Sales as a Profession (SaaP)

Howard Stevens, founder of the Sales Education Foundation (SEF) used to like to ask, “What do you call the person who graduated last in their class from medical school?” Answer: Doctor.

The point is that even the last in class passed a certain standard level of education; in this case, medical school. University education is one way to decide who gets to be called a professional.

If, however, your definition of professional, as opposed to amateur, is that a person is paid for doing it, and, that a collection of these people constitutes a profession, then clearly sales qualifies. But, does this make sales a profession? Many would answer: No. Some consider “sales professional” to be an oxymoron, like “professional wrestling.”

But there are schools today that offer a certificate or degree in sales. According to Sally Stevens, Executive Director of the SEF, of the more than 4300 universities and colleges in the United States today, fewer than 100 offer a degree or certificate in sales.

Graduates of these programs are snapped up by employers, happy to have new hires who have already been through some formal sales training. Still, with so few programs available, most salespeople today came from other majors. Unsurprisingly, business was the number one major of the 550 sales reps CSO Insights surveyed. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors were a close second; yet, 1 in 10, making up 3rd place, were sales majors. This is a major departure from a generation ago when essentially zero would have been sales majors.

The STEM and business majors typically have training in other areas attractive to employers and useful in sales: analytical skills, math competency, tech savvy. Cate Gutowski, VP of Commercial Digital Sales Transformation at GE, shared that in addition to sales skills the salesperson of the future will speak the language of business, think in terms of customer outcomes, be financially savvy, and understand/live shareholder value.

The landscape will continue to shift and at an accelerating rate. Artificial intelligence (AI) may displace many transactional sellers but also promises to create new opportunities and requirements. Jim Dickie, co-founder of CSO Insights, says AI will alleviate the tedium of data entry, prospect research and pipeline/sales funnel reporting/forecasting. At the same time, AI will provide new levels of insight into buyers, their interests and proclivities. Selling energy will shift to ingenuity/insight, and away from tedium. Sellers will be required to develop higher emotional quotients (EQ) for elevated relationships and ingenuity quotient (IQ) for higher value-add.

The sum of these movements and messages is that sales has moved beyond a collection of skills and proven methods and into the next stage of professional evolution. At the same time, the ease, speed and convenience of online shopping now married to and accelerated by technologies such as marketing automation and artificial intelligence cause some to wonder if SaaP is not only an oxymoron, but one with an imminent expiration date.

Forester (April 2015) predicted 20% of North American sales jobs in B2B would be eliminated by 2020. CSO Insights’ research has found no data to support this; to the contrary, one year later (2016 is the latest data on this, we’ll be asking again in 2018), only 3% of respondents expected their sales organization to shrink. 30% said theirs would remain the same, and the remaining 67% said they planned to grow the size of their sales organization by a weighted average of 12.8%

At the same time the nature of what sellers will be doing, the tools available to help them do their work, and the profile of current/future sellers are rapidly evolving. Increasingly, the ability to bring analytic and tech-savvy skills to traditional relationship and communication abilities is seen as the winning combination to sales success (current and future).

Sales today is no longer art OR science but art AND science. CRM has become increasingly, ubiquitous, high-speed, wireless and cheap. AI promises to bring—eventually not immediately—increasing insights, best practices and standards

As practitioners balance and increase adoption of technology and process into their daily sales activities, what works and doesn’t will be more readily recognized. This data stream will provide feedback to fuel a virtuous loop of continuous improvement and increasing science toward professional stature.

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