Learning to become a selling machine

Businesses live and die on sales, so why is it so hard to find a good salesman or to become one?

Alfred Meyer speaks plainly when he talks about the sales profession. Sales, says the Chicago recruiter, are for the quick and the dead. “You’re only as good as your last new deal,” he notes.

Today’s competitive global market depends more than ever on top-notch salespeople to grow the bottom line. The daily pressure to bring in additional revenue is just one reason why top professionals are in high demand and very tough to find.

In fact, sales professionals were the hardest employees to find, according to surveys in 2006 and 2007 by Manpower Inc., Milwaukee. Another study released by the talent-management consultancy Bersin and Associates found that 39 percent of the 750 companies surveyed reported shortages in sales professionals.

Manpower spokesman Paul Holley says the talent crunch starts with a shortage of people. One of the big reasons: “It’s an extremely demanding position and not one that everyone can do,” he says. Another reason: Few people want to accept commission for a job that can end in feast or famine, he says.

CSO Insights, a research and consulting firm in Boulder, Colo., that conducts the annual “Sales Performance Optimization” survey of more than 1,300 companies in the United States, found that fewer sales people met their objectives for 2006.

Meyer adds that most people don’t grow up thinking they want to go into sales, even though it’s a career that can net successful men and women six-figure incomes.

Colleges rarely offer a specialized major, and that’s also hurting the profession since sales people must not only be as persistent and outgoing as they were in days past but also market savvy, methodical and able to do comprehensive research.

“They must be much better organized. Time management is also extremely crucial,” Meyer adds.

Unfortunately, many people entering sales learn those additional skills on the fly since they can’t spend months learning from experts in the field before they get their first job, the way they could if they were able to take college courses. As a result, many find they cannot compete and move on to other careers, experts say.

But there is help on the way. While colleges and universities have been slow to recognize sales as a profession that has come a long way from the “smile and a handshake” method of doing business, the sales industry itself has taken some steps to offer training.

The United Professional Sales Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, was formed in 1999 to better define the sales profession in these tumultuous economic times. The association’s founders realized that few businesses had any real idea what role the sales professional plays in the day-to-day life of a company.

UPSA has tried to correct that by defining the various roles highly competent salespeople play within a business as they strive to build customer satisfaction and loyalty. These roles include being a strategic planner, a persuasive communicator, a concerted facilitator, an effective manager and a value-driven guardian.

Those definitions, says Meyer, help business leaders understand that good salespeople are much more than order-writing automatons. It also, he says, helps executives understand that as business changes, so do the roles of the sales staff.

Recruiters trying to lure bright young people into the profession say they feel limited by the few training and management programs in place at businesses. Such programs can help salespeople succeed, he says, but they exist in only a relative handful of companies.

Employers also don’t know what type of attributes and skills to look for when hiring a salesperson. More technical skills increasingly are required, but most employers don’t offer programs to train their young salespeople.

Some of the soft skills remain the same. “A good candidate has fire in the belly,” Meyer says. He or she also has to have a “hate to lose” attitude and openness to being coached.

But when they find someone with that attitude and the willingness to learn, many companies don’t offer good incentive packages to win them over. That, Meyer says, makes it difficult to recruit top-flight talent.

“You know when you find them that you’re probably not the only ones talking to them about the next best thing,” he says.

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