Following my first 15 years spent living and being educated abroad, I returned to the shores of an unfamiliar home, drifted through education and early jobs, until in the early-1990s I found myself working as a sales professional. That was the moment my soft skills of communication, relationship-building and a cross-cultural view of life really started to pay off. An early mentor’s words, even if hackneyed, stick with me to this day as he explained that sales was “the lubricant of commerce”.
I now had a career, a well-paid, engaging and emotionally rewarding career; it affected many lives and helped shape the direction and success of many businesses, but raised the question was it a professional sales career or a career as a sales professional?
Is sales really a profession?
One dictionary describes a profession as a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training. It is recognised by the public as such and is governed by codes of ethics, and professes commitment to competence, integrity and morality, altruism and the promotion of the public good within the expert domain.
The unfortunate truth is many people find it hard to draw parallels with keywords such as ethics, competence, integrity, morality, least of all altruism when referring to sales. Is this justified? Here’s the painful bit: history and personal experience have shown us many examples of the industry failing to hit these definitions, hence the stigma will remain for the foreseeable future.
While researching opinions on why sales isn’t a profession, I was drawn to an article written by best-selling author and keynote speaker Tony J. Hughes who stated some very undeniable home truths. Firstly that the vast majority of sales roles do not require a university degree and very few sales roles require a licence to practice which can be revoked, with the one glaring exception being the financial services industry following “severe moral lapses within the industry”.
A sales professional does not lose their job for malpractice; juxtapose to this the pressure of targets that can be the driver for “pushing the boundaries” of reasonable business behaviour with the flipside being not hitting targets almost certainly will be reason for dismissal.
What can be done to make sales more professional?
So what is the industry doing to lose the “boiler room” image that many buyers perceive salespeople to have?
In the United States, the Sales Education Foundation is committed to elevating the sales profession through university education, but as yet there are no pure sales qualifications that support this huge industry.
In the UK, associations are becoming the real driving force behind professionalising sales, with their members agreeing to ethical codes of conduct and, as in major sectors such as the NHS, continuing professional development (CPD) is starting to carry more weight, with events, workshops and courses offering CPD points in sales and marketing. We are also starting to see support from central government with the setting up of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Professional Sales, which is perhaps a glimpse of future change.
Will we see sales recognised as a true profession in our lifetimes? My personal feeling is there will always be a stigma attached to the industry, but I guess we can all strive to be just that little bit more professional.