Sales as a Profession: Perceptions, Misconceptions, and the Way Forward

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You’ve been in sales for several years, are a solid performer, and considered to be a real pro. You’re happy with your employer, confident in the products/services you represent, and satisfied with your station in life (house, car, family situation, etc.). It’s great to be in sales and, if asked, you’d let folks know this isn’t your first rodeo.

Given this as background, it would be interesting to ask, “Well then, what was your first rodeo?” More often than not, the answer wouldn’t be sales—or selling for a living. Given the number of men and women making their living selling, it’s interesting to note that few started with this as a career objective.

More often than not, people “fell into” or “wound up” in sales, having begun elsewhere. It’s not a problem, per se, (see opening paragraph) but it does beg the question of what it means to be a sales professional and it has spurred my interest in exploring Sales as a Profession (SaaP).

If your definition of professional, as opposed to amateur, is that a person is paid for doing it, and, that a collection of these folks constitutes a profession, then clearly sales qualifies. While some practitioners are busy everyday without pay, this is generally not by choice—and short-lived.

But, does this make sales a profession? Many would answer: No. These are folks that consider “Sales Professional” to be an oxymoron, similar to “Professional Wrestling.” Howard Stevens, founder of the Sales Education Foundation (SEF) liked to introduce this topic by asking, “What do you call the person who graduated last in their class from medical school?” Answer: Doctor.

The point is that even the last in class passed a certain standard level of education; in this case, medical school. University education is one major milestone on the path to professional recognition. According to Wikipedia, moving from trade to occupation to profession includes: 1) becoming a full-time occupation; 2) the establishment of a training school; 3) the establishment of a university school; 4) the establishment of a local association; 5) establishment of a national association of professional ethics; and, finally, 6) the establishment of state licensing laws.

CSO Insights will be releasing a more detailed paper I wrote on this in the next few months but, until then, beginning the conversation here and inviting your comments/observations seems like appropriate grist for the Seller’s Challenge.

Perceptions and Misconceptions

For sure, sales has been around for a long time, facilitating the exchange of money (in whatever form) for goods/services. This “facilitation,” was not always the most honest/upright, hence the term “snake-oil salesman,” a term still heard today, tracing it’s roots back to fast-talking pitchmen selling elixirs and potions from the back of buckboards across pioneer America.

How do you perceive salespeople? Take our poll and you’ll see the results immediately.

A more current and common term—and popular misconception—is “used car salesman.” This pejorative labeling of sales reps, in general, and the men and women who sell cars, in particular, reflects the game-playing and lack of transparency many feel they have experienced firsthand and then project onto every other buyer-seller interaction.

It should be noted, by whatever name, there is no artistry/mastery in selling something one time. Simply overpromise, underdeliver, and move on. This may have worked (one time) when America was still largely wide open and disconnected but, clearly those days are gone. Give a buyer a poor experience today and it will be broadcast to the world wide web (Twitter, Yelp, Next Door, etc.) faster than you can say, “Trust me.”

A further generalization is simply, sales people just waste my time. The antidote to this has been the blossoming of online buying of goods epitomized today by Amazon and Alibaba.

Sales Reps RIP?

The ease, speed and convenience of online shopping now married to and accelerated by technologies such as marketing automation and artificial intelligence cause some to wonder if SaaP is not only an oxymoron but one with an imminent expiration date. Forester (April 2015) predicted 20% of North American sales jobs in B2B would be eliminated by 2020. CSO Insights’ research has found no data to support this; to the contrary, one year later (2016 is the latest data on this, we’ll be asking again in 2018), only 3% of respondents expected their sales organization to shrink. 30% said remain the same, and the remaining 67% said they planned to grow the size of their sales organization by a weighted average of 12.8%.

At the same time, there’s no question, the nature of what sellers will be doing, the tools available to help them do their work, and the profile of current/future sellers are rapidly evolving. Increasingly, the ability to bring analytic and tech-savvy skills to traditional relationship and communication abilities is seen as the winning combination to sales success (current and future).

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring what progress sales has made toward professional status, what educational programs have been and are emerging in support of this evolution, and what things remain the same for SaaP.

In the interim, we invite your comments, experiences, observations and/or opinions about where sales has come from and, more importantly, where it’s going. Does professional recognition even matter? Is escape from the “used car salesman” label even possible? These and other questions will be the topics of the next few columns. YOU are invited to add your voice to this discussion.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Barry: Since the CSO Insights survey considers organizations that have existing sales forces, the apparent durability of sales staffing within this subset only tells part of the story. What about new organizations and emerging business models that minimize the emphasis on a traditional sales role, or eliminate it altogether? In legacy terms, I’m talking about the ‘bag carrying’ outside rep “out on the bricks,” who has a territory and carries a quota.

    In the last 10 years, I’ve seen companies distribute pieces and parts of the sales role throughout the organization. For that, we can thank software and business processes that have allowed sales functions to escape the silo of the Sales Department, and permeate into route distribution, customer service, operations, helpline support, among others.

    We can also thank AI, which has virtually eliminated some sales roles (about 30 years ago, my company’s VP of sales said, “any rep who doesn’t add value for his or her customers will be replaced by a kiosk!”), and it has significantly and permanently changed many other sales functions. Today, you can substitute AI for kiosk in the VP’s comment, and the truth remains largely intact. I would only add that the impact AI has on the number and nature of sales jobs is now much more significant and profound.

    What’s unasked in your article is whether professional selling is a worthwhile career in the first place. When I started out in the ’80’s, that question was not as apparent. Sales was one of the few careers that could boast being truly egalitarian. A person without a college degree – or even a high school diploma, for that matter – could earn more than a person with a postgraduate degree. Black, white, male, female, minority – if you had the drive, street smarts and motivation, you could win a job (there’s an big, fat asterisk needed here, but that’s a topic to discuss when there’s more time. Over beers, perhaps?) And sales was easy for people to enter. Very few sales positions outside of real estate agents and securities sales required professional certification or licensing.

    But research that I’ve done and anecdotal information I’ve compiled points to the fact that professional selling sales has lost its allure. The original compelling reason for a young person to enter sales, higher than average personal income, doesn’t cut it any more. Today, there are business careers that flat out blow the income doors off the coin that salespeople earn. If money is what motivates interest in a job, I’d encourage a young person today to go into data science, software development, cyber-security, or finance. I recently wrote an article on this topic, Considering a Career in Sales? Find Something Different!. (please see http://customerthink.com/considering-a-career-in-sales-find-something-different/

    I am interested in your thoughts.

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