Sales set to sit at top table

Selling is on the threshold of finally being taken seriously as a legitimate profession, writes Nick de Cent


Multi-billion-dollar fines for misselling by pharmaceutical companies, fortunes lost by irresponsible traders in the City, attempts at market manipulation by banks and corporate bribery allegations – on the face of it professional selling’s recent track record doesn’t look good. However, could sales be about to emerge from the dark ages?

Selling has always had something of a split personality, with its public image tarnished – particularly in the business-to-consumer (B2C) world – by sharp practices and customer exploitation. Yet in the business-to-business (B2B) sector, the picture has traditionally been different: one where the best salespeople are seen as providing a valuable service.

Selling now stands at a crossroads. There are signs it may finally be about to gain a place at the top table. After all, sales performance is all about delivering sustainable revenue. In the current post-credit crunch economic hangover, where mergers and acquisitions activity has dwindled, one of the few ways forward for a board of directors is to grow a company organically and that almost invariably means devising an effective sales strategy.

Professor Neil Rackham, well known for pioneering research into high-value sales, sees the current period both as a renaissance for the sales profession and a period of unprecedented change.

Sales is no longer about schmoozing the customer and sticking your foot in the door

According to the Harvard Business Review, professional selling today is more about assessing multiple customer needs and motivations, analysing and forecasting market trends, using sophisticated automation tools and developing value-driven solutions in partnership with clients. Sales is no longer about schmoozing the customer and sticking your foot in the door or even providing basic information about your company and products because buyers are already one step ahead, thanks to the internet.

As the body of knowledge about sales performance grows, it provides new opportunities for a whole spectrum of commercial, professional and academic organisations. Sales courses are proliferating in the United States and there are also signs of academic green shoots in the UK. In addition to the longer standing Institute of Sales and Marketing Management (ISMM), the industry has also recently seen the emergence of a new professional body for sales leaders, the Sales Leadership Alliance (SLA).

Meanwhile, technology is expanding beyond the familiar, but not always fertile, ground of customer relationship management (CRM), offering the ability to manage talent and compensation strategy more effectively, to provide development exactly when and where it’s needed, and to help sales professionals interact online.

We’re also seeing a blurring of traditional boundaries, most obviously between sales and marketing where there has been a lot of debate around breaking down the barriers between the two revenue-generating functions. To a certain extent this is also happening between salespeople and buyers.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the notion that salespeople can these days teach buyers a thing or two. At the very top strategic level of selling that’s what happens on a routine basis: the high-achieving salespeople regularly identify and communicate issues that board rooms didn’t even realise they had, and then find solutions to them.

This is all part of an increasing professionalism in sales that will see less-capable exponents shaken out of the market as “vanilla” transactional sales continue to be automated online. Companies will increasingly invest in fewer, higher-capability salespeople adept at operating at the highest levels of business.

Describing this new relationship between buyers and salespeople, Professor Rackham says: “A few years ago, if I eavesdropped on a conversation, I could tell who was selling and who was buying. Now, I’m not so sure: it’s more like listening to two high-level business equals sitting down together.”

This fast-changing climate is ushering in a new-found purpose for professional selling – one that seeks to “optimise the boundary between two corporations in a way that creates new value”, as Professor Rackham would put it.