Sales as a Profession: Perceptions, Misconceptions, and the Way Forward

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More often than not, people “fell into” or “wound up” in sales, having begun elsewhere. It’s not a problem, per se, (see opening paragraph) but it does beg the question of what it means to be a sales professional and it has spurred my interest in exploring Sales as a Profession (SaaP).

You’ve been in sales for several years, are a solid performer, and considered to be a real pro. You’re happy with your employer, confident in the products/services you represent, and satisfied with your station in life (house, car, family situation, etc.). It’s great to be in sales and, if asked, you’d let folks know this isn’t your first rodeo.

Given this as background, it would be interesting to ask, “Well then, what was your first rodeo?” More often than not, the answer wouldn’t be sales—or selling for a living. Given the number of men and women making their living selling, it’s interesting to note that few started with this as a career objective.

More often than not, people “fell into” or “wound up” in sales, having begun elsewhere. It’s not a problem, per se, (see opening paragraph) but it does beg the question of what it means to be a sales professional and it has spurred my interest in exploring Sales as a Profession (SaaP).

If your definition of professional, as opposed to amateur, is that a person is paid for doing it, and that a collection of these folks constitutes a profession, then clearly sales qualifies. While some practitioners are busy everyday without pay, this is generally not  by choice—and short-lived.

But, does this make sales a profession? Many would answer: No. These are folks that consider “Sales Professional” to be an oxymoron, similar to “Professional Wrestling.” Howard Stevens, founder of the Sales Education Foundation (SEF) liked to introduce this topic by asking, “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 major milestone on the path to professional recognition. According to Wikipedia, moving from trade to occupation to profession includes: 1) becoming a full-time occupation; 2) the establishment of a training school; 3) the establishment of a university school; 4) the establishment of a local association; 5) establishment of a national association of professional ethics; and, finally, 6) the establishment of state licensing laws.

CSO Insights will be releasing a more detailed paper I wrote on this in the next few months, but until then, beginning the conversation here and inviting your comments/observations seems like appropriate grist for the Seller’s Challenge.

Perceptions and Misconceptions

For sure, sales has been around for a long time, facilitating the exchange of money (in whatever form) for goods/services. This “facilitation,” was not always the most honest/upright, hence the term “snake-oil salesman,” a term still heard today, tracing its roots back to fast-talking pitchmen selling elixirs and potions from the back of buckboards across pioneer America.

A more current and common term—and popular misconception—is “used car salesman.” This pejorative labeling of sales reps, in general, and the men and women who sell cars, in particular, reflects the game-playing and lack of transparency many feel they have experienced firsthand and then project onto every other buyer-seller interaction.

It should be noted, by whatever name, there is no artistry/mastery in selling something one time. Simply overpromise, underdeliver, and move on. This may have worked (one time) when America was still largely wide open and disconnected but, clearly those days are gone. Give a buyer a poor experience today and it will be broadcast to the world wide web (Twitter, Yelp, Next Door, etc.) faster than you can say, “Trust me.”

A further generalization is simply, sales people just waste my time. The antidote to this has been the blossoming of online buying of goods epitomized today by Amazon and Alibaba.

Sales Reps RIP?

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 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, there’s no question, 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).

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring what progress sales has made toward professional status, what educational programs have been and are emerging in support of this evolution, and what things remain the same for SaaP.

In the interim, we invite your comments, experiences, observations and/or opinions about where sales has come from and, more importantly, where it’s going. Does professional recognition even matter? Is escape from the “used car salesman” label even possible? These and other questions will be the topics of the next few columns. YOU are invited to add your voice to this discussion.

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Barry Trailer

Barry Trailer

Barry is co-founder of Sales Mastery, a sales research and advisory firm focused on AI-for-Sales solutions and Sales as a Profession. His 40 years of sales and sales management expertise including co-founder of CSO Insights, (acquired by Miller Heiman/Korn+Ferry), president of Miller Heiman, and president of Goldmine software. Barry has researched thousands of companies, and coached advisory clients to successfully transform their sales organizations. He has a rich background and proficiency in all things B2B sales and brings this expertise to advisory services clients, sellers, and sales leaders through speaking engagements (pre-COVID), articles, videos, social posts, and more. He is currently an author/adviser to CustomerThink.com. He has written for numerous publications and has been twice published in the Harvard Business Review and was twice a keynote for HBR’s Warsaw Sales Summit.

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