Opinion

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Why the UK sales industry must raise the bar and up-skill its workforce

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As a career choice “Sales” still requires little or no formal qualifications in which to succeed, even thrive. In, fact relatively few credible qualifications are actually available. Many a successful career in sales began by “falling into” a sales job, rather than by design or even by desire. For the majority of sales people, experience has been gained by attending the “University of Life” rather than seeking recognised formal qualifications from, for example, the Institute of Sales & Marketing Management or the Chartered Institute of Marketing. And, whilst the qualifications that are available are, without question, worthy, it’s arguable that they are not as credible as qualifications available in comparable professions. 

In the UK, the “Del and Rodney” image of the half-witted, wheeler dealer persists in popular culture and still casts a shadow over the entire sales industry on these shores. Around the globe the profession of selling is held in far higher esteem.

For the resourceful, there is now more knowledge available than ever before. Websites offering free training courses, tips and hints abound and there is a plethora of books available from “idiot guides” to more profound tomes and crash courses in communication tools like NLP. Even so, many people still believe that it’s having the “gift of the gab” alone that makes for a good sales person; that sales people are born, not made.

The truth, of course, is somewhat different. To be a truly professional salesperson some level of accredited training is a significant advantage, not only for the sales person but for the business they represent. A recognition that the sales person and the business which employs them understands the importance of the role and the immense power their sales force wields in making or breaking their business. Surely, it’s in their interest to ensure that their sales people are highly trained, they are after all the “face” of the business. Yet, and particularly amongst the SME community, very few do.

In the digital age, buyers and the buying process has evolved. The availability and sheer depth of information about products and services accessible online means buyers are now better educated that at any other time in history. Today’s buyers know exactly what they want because they’ve done their homework. They can download brochures, read technical specifications about products and equipment, read reviews and testimonials about potential suppliers, watch videos and gain the opinions of others. And they understand the sales process. 

They’re wise to and, quite rightly, wary of the sales tactics adopted by unscrupulous outfits. The web is full of reports of bad customer experiences. Some valid, some not so but in the internet age they can have far reaching effect, tarnishing entire industries. So, for the modern salesperson the skill set required to distinguish them as a “professional” has had to evolve too. 

No longer is it enough to have the innate ability to talk your prospect into submission. Today’s professional Sales person requires a diverse range of skills, not least the ability to communicate clearly, listen effectively, understand needs and find solutions to sometimes complex problems. Sales training has to reflect the challenges they face as an ongoing process of Continued Professional Development (CPD). After all, we wouldn’t feel comfortable taking medical advice from say, a doctor schooled at the “University of Life” and neither should our customers feel comfortable when taking advice that affects their business’, indeed their future from under-qualified sales people.

The challenge for our industry now is to raise the bar (not race to it!). To endeavour to increase skill levels across the sales community in SME’s in every sector. To cast-out dear old Del and Rodney, as painful as that might be and finally recognise the fundamental value a highly skilled and professional sales force plays in shaping your business and at a broader level in maintaining the country’s status as an economic power.

Stuart Hardy is Head of Training and Development at ACRE Corporate Services

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