At the back end of 2012 the ISMM engaged with Toby Perkins MP, Shadow Chancellor for small businesses. The agenda was to discuss how government could assist our profession in its bid to become more credible, better trained and to create career paths for young people. Marc Beishon, Publisher for Winning Edge (the ISMM’s membership publications) writes about the start of this journey.
Creating a National Agenda for Sales
It’s time for all to put their weight behind moves to establish the UK as a leader in professionalising sales
A new year is always a good time to take stock, but 2013 is a particularly good time to review the position of sales in the British (and world) economies and to consider what's on the agenda. That's because there remains a pressing need to optimise business skills in the continuing challenging climate, and there are encouraging signs in the past few years that selling and commercial skills and methods are receiving more attention. How we move forward, building on this momentum, could be critical to competitiveness and the target we all want – recognition of the professionalism of salespeople.
At first glance, the signs are not that great. Figures from various sources show that there are 25% fewer high-performing solution salespeople in the UK than globally, that about 30% of salespeople are in roles they are not suited for, and that students rank sales as lowest for status and job security and satisfaction. Ben Turner, head of sales at the ISMM, notes that buyers in particular have a poor perception of salespeople's credibility, and about half would not be proud to sit on the other side of the table and be a salesperson. “But research by consultancy DDI, in its global sales perceptions report, shows that this is not just a problem in the UK, but a global one,” he says.
Generally, salespeople are mostly ranked as only fair to good at what they do – very few are graded as excellent — and it’s a middle-ranking performance that does not appear to be improving, at least as judged by a majority of buyers.
What hasn’t helped in the UK is the string of mis-selling scandals and high pressure tactics of the utilities and mobile phone companies, and it seems that no sooner than one approach is curtailed, another appears, whack-a-mole like, such as the current spate of automated calls about payment protection insurance and the dreaded ones about checking your PC for viruses, although most of those come from abroad.
B2B selling as well is by no means immune from poor and sometimes unethical practices, with examples such as massive fines in the US for drugs companies misrepresenting their offerings in the healthcare supply chain.
What the ISMM has now started is a campaign to put selling on an equal footing with other professions to address these shortcomings, building on some already solid foundations. There is plenty of material that gives strong leads on what ‘good’ looks like in selling, such as the annual surveys from CSO Insights and Miller Heiman, which give many and detailed metrics on what top performing sales organisations tend to do better, and any number of sales methods and salesperson performance rating books, consultancies and training firms.
But as Turner points out, what is required is a the kind of research base that colleagues in marketing have developed, and this should be underpinned by a partnership between government, academia, industry and institutes such as the ISMM. This is where there is some encouraging progress, as the UK now does at least have a set of National Occupational Standards for sales, developed in 2006 by the National Sales Board, part of the now disbanded Marketing and Sales Standard Setting Body – the standards are now overseen by Skills CFA, a registered charity that also looks after National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs). It is also the issuing authority for business-related apprenticeship frameworks.
In turn, in England and Northern Ireland, Ofqual is the agency that then regulates awarding bodies for qualifications, which includes the ISMM – and on Ofqual’s website there are no fewer than 67 ISMM sales qualifications from levels 1 to 5 that conform to the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), and which are based on the National Occupational Standards and available to training organisations approved by the ISMM to deliver.
If that sounds complicated, it is – and there just isn’t enough promotion by government of the importance to ‘UK plc’ of the benefits that properly accredited and researched training frameworks can bring to the workforce. That said, as Turner points out, the situation for sales is far better than a few years ago – with the interest now in sales academies, in particular, there are now several thousand sales and sales-related personnel taking these qualifications, rather than hundreds, in major companies such as AXA, BT, SIG and Virgin, and there is also strong interest from overseas for this approach to sales learning, which the ISMM is promoting.
“It’s not about a particular sales methodology but about salespeople understanding that there is a range of approaches that can be applied to their profession,” says Turner, who adds that the current trend to focus on value applies as much to the what the salesperson brings to the table as professionals as to their solutions. It’s a view reinforced by work by McKinsey, which we reported in 2010, that buyers most value the ‘sales experience’ they encounter, and respond best to fewer, meaningful and highly knowledgeable interactions. More recently, we ran an in-depth article by Nick Lee, professor of marketing and organisational research at Aston Business School, and Ian Luxford of Grassroots, on research on the qualities that people associate with salespeople.
The ISMM has also opened an avenue for exploring the buyer-seller relationship with a new partnership with the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, with events and discounted membership of both bodies now underway.
Given that there are hundreds of thousands of sales and sales-related personnel in the UK, there is huge scope to enlarge the reach of sales professionalisation, building on the standards and qualifications, although these are by no means the last word in what works, and there is a major opportunity for the UK to become a leader in more research. What is needed? Says Turner: “We asked Nick Lee, who has strong sales interests, what it would take to position the UK in selling, as marketing did successfully several decades ago. About £40 million was his answer.
