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Isn't it time to professionalise sales?

17th Aug 2012
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Professor Deva Rangarajan believes that in order to fix some of its problems, sales needs to be treated as a professional occupation both within companies and externally.

Ever since I began focusing on personal selling and sales management as a topic of research, one thing has struck me again and again – the role of the salesperson has evolved. From decades past when the salesperson was little more than a product pusher, to the new millennium when increasingly savvy customers meant the introduction of a more consultative method of selling. In my opinion, rather than taking decades for this change to occur, I feel the sales profession has evolved at break-neck speed over little more than 15 years.
Unfortunately, the way in which sales is regarded professionally hasn’t. Sales roles are frequently undervalued, which is perhaps why there is inadequate support and training currently in place for the people in the industry. The biggest challenge for companies is maintaining a quality sales force that performs well, and whose staff remain consistent, especially in the current economic climate. This is difficult as good sales people are increasingly hard to find, resulting in a war for talent between competing companies. This, combined with an absence of professional sales training can be responsible for ineffective business strategies, and is the cause of many companies strugglingboth competitively and financially.
In a survey I conducted of sales management and staff from over 40 companies, the majority of managers admitted their firms lacked aclear go-to market strategy, and that they didn’t have the ability or resources to train staff. Most employees voiced frustration over having no clear structure to their work, no real path in place for sales development, and little support from the rest of the company. The majority of those surveyed - both staff and managers, said they would not recommend their company to a jobseeker.
So what can be done? In order to fix this uninspiring reflection of the industry, sales needs to be treated as a professional occupation both within companies and externally.
Companies need to be aware of the function and value of their sales teams in order to utilise them to their full potential. Sales teams make up a company’s front line dealing directly with their customer base. This makes them an invaluable source of customer information, so communication within a company is vital. The survey exposed a surprising lack of co-operation between sales and marketing departments - a partnership which is integral to a sales forces’ effectiveness. After all, how can you create a marketing strategy without knowing what the customer wants? The organisations that are successful are the ones able to harness the power of marketing to help the sales profession, and ensure the relation between the two is never to thedetriment of progress.
Beyond this integrated internal approach, salespeople also need to realise that in order for them to successfully sell to customers; they need to understand the impact their operating model has on the customer, and also understand what their company’s objectives are.
Ensuring survival
Outside of companies, professional sales training must be made readily available for those aspiring to careers in the sales industry. Sales is often seen erroneously as marketing’s little brother, and is somewhat overlooked as a professional discipline. The introduction of professional sales training in an academic environment (as with marketing) will not only be a key component inchanging the attitude towards the sales industry, but also in creating the new talent that the industry so desperately needs. I firmly believe that a sales person does not have to be born. Sales people can be created as long as they have the right aptitude, and the opportunity to learn.
Several universities in America have already adopted this attitude, and not only do they offer sales qualifications, but they encourage students to put their skills into practice by holding national sales competitions. The National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC) is held annually at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and each year over 70 universities compete. Opportunities like this should not just be limited to certain parts of the world, but be available globally. Currently, nothing of this nature exists in Europe, which is why I’ve encouraged my business school to take the first step.
I’m working with Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium to create a “Centre of Excellence” for sales training. It is made up of several initiatives designed to educate not just students, but businesses as well. We have a research centre, in which we undertake industry-specific research to understand how to positively influence sales teams and encourage best-practice. We then use this information to create training schemes for businesses, which they can apply to their everyday work.
In order to be successful today, companies can no longer afford to focus on their standard sales procedures, but rather take a more proactive role in supporting their sales teams and advocating the need for professional sales training. Competition between companies is fierce, making it crucial to hire the right people who are properly trained. Professionalising sales could be the vital element in putting companies in a better position against the competition, and ensuring their survival.
Professor Deva Rangarajan is associate professor and partner at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School. Together with Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School he has spearheaded a number of special initiatives to professionalise sales as a field of study as well as a career choice. He also recently represented Belgium in the Global Sales Science Institute in June 2012, where he submitted a proposal for organising a European sales competition similar to those held in the US.

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