Apprenticeships, and the long road back from mis-selling scandals

Ben Turner, APS general manager

December 6, 2017: If you need something that doesn’t exist, someone has to create it. That was how the Association of Professional Sales (APS) began its campaign to develop apprenticeships for sales, writes Ben Turner, APS general manager.

To understand why, you need to wind back three years to when the APS started, with a daring vision: in future, salespeople would be as well-qualified and as respected as chartered accountants, lawyers and other professions. At the time, reports in the media were full of mis-selling scandals and to many, the idea of trusted, ethical salespeople seemed laughable.  Clearly it was going to be a long road to make the APS’s vision a reality.

If we wanted to be respected as professionals we had to act like them, and be seen to act like them. This meant we needed a professional body to regulate salespeople, which is what the APS set out to become; and we needed to be trained to standards that outsiders could trust. So the APS wondered how to create nationally-recognised and funded qualifications everyone would respect. And the answer was clear: apprenticeships.

Why apprenticeships?

The APS was entering a huge and crowded marketplace, because there was already a wealth of sales training out there. Three million people work in the UK sales industry and the vast majority have experienced some training during their career, usually through their employer.

Much excellent training was being delivered, by organisations ranging from giants like Huthwaite International and Miller Heiman, through independent colleges and providers, to the L&D departments within forward-thinking corporates. At the other end of the spectrum, some training was far from excellent and was a poor investment by employers.

Overall, it was cacophony. The APS could see that sales training needed a single set of standards that everyone was judged by – independent, national standards, that could gradually become known and respected outside the profession.

We could also see that employers did not have unlimited spare cash to invest in new initiatives. At the same time, the government was making it known that it favoured apprenticeships for in-work learning, and to pay for this it was about to bring in a major new tax on all larger employers called the apprenticeship levy.

The only problem for sales was that there were hardly any sales apprenticeships in existence. There was almost no way for sales people to benefit from any of the £340m their employers were being expected to pay into the apprenticeship levy pot to fund training.

Breaking new ground

After some debate we began our campaign with something unique and eye-catching: Britain’s first ever degree-level apprenticeship in sales.

New apprenticeships can’t be drawn up on the back of an envelope. The government insists they are created by a group of independent employers, to ensure they are fit for economic purpose. The work is done by a committee of employers known as a trailblazer group.

So the APS recruited Louise Sutton as its apprenticeships expert, and she and Ian Helps, the APS Director of Standards, invited employers to form a trailblazer group. Graham Davis, sales director at Royal Mail, agreed to be the chairman, and Ms Sutton provided administrative support and expertise to drive the work forward.

The group held its first meeting in September 2016, and in near record time the first ever degree apprenticeship for B2B sales professionals was agreed by the government’s Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) 12 months later.

Royal Mail was so keen to adopt the new qualification, that its first cohort of apprentices started work and study less than a fortnight after the government’s Institute for Apprenticeship’s announced at an APS-sponsored sales conference – amid cheers – that the apprenticeship curriculum had been approved.

Training for all

A degree course for the future leaders of the sales industry is fantastic, but it benefits the few rather than the many.

The next task was to create a general purpose qualification that any of the 3 million people working in a sales job could aspire towards. Early in 2017 the APS set about developing a Level 4 sales apprenticeship, a course for anyone working in a sales executive role.

The process was the same; a trailblazer group was recruited, and permission was obtained from the IfA to develop a “standard” – the term for the list of skills and knowledge that students will learn on the course.

This week, the big news we had been hoping for has come through: the IfA has approved the “standard” for the new Level 4 sales apprenticeship. Now work can begin with some of those sales training providers, writing the actual curriculum for future courses.

The APS that will carry out the end-point assessment. We will decide whether the courses are fit for purpose, and endorse whether the students have passed. Successful apprentices will be admitted as members of the APS, and will receive qualifications awarded by the APS.

In other words, the APS will be their professional body, registering them and regulating them.

What next?

Compare all that against the grand vision that the APS set out with, and you’ll see that in three short years we have laid a lot of groundwork. But there’s still a long way to go before it becomes a reality. We need time: time for the first apprenticeship courses to become established and gain a reputation for excellence, time for more apprenticeships to be developed.

If all goes well, as more people take the courses a virtuous circle will be set up. The APS’s track record as a regulator will help to convince the Privy Council that it should be recognised by statute as the chartered professional body of the sales industry.

By degrees, the public will become aware that things have changed. And who knows? Maybe one day no-one will smile when salespeople are mentioned in same breath as teachers and accountants.