‘Doing well, but could do better’

In the global sales performance league, how well are Britain’s salespeople positioned to compete? Nick de Cent reports


If there’s anything guaranteed to warm the heart of a salesperson, it is talk of higher revenue, more deals won and larger salaries. So it’s perhaps unsurprising to hear William Mills, vice president, global strategic sales engagements at international IT services giant Atos, enthusing about doubling his base salary and quadrupling his total earnings over the past four economically troubled years.

Possibly more surprising is his keenness to attribute this recent success to a pioneering in-company Master’s degree programme, especially when you consider how little the worlds of sales and academia have tended to overlap down the years.

Mr Mills, 54, is clear about the impact of the Middlesex University-accredited programme at his former company, HP. “It introduced a new era of thinking around the value of the customer and how you approach the customer,” he says.

The evidence was plain to see in a direct comparison between the old and new approaches: the 12 team members who applied the new thinking closed deals worth $4.8 billion with a win rate of 73 per cent; the eight who didn’t, closed $430 million with a substantially lower success ratio of 25 per cent.

Top UK salespeople can expect to earn 288 per cent more than junior colleagues

Mike Hurley, 51, who used to run the HP team, is now vice-president at Logica, where he heads up five strategic sales teams winning deals valued at €100 million plus. He admits the degree programme was “almost a point of epiphany”. He adds: “It enhanced me as a professional considerably. It accelerated me from a director into a V-P role.”

Money, status and career progression are clearly big motivators for most ambitious salespeople. Ron Burke, director, sales effectiveness and rewards, at global talent management consultancy Towers Watson, highlights the substantial jump in pay between entry-level salespeople and “experts”.

In the UK, salespeople who make it to the top can expect to earn 288 per cent more in terms of salary and cash incentives compared with their most junior colleagues.

So how can British salespeople reach the heady heights of the top earners and help lift the performance of UK plc? Towers Watson says one major issue is the variation in quality of sales managers responsible for managing, coaching and motivating them.

Andrew Dugdale, president of salesassessment.com agrees: “Sales managers play an extremely important role. Unfortunately, internal benchmarking of talent within an organisation does not give you a clear view of where you sit in the great scheme of things. Here in the UK our report would probably say ‘pretty good but could try harder’.”

Educationally, there is no question that the UK sales profession’s report card would currently read “patchy”. Phil Squire, chief executive of Consalia and the man behind the aforementioned HP programme, conducted in-depth interviews with C-suite executives when devising his approach. Some 80 per cent of bosses said that less than 10 per cent of salespeople met their expectations.

One clear way of boosting performance is for individuals and employers to take a far more active interest in sales education, as opposed to sales training, which is still the norm in the sector.

There are signs that the business world is paying increasing attention to the need for sales education, led by the United States, where the number of university sales programmes increased from 45 in 2007 to 101 in 2011.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, DePaul University claimed academic study offers distinct advantages compared with the sales training industry: 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.

In the UK, we are lagging behind: you can almost count the number of university sales courses on the fingers of one hand. A pioneer has been Portsmouth Business School, where Beth Rogers heads up the MA Sales Management programme. Contrasting academic study with training, she says: “The main advantage is a focus on developing thinking, creative, analytical and reflective skills. It’s about critiquing what we’ve got, research and experimenting in application – can we up our game even more?”

There are signs of development lower down the educational ladder, too, with a trail-blazing sixth form programme at Cranbrook School in Kent , launched in partnership with sales training company Silent Edge. The series of voluntary workshops, which began last month, was quickly oversubscribed with students keen to learn key communications and life skills, which will stand them in good stead, irrespective of whether they choose a career in sales.

Silent Edge chief executive Russell Ward explains the rationale behind the programme: “Sales is a lifetime skill, and an understanding of the theory and practice of selling could prove highly useful to students upon leaving education,” he says.

CASE STUDY

A career in sales

Unlike many people who simply “fall into selling”, Dom West has made a conscious effort to seek out a sales career.

“It was something I thought I might be quite good at,” he says. “I like chatting, get on well with people and it seemed like the right sort of career path for me.”

The 22-year-old University of East Anglia economics graduate has been working for the past few weeks as a recruitment consultant for Hydrogen Group, which specialises in placing technical candidates within the IT sector.

Before making his decision, Dom talked to school friends about sales, some of whom liked the role and others who had dropped out. He then set about finding a solid foundation for his chosen career. After a rigorous assessment, he was accepted by graduate recruitment and development specialist Turnstone Sales.

Dom says he has already recommended sales to his friends, although he cautions that it’s “not suited for all types of people, obviously”. He also warns job seekers to choose their prospective employer carefully: in some cases, salespeople’s reputation for bending the truth is justified. “It’s not the case here; it differs from company to company,” he says.

Dom sums up the qualities he feels will help him reach the top: “You need to be relatively competitive, confident, good on the phone and a good team player.”