June 14, 2017: There is an advert set on board a commercial jet where the pilot announces that he’s kicked the tyres a bit, and is pretty sure he knows the way and that they have enough fuel to make it to their destination.
Not surprisingly, the passengers are not reassured by the pilot’s pre-flight patter. Instead of buckling up for take off, people on the plane exchange anxious glances, grab their bags and get off. They are not willing to trust someone who doesn’t have a clear grasp of how to do his job.
That is a fair analogy for the sales industry, writes Ben Turner, general manager of the Association of Professional Sales (APS). Selling is the lifeblood of industry. Selling goods and services is a critically important function for businesses everywhere in the world. So why do we continue to entrust it to people who don’t have a rulebook or a set of benchmarks for how to do the job in a professional way?
Four reasons why sales needs a professional body
Sales needs a professional body for many reasons, but I’ll look at four of the strongest. One good reason is to attract the best new talent to the industry. At a recent APS book launch, author Paul Owen revealed how a university careers department had told him bluntly: “Students don’t come to this university to go into a career in sales.”
There may be three million people working in sales, but sales recruiters still have a mountain of prejudice to overcome. Most people still fall into the job by accident.
Attracting the best will be less problematic if sales has professional training, academic qualifications to postgraduate level, and career development, with all the status, respect and earning power these offer to tempt the brightest.
A second reason is to support sales companies. Unless we have professional standards, how can a company monitor how well their sales teams are performing? Judging sellers on their number is a very blunt instrument. As markets develop so fast, who is to say what is under-performance and what is good? Clear benchmarks about what constitutes best practice will help everyone.
A third reason is to improve the quality of dealmaking. Professional buyers have told us that they prefer to have another professional on the opposite side of the table because it makes for mutually beneficial and so more durable deals.
But the most important reason is to restore the faith of customers, who are wary of and frustrated by salespeople. Trust was never high, but the mis-selling scandals since the 2008 crash have left the reputation of sellers in the mire. To restore trust we need to convince clients that we have a rulebook and a set of benchmarks.
Like the nervous plane passengers, customers need reassuring that we know what we are doing, and will look after their best interests by doing what we promise. The best way to accomplish that is to professionalise.
What a professional body does
Sales companies have always been willing to throw big money at training, but often with little real way of telling whether their money has been effective in improving performance.
This is the first place that having a professional body can make a difference. By setting standards and benchmarks, it becomes possible to accredit the training that outside bodies offer, making it obvious which training complies with best practice and which does not.
Professional accreditation will regularise the current chaotic picture, bearing down on in-house qualifications that may not mean anything outside the company, and dangerous schemes which allow people to be self-accrediting.
Secondly, it becomes possible to increase the academic quality and diversity of training by tempting in universities and research institutions to offer courses.
Thirdly, a chartered professional body can set in place a framework of continuous professional development (CPD) within which sales people can excel, progress and reap the rewards. That progress can be recognised worldwide, allowing a sales person to move into a job in the Far East and have their achievements understood and valued.
Going back to our goal of convincing customers that sales has changed, a professional body is best placed to introduce an ethos of values and principles in the way we do business. This can be taught through qualifications and CPD.
We need to be consistently good and reliable, and also to have the means to say to prospects: “I am qualified and accredited. I know what I am doing and I will look after you well.”
How close we are to becoming the professional body for sales
It is a year since the APS chief executive Andrew Hough announced a raft of firsts for the sales industry at our 2016 annual conference: the first ever universal code of ethics; the first ever public register of sales professionals who have passed an exacting test to prove their commitment to an ethics code; and the first universal system of continuous professional development in sales.
The pace of change hasn’t slackened since then, with the first ever degree-level apprenticeship in sales slated to start this year. We set up an independent trailblazer group that, in record time, devised the framework for the degree course. In April we got the excellent news that the government had accepted the framework, allowing universities and training bodies to start work on designing courses for the first batch of undergraduate sales apprentices to start this September.
Because it is an apprenticeship, sales companies can claw back the costs of sending their staff on the course, by reclaiming the tax that they pay under the apprenticeship levy.
It doesn’t stop there – more sales apprenticeship standards at school-leaver and at Masters level are now in the planning.
We have retained the services of Francis Ingham, a highly experienced parliamentary consultant who is advising us on our application to the Privy Council for royal chartered status – the recognition that we are truly the professional body for sales.
Our move to become a worldwide professional body for sales is unparalleled. The US is looking at the APS with interest to see the progress of professionalisation.
Sales people can be cynical, and it may have crossed your mind to wonder if you can trust us. Let me reassure you. The APS is a not-for-profit organisation, We have a vested interest in ensuring quality. We are not going to make the mistake of showering accreditations like confetti on people to carry on doing what they have always done.
The Association of Professional Sales provides development, standards and leadership to the profession.