Many of us will recall the evocative opening paragraph of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’ It sounds uncannily like 2012, doesn’t it?
While there are lessons for the wider business world, these words are perhaps especially pertinent for the sales sector. On the one hand, selling’s reputation is rock bottom in the eyes of the public: business has been plagued by recent scandals; pharma companies have been hit by record fines; banks have lost credibility through market manipulation, rogue trading and misspelling; other sectors from airlines to armaments have been embroiled in price-fixing and bribery.
And yet, there is growing recognition of the importance of professional selling as a key driver of the revenue-generation process. With the mergers and acquisitions boom over, ours is a time in which most CEOs are looking for long-term sustainable growth and that means growing organically.
However, the sales sector itself is facing unprecedented change: there’s brutal price competition in our global economy; procurement has become far more professional over the past decade; the internet has shifted the balance of power towards buyers who are now better-informed; and salespeople are increasingly expensive to employ, so most low-value sales are moving to an automated channel, such as the web – sales and marketing have effectively merged at this level.
This is placing unprecedented pressure on salespeople: many generalist ‘vanilla’ sales roles are disappearing: their traditional function as ‘talking brochures’– as Professor Neil Rackham would describe them – has become increasingly redundant. Something’s got to give.
As is often the case, times of great change tend to sweep away the old order and make space for new opportunities. Much innovation is originating in the US (as is so often the case with sales) but there is plenty of progress here in the UK as well.
“Sales careers have moved beyond the days of glad-handing and door-opening,” according to Suzanne Fogel, David Hoffmeister, Richard Rocco, and Daniel P Strunk from DePaul University. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they state that “a great salesperson today can assess multiple customer needs and motivations, analyse and forecast market trends, use sophisticated automation tools, and develop value-driven solutions in partnership with clients. Critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to negotiate have become more important than an outgoing personality.”
Significantly, there has been more research into what enables individuals to perform, especially in higher-level, large-value sales. Research on sales performance from The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) – the much publicised Challenger model – joins the long-established SPIN approach from Rackham and further in-depth research from Consalia.
Added to this, sales talent management pioneers SalesAssessment.com are enabling organisations to align actual sales performance with talent management metrics, using accurate and highly predictive assessment and analysis tools: this introduces a whole new level of rigour into recruiting, developing and retaining the right people for today’s more demanding and diverse sales roles.
All this research means that we may at last be in a position to equip the next generation of salespeople to perform in a business world undreamt of even 20 years ago. The good news is that many in this new generation recognise the importance of selling and are seeking to make the most of new opportunities by actively considering a sales career. It’s time for Salesperson 2.0 to step forward.
A trail-blazing sixth form programme at Cranbrook School in Kent has launched in partnership with sales training company Silent Edge. Head of Sixth Form, Robbie Ferguson says the programme is a big hit with the 20 students involved: “They are enjoying every second and are developing at a rapid rate. Rather than following a traditional curriculum, they are planning major projects, getting really involved. I genuinely cannot stress just exactly how much they are enjoying it – the response has been phenomenal. They are gaining such confidence and can picture themselves working and earning money, rather than it seeming like a distant fantasy.”
Over in the US there is a saying that ‘old-school sales was no-school sales’. How many seasoned salespeople do you meet who simply fell into their career by accident and were then left to sink or swim on the job? Lately, colleges have been quick to pick up on demand for a more specifically commercial focus for their business courses: university sales programmes in the US more than doubled from 45 in 2007 to 101 in 2011.
Back in the UK, we’re unable to match that figure but there are encouraging signs of increasing professionalism on a number of fronts. Pioneering programmes for established salespeople at Masters level are proving a hit, either based in-company or at academic institutions.
William Mills, Vice President, Global Strategic Sales Engagements at global IT services company Atos, praises the impact of a Middlesex University-accredited programme on his previous role at IT giant HP. He saw two immediate benefits: increased credibility inside his own organisation and the ability to talk to the customer C-suite (as opposed to procurement or mid-level managers).
But don’t just take his word for it: the hard metrics do the talking in a direct comparison between individuals who had been through the Consalia-devised programme and those who hadn’t. The 12 HP team members who applied the new thinking closed deals worth $4.8Bn (£3.7Bn) with a win rate of 73%; the eight who didn’t, closed $430M with a substantially lower win ratio of 25%.
The DePaul authors are clear about the advantages of a formal sales education, as opposed to sales training: “Students develop a broad understanding of all the functional areas of business; they are exposed to multiple techniques, not just the one favoured by a particular sales training vendor; and their knowledge is engrained over many months rather than just a few days.”
Beth Rogers who heads up the MA Sales Management programme at Portsmouth Business School, adds: “Sales education, as opposed to training, offers practitioners the opportunity to step outside of the daily routine to try and innovate. Those capabilities will be life-long.”
Perhaps one of the most promising signs of the growing professionalism in sales is the launch this year of a new professional body aimed at the higher echelons of the sector. Hosted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Sales Leadership Alliance brings senior practitioners, thought-leaders and academics together to improve the practice of selling. Significantly, it’s aimed at ‘professionals who wish to give something back to a profession that has served them well’.
SLA patron Rackham, who sees the current period as a renaissance for the sales profession, concludes: “The SLA will provide support and peer advice. It will aid in the cross-fertilization of ideas. Above all, it will help break the public stereotype of selling as an amateur and sometimes dishonest, activity.”