Can 'sales' Ever Be A Professional Career?

Issue 37

If you're a parent, imagine how you would feel if your thirteenyear-old, whilst sitting around the dinner table one evening, proudly announced that they were choosing their 'options' at school based on their intention to pursue a career in sales.

How would you feel? Proud? Inspired? Relaxed? Or perhaps, worried? Anxious? Annoyed even? Would your natural response be to encourage or discourage them?

What if your child announced they wanted instead to study and pursue a career in Marketing? Would that make a difference to your perception? Hummm an interesting thought.

Many of my peers who have created huge success following a career in sales, can recount this exact conversation with their own parents and in the vast majority of cases, they all describe how their parents did everything they could to dissuade them. Instead suggesting alternative careers. Accountancy, Law, Medicine or Teaching appear to have been being the top recommendations. Not overly surprising when these are still considered the typically middle-class, highly skilled, well-paid and stable career choices. Many fell into sales later on in their careers once their natural ability had come to the fore, or when they started businesses and realised that marketing skills alone are not enough to negotiate and close deals. Yet even in the previously mentioned middleclass, highly skilled careers such as Accountancy, Law and Medicine, in order to rise to the top of the ranks an ability to influence others is still a required skill.

So, if we acknowledge that the ability to sell and to influence others is a core life skill (along with learning to speak in public, and learning to make and manage money), and that our ability to successfully influence others to buy-into whatever it is we’re offering is a prerequisite to success in almost all walks of life – why is society (particularly in Britain) so slow to recognise, teach and reward its merits?

It’s still a hard-held stereotype that to be a selfproclaimed out-and-out salesman gives you the same amount of credibility as Del Boy, but I’d like to think that times are slowly changing. Hurrah!

Since I was first spat out of the American Express sales-sausage-making factory almost twenty years ago which back then, a graduate training programme with a blue-chip, was the only way to be trained in B2B sales skills, the education sector is slowly waking up to the need to focus on these skills, rather than treat them as an add-on to degree in Business Management or Marketing. Many business schools now offer post graduate certificates in elements of selling and Anglica Ruskin university is (to my knowledge) the first university in the UK to offer a full BA degree in Sales.

In addition, the two main professional organisations in the sector, the ISM (Institute of Sales Management) of which I’m a Fellow, and the APS (Association of Professional Sales) are working hard to both raise the profile of sales professionals, whilst also improving standards and credibility.

The challenge of course, is in order to make sales an entirely accredited career such as the other professions would require accreditation. Would it ever be possible to make every shopkeeper or small business owner hold a license in sales skills before they could trade?

So, what can we all do to help crush the negative association of sales as a true profession;

1. Hold high those that wear their salesman badge with pride.

When someone, of whatever age, shares with you their sales ambition or sales success – give credit where credit is due. Remember, particularly in a business context, without a customer – no other department or role in a business is required. Sales people keep everyone else in work.

2. Support the (albeit slow) change in the education sector

Get trained, or get your people trained. Either through the formal courses offered by the Higher Ed sector, or from credible industry experts with proven sales results.

3. Join the professional bodies

Get involved. Seek to continuously self-improve. Just as technology and industry changes, so too does the need to top-up your own skill set. Since I first qualified twenty years ago. The role is vastly different today and will continue to evolve.

And finally, if your fourteen-year-old announces at the dinner table their desire to study and follow a career in sales, then congratulate them. Chances are, if they have that amount of desire at that age they do very well, and you never know – later in life they will likely have the financial means to ensure you end your days in the poshest retirement home!

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