Selling has always had something of a split personality. In part, this is because the definition of sales is so broad, encompassing retail and business-to-consumer (B2C) selling as well as business-to-business (B2B) transactions. At the same time, approaches to selling vary enormously, depending on the size of the deal and the nature of the product.
Indeed, selling is almost defined by paradox: sales cannot only be considered the oldest profession, it is one that is often held in little esteem by the people it serves, the customers. It has been beset by scandal, yet remains substantially unregulated either by legislation or professional body. At the same time, selling represents the oxygen that enables businesses to thrive, although it is a function under-represented in company boardrooms.
Nevertheless, selling has never been more important than today and is increasingly recognised as a key driver in our fiercely competitive, globalised world. Second only to a company’s core brand, the sales function can arguably be regarded as the most important asset a business owns.
“For the first time, there’s a realisation that the future of companies depends on sales and marketing in a way that it never has before,” says Professor Neil Rackham, who advises large corporations on their sales strategy. Whereas, in previous years, organisations may have relied on product innovation or mergers and acquisitions to expand, now the focus is on organic growth, and that usually implies taking business from the competition. “If we can’t out-innovate our competitors, what are we going to do? The answer is we outsell them,” says Professor Rackham.
“There’s an increased interest in sales in the boardroom,” he adds, citing the changing focus of boardroom advisers down the years from efficiency experts, to mergers-and-acquisitions specialists, to today’s sales and marketing consultants.
The nature of sales is changing too; indeed, selling is undergoing an almost head-to-toe transformation. Sales forces are expensive to maintain so transactional selling is increasingly moving online, into the domain of marketing.
The trend is for sales forces to be slimmed down, but filled with higher-quality recruits focused on much more complex business problems. Essentially, the role of the traditional product-focused “rep” – the “talking brochure” – is fast disappearing and being replaced by a more rounded businessperson with excellent communications skills.
Selling is a profession in transition, emerging from the recent downturn and responding to the rapidly evolving business landscape
“There’s a higher level of job for fewer people,” says Professor Rackham. That said, he warns that figures around the number of people involved in selling can be confusing. Although there are fewer people in direct sales roles, there are more people in support activities with “sales” in their titles. The boundaries of sales are expanding as more companies recognise its importance, he says.
Meanwhile, the marketing function with its newly acquired responsibility for transactional sales, through its traditional responsibility for websites, brand and advertising, is in some ways becoming more sales-like. Especially in the United States, it is increasingly being allocated formal targets designed to drive transactional sales.
This increased complexity in the sales landscape – it’s now multi-channel and closely coupled with business strategy – necessitates a more professional approach right up to the highest levels. Professionalism is now the big focus with employers and salespeople increasingly looking for professional sales qualifications that are transferable between roles.
Evidence can be seen in the expanding number of university sales courses and in-company academies, as well as accredited courses and qualifications from professional bodies such as the Institute of Sales & Marketing Management.
Buyers, too, are becoming more professional and looking towards co-creating value rather than the traditional adversarial approach. According to the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, whose 106,000 global members make up the world’s largest procurement and supply professional organisation, purchasing and sales “working together always achieves more satisfactory and competitive results”.
Today, the best salespeople are welcome in company boardrooms because they bring with them innovation, business knowhow and market knowledge. At the same time, exposure to the commercial environment, often through sales, is very much a rite of passage if not a longer-term requirement for many executive careers.
Technology is enabling sales professionals to understand the new complexity in their roles, not just through traditional CRM systems and business intelligence; analysis of big data and social media is helping to give companies greater insight into their customers. A host of specialist applications is also supporting everything from managing incentive schemes to recruiting higher-quality candidates via more scientific assessment processes.
Selling is a profession in transition, emerging from the recent downturn and responding to the rapidly evolving business landscape. It seems like it has been waiting in the wings for decades, but a combination of factors – new business models, customer power, technology, a hugely competitive commercial environment – have now conspired to place the sales function centre stage.
As a result, there is genuine promise that selling can truly emerge from its identity crisis, and transform into the true profession consumers and businesses deserve.