Learning to be a professional

Despite obvious pockets of excellence, buyers’ traditional view of salespeople is that “they’d sell their grandmother to get the deal” and “they promise the Earth and deliver very little”, according to David Noble, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS).

Recent mis-selling scandals, market rigging and allegations of bribery can’t have helped the salesperson’s cause, of course. Selling as a profession has taken “quite a hit”, Mr Noble says and, perhaps surprisingly, one of selling’s cheerleaders agrees. Ben Turner, director of sales at the professional sales body, the Institute of Sales & Marketing Management (ISMM), concedes: “The reputation of salespeople is at rock bottom.”

Salespeople also come out poorly in a study among boardroom executives. Work undertaken by Phil Squire, as part of a doctoral thesis, found that, in general, fewer than one in ten salespeople met boardroom expectations in terms of what they bring to the table.

Now chief executive of consultancy Consalia, Dr Squire has continued this research on a qualitative basis as part of a series of “voice of the customer” interviews with senior executives. Opinions in Britain are even stronger than internationally. “In the UK, 80 per cent of people interviewed felt that less than 10 per cent of salespeople met their expectations; this compares with 73 per cent in the rest of world,” he says.

All of which are very good reasons for sales as a function to become more professional, Mr Turner argues. Indeed, there have been signs of a new professionalism emerging as selling reinvents itself in the context of a globalised, online world. “We are the place to go for the ethical salesperson,” he says, pointing out that every ISSM course has an ethical dimension.


Ethical behaviour and standards of education are two cornerstones of a true profession and we are witnessing a transformation in the way selling is “taught”. One trend is a move away from the traditional short-term training “fix” towards in-company sales academies operated by organisations that “want to be seen as operating in a certain way”, according to Tony Hughes, chief executive of trainers Huthwaite International.

In a conscious move to further professionalism, Matthew Lang, global vice-president for marketing and sales operations at Sony Mobile, is currently setting up an academy for the company’s 400-strong global sales force, which has revenue responsibility for tens of billions of dollars. The aim of this information-sharing portal is not simply to provide development, but also to act as a means of incentivising salespeople and building a community. A whole variety of learning opportunities will be offered, but the pinnacle will be a Master’s degree programme developed in conjunction with Consalia, which is seen as “something to be aspired to” by the salespeople.

The proliferating number of degree-level sales courses is a sure sign that selling is becoming more professional

The proliferating number of degree-level sales courses is a sure sign that selling is becoming more professional. “In 2010 there were 40 institutions of higher education offering a sales course in the United States; there are 160 today. That’s a quadrupling of the institutes that teach sales at university level,” says Professor Neil Rackham, author and pioneer of research into complex selling.

There is also a burgeoning sales education infrastructure developing in the UK with an expanding number of Master’s courses from the likes of Consalia in conjunction with Middlesex University, Huthwaite working with Sheffield Business School, and Portsmouth Business School.

According to Professor Rackham, the essentials for a true profession are a systematic body of knowledge – “until recently, sales didn’t have that” – and “some kind of quality assurance”, while certification is the key to providing the quality assurance that salespeople have the necessary knowledge.


Professionalism is increasingly significant as salespeople’s roles continue to evolve with transactional sales disappearing online. “What’s left is much more complex than ever before,” Professor Rackham says. The relationship between buyers and sellers is now more of an arrangement between two business equals about how to create value. “The limiting factor is how creative you are as a business person. The marketplace is demanding professionalism due to the increasing complexity of the job,” he says.

Buyers, too, are conscious that their professional reputation needs improving, both in terms of eradicating unethical practices from the supply chain and by boosting the quality of procurement personnel. CIPS is promoting the concept of licensing professional buyers, similar to the way doctors and accountants have a licence to practice. Mr Noble claims there is “huge interest” in this concept and calls for a similar scheme for sales.

Currently there is little appetite for this among salespeople, according to ISMM’s Mr Turner. He sees licensing as a voluntary, opt-in arrangement and says: “We’re a long way off it.”

Buying and selling are two sides of the same coin, distinct but similar, Mr Noble concludes. Both are positioning themselves to improve their professionalism to meet the demands of today’s boardrooms.