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The Future of the Sales Profession.
By Herb Rubenstein, Founder and President, Growth Strategies Inc.
Tuesday, 3rd April 2007
 
The typical image of the sales person is probably a result of seeing someone on a TV commercial or meeting a sales person in a high end retail store. Also, your image may be the result of your business dealings with sales people vendors who sell products and services to the company, government agency, non-profit agency or educational institution where you work.

These images tell you more about the sales person of the last century than the sales person of the 21st Century. This article is designed to present a new image and a futuristic, but realistic image of the sales person we can expect to see and interact with over the next decade.

The 20th Century Image

Sales persons are generally viewed by customers and potential customers as people who push products and services and who succeed, in the short run, by getting a person to buy whatever the sales person is selling. Sales persons are considered as "loners," not team players and people who set sales targets or sales goals first, and then use the customers as "objects" to meet their goals.

The Transition

A newer image of the sales person is emerging. In stores like Comp USA, Radio Shack, your new or used car dealer or even Staples sales persons are expected to know the technology associated with each product, the benefits and services associated with each product and know exactly where the product is located in inventory. The new role of the sales person is presenter and educator, leading the customer to an excellent choice given the customer's needs and making the transaction as efficient, quick and painless as possible for the consumer.

This new image of the sales person is grounded in the realization that the sales person is a knowledge worker. The sales person must quickly gain detailed knowledge about the customer and know detailed information not only about the products the sales person has in inventory, the sales person must also know the benefits, drawbacks and services associated with the competitors products. In this quickly changing technological landscape, many sales persons are expected to know what products will be offered in the not-so-distant future in order to insure that a life long customer is not lost by selling this customer something on Monday only to have a far superior choice for that customer appear just a few days later.

This view of the sales person is akin to the best of breed that took up the charge and became "manufacturer's reps" during the last century. While one could make the argument that sales people have always been "knowledge workers," the profession has done little, if anything, to make this image pervasive in the mind of the American marketplace. This article is just one small effort to move the market's thinking along in that direction.

Mass Customization

Today, every customer wants the quality benefits of mass production (zero defects, long life, compatibility with many versions of replacement parts, etc.), but wants that suit to fit perfectly, that palm pilot to have just the right color screen and that car to have a sound system, seating and heat/cooling systems that act like they are on first name terms with the customer. Thus, today's products as well as the level of demand by consumers are more complicated than ever before. For example, in order to sell a high end car today, a car salesperson must understand global positioning systems, how traction control systems operate and the financial analysis necessary to advise a customer properly on ten year financing, lease options, cash back or low interest rates and a whole host of items that simply did not exist just ten years ago.

With the current understanding that emotional quotients (EQ) are just as important for success as intelligence quotients (IQ), sales persons at the top of their game today must be excellent listeners, empathize with their customers and be able to put themselves into their customers' shoes in order to make the right recommendation at the right time. With customers' being more pressed for time than ever before, sales persons must also be efficient, without being brusque.

The Sales Person of the 21st Century

Over the next ten years, the image (and the reality) of the sales person will be completely transformed. The companies who invest in their sales forces to assist them in this transformation will be the clear winners as products among competitors become more and more alike and the value added to many products will come from the sales force, and not the R&D shop. Consumers are now more aware and educated through the internet and sophisticated advertising of the benefits and features of more and more products every day. Customers are not only more knowledgeable than ever, they are more powerful, being able to choose efficiently among sales persons and stores for the products and services they want. There was a time when you had only one phone service, and you had to rent the one kind of phone they supplied.

Today, there are hundreds of phone services and thousands of phone models to choose from. And, consumers can access all of them 24x7 without even leaving their home via the internet. With the evolution of the consumer, the evolution of the sales person is not only inevitable, it is already well underway.

From Sales Person to Sales Professional

For someone to be a "professional" golfer, as opposed to merely a "golfer," the professional golfer only has to earn a certain amount of money by playing the sport. What is the difference between a mere "sales person" and a "sales professional." Certainly, all sales persons make money selling. One might think the difference between a sales person and a sales professional is training or certification or some level of accomplishment by the sales person to achieve the status of "sales professional."

However, certification programs are not yet common in the sales industry, although companies do train and certify their own sales people, certification in the professions has always meant "third party certification." Today, there is no masters or graduate degree program in sales, although there have been such programs as marketing and even event management. The United Professional Sales Association, a relatively new organization, is creating a curriculum that may form the basis for future third party certification of sales professionals.

The problem in the sales industry is not only one of a lack of a legitimate credentialing program. A major problem is the mindset of the United States consumers and general population in that they do not think of sales persons, as professionals. This may be a function of the relatively low standards that exist for entry into the sales profession or the image that sales persons have helped create in the minds of the consumer and the general populace. In order for this mindset to change, it must be the result of something changing in the sales industry. I believe the thing that must change is the standards that sales persons live up to and achieve every day on the job.

