Ian Helps: why has sales failed to professionalise?


Ian Helps. APS Board Meeting at Grange Langham Court Hotel, London. 2.12.15 Photographer Sam Pearce/www.square-image.co.uk

We all know a professional when we see one: someone who has a role to play, and does it with skill, thought and understanding. Sometimes it is easy to identify. I remember seeing a nurse persuading my aunt to take the medicine she needed in her final days, guiding her through the most difficult of times with care, compassion and skill.  This was someone who was doing her job well, using her experience and her powers of persuasion in the best interests of her patient.

What the nurse was doing was at its most basic a form of sales. Her professionalism in persuading others, her altruism and compassion, were engrained by her medical training and continuous professional development. But outside the doors of a hospital, in less dramatic and less regulated circumstances, what does it take to be a sales professional?


Sales is ubiquitous in society. It is the means of influence by which all human endeavour results in new actions. Business people, social entrepreneurs and politicians engage their audience,  develop opportunities and solve new challenges via the “selling” of new products, solutions, services and ideas. In its greatest form, sales creates a better world: think of Gandhi selling the idea of peaceful resistance, Martin Luther King selling the idea of equality amongst the races.

Despite this, or maybe because of this ubiquity, the millions of people who are employed in sales in the UK alone have failed to develop sales as a profession, failed to develop professional bodies, in the way that doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers and even procurement specialists have.

This document seeks to answer the question: “why is this, and what would need to happen now to create an enduring sales profession and representative body?”


Customers can be influenced for good or for bad reasons. It is the first and most important principle of professionalism that people who use influence have a responsibility. We may be trying to reach a goal – selling something – but a professional has, at their heart, the customer. It is not about the quick buck. If you do the right thing, the customer will trust you and come back.

So it should be simple. Yet selling is too often known for the bad headlines: the mis-selling of payment protection insurance, so often-reported that we ditched the words long ago and now just talk about PPI; the Ponzi schemes and boiler-room scams that have robbed unsuspecting victims of their life savings; or even charities hounding well-meaning donors.

Charities. It doesn’t seem possible does it? We find ourselves in a world where even well-meaning fundraising organisations have incurred the wrath of parliament, with MPs telling them: get your house in order or be controlled by the law.  

The act of buying a product, a service, an idea, or even putting money in a charity bucket, is one of trust –  trust that the solution being bought will deliver according to its promise. If that promise is broken, the consequences may be minor – a small waste of money – but as the minor becomes major, broken promises can have a serious impact on safety, on corporate reputations, on careers and even future generations.

We have lived through an age of opaque business practices and seen unethical sellers making money at their customers’ bitter expense.

Some made breaking promises an art form, and their dodgy deals were only rarely and slowly found out, but now our world is increasingly transparent. The internet and social media have the power to expose a scam almost before it’s started, so managing reputations is going to become a much more important task. 


On paper, the answer is simple. The best way to have a good reputation is to be fair, honest and reliable: in a word, reputable. As MPs have told the charities, the ends can never justify uncharitable means.       

So, what is a profession, and how can this help us to do the right thing? It is an occupation that uses skill, knowledge and practice to provide a specialised service. When we act in a professional way, we use independent judgement, often in accordance with a code of conduct, and in the public interest.

So, doing the right thing is good for our reputation and good for our wider society. But what about the key pressure all salespeople face – the bottom line?

At the Association of Professional Sales, our experience and research has shown us that businesses perform best when they work in accordance with a professional code of ethics and in the public interest.

Our view is supported by EY, the multinational London-based services company. Their survey into fraud and corruption highlights a basic human truth: people like to do business with people they trust. 

As a result, companies with higher ethical standards are more likely to be seeing their revenues grow.

It does not take detailed analytics to describe the importance of organisational reputation. Intangible assets, like brand equity, today account for a lion’s share of a company’s market value, making organisations ever more vulnerable to anything that may damage their reputation among external and internal stakeholders.


This leaves the remaining issue of the professionalism process, where we should ask ourselves: what was missing in past efforts?

We suggest that there a number of factors that will be critical for sales to succeed in getting to the position where it has a professional body like the ICAEW for accountants or the BMA for doctors.

  1. Codifying ethical standards – we favour having members upholding and promoting ethical standards and having ethics at the core of the standards we develop and the expectations of APS members. Past standards exercises have little or only superficial engagement with these issues. This has left the resulting enablement in being fleeting. The tough issues in sales come from managing the dilemmas at the point of sale, in balancing the interests of self, customer and employing organisation. Without an ethical core, the management of such dilemmas can easily become unprofessional.
  2. Independent oversight – the body developing and accrediting the standards should be demonstrably neutral and preferably not for profit, so that it acts as a clear independent setter of standards of qualifications, learning and practice.
  3. Listening and learning – the development of standards needs to be an agile process, an alliance of interested parties under the guidance of the neutral body. The group must consist of senior sales professionals who are prepared to implement the outcomes as early adopters, expert learning providers in sales and preferably customers. Sales is a very practical profession and anything less is doomed to failure, as has been proven many times in the past.
  4. Continual development – historically much sales enablement has been “tell”: telling sales professionals how to change, convincing them that their old habits are at fault, cajoling them that the the resulting standards are “right” and that they are “wrong”. Whilst we acknowledge that new entrants to the sales profession need careful guidance and education, we believe that we are looking for an inclusive education, a conversation, an open engagement.

The APS has learnt all these lessons from careful listening and dialogue with hundreds of sales professionals and their leaders. We are putting in place a professionalism process that operates according to these critical success factors. 

We believe we’ve got it right, and that the professionalism of sales is happening now under the auspices of the APS.

Ian Helps is chairman of the Association of Professional Sales ethics community.