“That may seem a large sum but not when set against possibly a million customer-facing staff generating more than a trillion pounds worth of business year – but presently the government ranks selling lower than hairdressing in its priorities.”
What there appears to be – and which is a common government falling – is a lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking, such that initiatives started a few years ago tail off, and different departments have a fragmented piece of the action, such as it is. A good example is the position of business studies in school and higher education – the 14-19 diplomas started by the last government now have lukewarm support, while the interests of industry are split between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. On business studies courses, such as A levels, selling is rarely mentioned as part of the curriculum, despite the government’s own surveys, by yet another body, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, showing that sales and customer service are among the skills most lacking in the workforce and are also among the jobs with high vacancy rates. There are more young people taking up sales apprenticeships now, but relatively few compared with other subjects such as business administration. A few bright spots are in some schools that have adopted ISMM level 1 and 2 sales qualifications as part of their business studies teaching.
Beth Rogers, head of marketing and sales at Portsmouth Business School, who was on the National Sales Board, comments: "I fear that other countries are going to overtake the UK on sales skills. It will not come as a surprise to anyone that sales education is currently booming in the US, because business sponsors of higher education want sales-ready graduates.
“What may be more of a wake-up call for the UK is the performance of Finland, where the government encourages sales education because new companies in their small local market have to go global very quickly. In a developed economy you don't get to grow fast internationally by being cheaper at anything, you get it by knowing how to grow your revenue by being smarter and better at creating value for customers with very different needs."
Adds Rogers: "The labour market report for sales commissioned by the government in 2008 revealed huge gaps in the sales skills needed by employers, and post-recession, in 2012, the latest report for sales shows the same problem persists. We have world-class occupational standards for sales, but more publicity is needed to ensure they are leveraged by UK plc. The government quite rightly pays attention to legislating against bad selling, but policymakers should consider how important it is to encourage good selling in its place."
Rogers was one of a group of sales activists invited to the House of commons roundtable recently by Toby Perkins, shadow minister for small businesses, and the ISMM, to discuss sales skills and qualifications as part of the campaign. Perkins is a rare MP – he has a sales background – and is firmly behind the push for raising the bar for the profession.
“I went into telephone sales straight from school, was in IT sales for seven years and in sales and sales management roles in the recruitment industry,” says Perkins, who adds that he was initially placed with an employer by a specialist sales training firm, as companies such as Pareto Law now do today. He has also run his own company, Club Rugby, a rugby kit distributor.
Perkins sees a big gap in what he terms ‘enterprise skills’ at all levels, and would like to see much more emphasis on such skills on education and work experience. He points out that students often have completely unrealistic expectations about jobs and careers – “There just aren’t many jobs for forensic scientist for kids who’ve been watching CSI Miami – but about 10% of jobs in the UK are in sales.” He agrees that selling has been largely written out of business studies courses, and it is a particular problem for his remit – small businesses – which tend to lack the resources to train their own people and must reply on the market. More joined-up work between education and business, helped by government, is certainly needed, says Perkins, noting that apprenticeships are not being pushed enough, and ideas such as more businesspeople on school governing bodies are among those he is investigating.
Perkins does feel that the current government is not serving business well and is obviously keen to set out the Labour Party’s stall as a supporter of small companies. "There are few people like me in Parliament but Ed Miliband wants more with a business background – and we have selected candidates in Milton Keynes and Stafford who have.”
He would want to see the ISMM and other bodies more involved in government programmes – “Obviously we are not in power but I would want to see that policies are scrutinised by the ISMM and others,” he says.
Overall, Perkins sees the application of standards as charting an ethical framework for a very large range of professionals, from junior level out of school, as he was, up to those earning a lot at the top of their careers in sales and sales management.
“There should be a supportive role for government and after the initial roundtable I will be learning more about good practice and what the current landscape looks like around the country.”
In December, Perkins appeared with Kate Walsh, a runner-up on The Apprentice, to challenge the lack of investment in sales in the UK, on the BBC’s Daily Politics show, and a segment by Walsh included comment by ISMM director, Stephen Wright.
Watch this space for more on the ISMM’s work to raise the profile of professional sales, which will no doubt attract bipartisan support.
You can see or hear Ben Turner on YouTube making presentations on the status of, and campaign for, sales. A video presentation is from a seminar, ‘The future of driving high performance sales teams’, hosted by learning and training firms Epic and Pareto Law. See bit.ly/13c5Wqk Another presentation from the event was on mobile e-learning by professor John Traxler of the University of Wolverhampton. Also online is a Pareto Law webinar, ‘From sharp practices to sharp talent: where is the future of sales?’, in which Ben Turner features. Go to bit.ly/SdLrbz