason also contributes to the Sales Education Foundation along with Professor Neil Rackham.]
We in selling deserve to be a profession and recognized as such! The public needs protection from the worst of us and we deserve the respect earned by the best of us. Let's lift the bar. Here is my checklist for sales professionals. How do you rate yourself?
- Dress: Professional and conservative (minimal jewellery and perfume).
- Manner: Friendly, positive, polite, accurate and thoughtful.
- Business cards: Always have with you and treat with respect.
- Empowered: Use the language of leadership, delivering outcomes and managing risk.
- Appointments: Arrive five minutes early and have an agenda. Talk only one-third of the time and ask insightful questions. Always take notes and agree to follow-up actions for progression. Anchor every meeting with follow-up correspondence.
- Pen and notebook: Always have with you and take notes (think Moleskine but yes, you can use a tablet)
- Accountable: Deliver on every [small] commitment.
- LinkedIn profile: Professional picture and state your value, not just your history.
- Voicemail: Professional greeting that confirms it's actually you. Return all calls and respond to all messages.
- E-mail: Relevant subject heading. Don't copy people unnecessarily. Proofread before sending. Signature with complete contact details on all e-mails.
- Proposals: Structured, concise, tailored and relevant. State what you want them to do and why it's important. Proofread for grammar and spelling.
- Presentations: Avoid PowerPoint hell (endless slides about you). Make it all about them (relevance and their benefits).
Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at www.TonyHughes.com.au or his sales methodology website at http://www.rsvpselling.com/.
Main image photo by Flickr: Lauren Nelson
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