Why sales doesn’t have its rightful place at the boardroom table?

August 8, 2012 was a milestone for professional salespeople around Australia. Until that day there had been no officially recognised benchmark for professional selling at tertiary level.

Finance, marketing, production, engineering, IT, business administration, research and design, human resources, logistics, procurement and even entrepreneurship – it’s a long list – all have recognised tertiary qualifications. Professional business selling is the last role in the value chain to be officially recognised in this space.

So here we are. It has taken over 100 years for sales and selling to make it on the Australian tertiary curriculum.

Here is a summary of the speech that Peter Finkelstein, head of sales strategy at Barrett Consulting Group, gave at the Barrett-Swinburne University partnership launch to provide Australia’s first VET accredited, university endorsed sales training and development program, providing both a Diploma in Business and Certificate 4 in Business Sales:

“Throughout my global travels I’ve noticed a universal truth – no one aspires to becoming a salesperson. When I asked 142 boys and girls in Year 12 what their career choice was for when they left school answers included doctors, pilots, architects and marketing but not sales.

So we come to the question: Why does sales enjoy so little respect in the business mix that even children fail to regard it as a career choice? Everyone knows that without an effective sales function companies will not generate the revenue needed to sustain their business. Why then, is sales so disrespected by management, academics and management scientists and even by young adults on the verge of going into business?

In my experience there are four reasons that stand out.

Firstly, it was the history of selling that started the rot. Then, in the 1960s, sales was hijacked by marketing. Then there’s the general lack of understanding of the salesperson’s role by management and, lastly, the state of denial that many salespeople live with.

The history of selling started it. We’ve all heard tales of the “snake oil salesmen” – salesmen who travelled from town to town selling off the back of a wagon with empty promises of salvation and remedies that would solve every ailment. The buyer’s impression of salespeople at that time: “Don’t trust them. They tell lies to get you to buy.”

As the market matured and customers built resistance, salespeople developed different hard sell techniques. Snake oil selling was replaced with Mood then Barrier and finally Formula Selling. All three techniques designed to trap and manipulate customers into buying.

In the 1960s, when the concept of formula selling failed to deliver the expected results, management turned to marketing for advice. After all, marketing professionals were educated, had some form of university degree and were thus better qualified to answer sales problems than sales managers who only had a lot of experience on their side.

Given the confidence (misplaced as it may have been) that management has in marketing, it is not surprising that marketing hijacked sales. Suddenly, the “experts” on the subject of all things related to sales and selling were marketing professionals.

They developed sales campaigns, took over the interface with management and became the custodians of customer knowledge and experts on customer profiles, behaviour, habits and needs.

The reality is that marketing did such a great public relations job, management saw them as squirrels – cute, cuddly and non-threatening – as opposed to sales, who are viewed as rats – hard, threatening and pushy. Management seems to have forgotten that both squirrels and rats are rodents. Sales and marketing are two sides of the same coin – equal partners who need one another.

Few senior executives come up through the ranks of sales. Most are accountants, engineers, MBAs, etc. Perhaps it’s because management have been to university, whereas salespeople have generally not, to be top earning professionals, that this skewed view has evolved. Most boardrooms see expert opinions sought from finance, HR and marketing, but when the challenge is a sales problem everyone has an expert opinion for the sales manager (who is seldom invited to the board meeting).

Perhaps it’s the behaviour of salespeople and their managers – after all, most salespeople are extrovert, apparently insensitive to the feelings of others, always out of the office enjoying the great weather, having long lunches and early evening drinks. If they get all the perks the least they can do is be humble and deliver the high volumes of sales the company demands.

Lastly, too many salespeople live in a state of denial. Many salespeople today neglect to place the word “sales” on their business cards. They have little respect for themselves or their profession, preferring titles such as account manager, pre-sales support executive and consultant.

The fact is salespeople are trained in what they do. They learn about their products and services; about their competitors and their products and services, about their market, customers and their business, about marketing and about relationship building; about production, distribution and financial issues. They learn to understand costs and margins – if not the use of models, then certainly the practical application of them. And in the process they learn some selling skills. If they don’t do that their chances of making it are almost nil.

That’s right. Professional salespeople spend a lot more than five years studying. The nature of the craft is one that demands practical implementation, so they learn and study on the job. Like tradesmen, they serve an apprenticeship that takes them through the stages of development until they can stand alone, unsupervised.

So, yes, they may not have university degrees and may not have studied for three years on a trot, but they are well trained and just as competent as other executives. And now, if they and their companies invest in these same salespeople getting a Diploma in Business they can reduce the learning curve, shorten the sales development cycle and fast-track their return on investment.”

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments. Her business Barrett P/L partners with its clients to improve their sales operations. Visit www.barrett.com.au



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