Sales Professionalism – The Next Big Thing?

November 17, 2017

In the last couple of years, an undercurrent of change has been flowing around the sales industry. Industry events and forums are carrying titles such as “The New Era of Differentiation” or “The Big Bang of Sales Professionalism”; the first a thought-provoking event organised by the Association of Professional Sales (APS) back in 2016 and the second a fantastic day of ideas and knowledge sharing hosted by Consalia this year as part of their Global Sales Transformation event series at the London Stock Exchange.

The work done by these two organisations is helping the sales industry advance professionalism and ensure a bright future with announcements this year that the UK government granted the first-ever degree standard apprenticeship for sales a direct result of their lobbying and vision.

The Association of Professional Sales has a wider goal to establish chartered status for the sales profession by 2020, and they are now the leading community for sales people. They are a not-for-profit organisation, reinvesting in the profession to build standards, trust and education. Their “Professional Registration” process is open to all who work in sales, puts ethics and professionalism at the forefront with those who pass the associated exam listed on a national database of sales professionals. More than 2,000 people are now on this register and it is growing fast as companies recognise this can act as a differentiator for their sales forces in the eyes of the market.

On the other side of the coin, you only need to spend a few minutes browsing pages on “go-to” platforms such as LinkedIn or Forbes to see article titles such as “Four Steps to Becoming a Modern Sales Professional” or “Ten Steps to Professionalism in Sales” (as individuals, training companies, coaches, business and more tap in to this language) to realise that sales professionalism, or more specifically, the use of the phrase sales professional, is the new zeitgeist.

This is all great right? So what’s my point?

Well, my point is actually a fear. A fear of dilution, which has been expressed to me by various sales people in recent times. I’ll explain (and then quash it).

Being simplistic, if we categorise sales people into heroes and villains, with the heroes being an ethical bunch, utterly customer focussed, truly consultative, creative and emotionally intelligent and the villains being the “get a deal at all costs” brigade, more focused on short-term gain than customer objectives (told you I was simplifying), then the emerging trend of defining sales professionalism (for ultimately that is what is happening) is great news. It feels like the time of the hero, with sales organisations embracing freedom of thought, diversity and creativity rather than imposing set structures that create armies of sales robots. The quality of sales conversations, the scale of opportunity and sense of pride in sales work is increasing across the land and those who recognise and embrace this are flourishing.

However, in the wings are the villains, lurking in the shadows ready to capitalise on “this sales professionalism stuff” as the next big thing. What would stop them jumping on the professionalism roadshow, labelling their methods and processes in the same way and maybe even obtaining Professional Registration status for their sales people, to tick a box and keep up with everyone else? This could be done without a change in integrity or culture. Wouldn’t this ultimately mean that customer choice is again diluted and the resurgence of the hero gets stopped in its tracks?

Well no. Here’s why.

Unlike sales methods, techniques or processes, sales professionalism is not a system to be followed, it is something that you have to live and breathe. You can’t just sit an exam, slap on a label and convince the market you are professional, you have to demonstrate this repeatedly over time through the combination of a number of skills combined with displays of vulnerability and honest self-appraisal. You have to make personal development as much of a barometer of success as your latest sales results. You have to naturally put the customer at the heart of your concerns and genuinely want to help them, rather than seeing them as a means to an end. You have to have a long-term outlook rather than be in it for a quick buck and above everything else you have to care.

Sales leaders have to focus on coaching rather than telling, establishing environments where experimentation and creativity are encouraged and spend time and energy recruiting potential heroes, nurturing them to their full potential.

The villains won’t have an appetite for any of this and one of two things will happen. Either they will fall by the wayside as the rest of the industry evolves or, perhaps hearteningly, they will be forced to genuinely change as boards recognise they need to foster better sales cultures to keep up and recruit new “hero” talent to change things. Of course, this may take time, and in the interim organisations like the APS will (as they know) have to spend time spot-checking how they assess member organisations to prevent dilution or the undermining of the Professional Registration kitemark.

Any fear that we will look back on this time as “those years when everyone talked about sales professionalism” is unfounded. For those of us that have passionately cared about the profession our whole careers, it just feels like our time. Organisations like the APS represent what many of us have always thought and thanks to the courage of their founder members they have found a way to bring like-minded individuals together in a blossoming community of ideas sharers. To use Consalia’s conference concept of the Big Bang, this is definitely the start of an infinitely expanding new universe with no possibility of retreat to the old days.

Perhaps the most comforting thought of all is that there could come a point, hopefully not too far away, when the topic of sales professionalism is not required because sales, uniformly, is taken for granted as being a professional career choice.

In the meantime, it is the responsibility of all of us, to not just talk about sales professionalism, but continue to live it, breathe it and care.

Ben Gaston, Sales Director

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