It is fascinating that when you type in "standards in the sales industry, in GoogleTM on January 28, you get only ONE HIT. And the hit is an Australian company that gives out sales awards. Today, there are people who are starting to write general standards for the sales industry as well as writing ethical standards for sales professionals. No system has been set up, as exists in the legal or accounting professions, to self-police the sales industry.

In 2006, we, as consumers, are still in the situation where when a sales person gets you to buy something that does not perform they way it was promised, or costs a different amount from what you expected based on the sales person's representations, it is very difficult for the consumer to right the wrong without wasting enormous amounts of time, energy and frustration. For an industry to transform itself into a profession, it must develop a system of zero quality defects, self policing, certification and a system to make consumers whole when they are injured economically by actions that fall below the recognized standards of the profession. Although the United Professional Sales Association may be moving the industry in that direction, it is a long, hard push today.

Evolution and Its Winners

Darwin taught us that evolution works because it produces "winners." For those seeking to transform the sales industry where sales persons treat their customers as objects and manipulation and deception are as commonplace as truth and understanding and meeting the customer's real needs, they must know how to WIN. They must know how to train and certify a sales force so that it lives by the new professional standards set in the industry, it gets others to begin to live by these standards and it creates winners out of those who follow these new standards (and become sales professionals in the process) and creates losers out of those who do not live according to these standards.

"Sales" is often called a "process" by leaders in the field. Growth Strategies, Inc. has produced a ten step "Sales Process in a Nutshell, Vol 1. No. 69, July 25 that is available from our company. However, state of the art "sales" must become a discipline, not merely a process. This discipline must be developed, in writing, and accepted by a critical mass of the sales industry to take hold. The future of the sales industry, in our eyes, includes "sales" becoming a discipline, with curricula, certification, courses, ethical standards, punishments for sales persons who violate them and compensation for their victims. And, we believe that the companies that "mint" their sales forces with these new standards and new disciplines will be the winners in the economy where consumers are getting smarter and wiser every minute. These steps will transform the sales industry from a "vocation" to a "profession."

Conclusion

The future of the sales profession is now becoming clear. High ethical standards, strong knowledge acquisition skills, excellent customer relationship and customer service skills, true leadership competencies, strong attention to detail, great listening skills, strong time and personal management skills, computer sophistication and good math and analytical capabilities will become the minimum requirements for the true sales professional of the 21st century.

The sales profession is about to undergo a "reengineering" of an extent that it has never had to undergo before. As consumers evolve, sales professionals, whose main job is to "lead consumers" must get way ahead of the consumer's growth trajectory. Those who survive this reengineering will know how to produce more sales with less support and fewer expenses. As the sales industry organizes itself, secures the necessary 3rd party certification systems and increases its own "human capital," it will be viewed more and more as an assets by the companies and organizations and by the customers who count of them to meet their needs.

The evolution of the sales profession will not come about easily. Standards are harder to teach, than create and harder yet to enforce. Today, sales persons are excellent at "capturing value," but not very good at "creating value." Capturing value is usually a "solo" exercise, while creating value is almost always a team or collective exercise. Such a transformation from an industry designed to capture value to an industry designed to create value will require leaders who understand the needs of the industry and the needs of the society. They must take the realm of the sales industry, an industry surely as "disorganized" as Mark Twain viewed our "organized" political parties in his day. Pushing themselves up to the leadership position in the sales industry, those who proclaim they will transform the sales industry in our life time will require organizational genius, political fortitude and a significant investment of time and energy.

Taking the sales industry to the next level, means organizing one of the most fragmented, if not the most fragmented industry in the United States. But there are people with vision in the sales industry, thinking about more than making their "quota," or bagging that big bonus. There are sales professionals today who meet the highest standards of professionalism, knowledge and ethics that will ever represent the highest standards in the sales industry.

Getting employers to recognize the value of third party certification and paying for it, getting employers to demand the qualities and performance I have outlined in this article and getting universities, community colleges and other educational institutions to begin to offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in the field of sales, will all be necessary to transform the sales "process" of today into the sales "discipline" of the future. The time for the leaders who see and live this vision to act is now.

Biographical Information

Herb Rubenstein is an attorney and the CEO of Growth Strategies, Inc., a leadership and management consulting firm. He is co-author of Breakthrough, Inc. – High Growth Strategies for Entrepreneurial Organizations (Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 1999). His email address is herb@growth-strategies.com and he can be reached at (301) 718-4200 in Bethesda, Maryland or (202) 236-7626 in Washington, D.C.
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