Detroit once hosted a groundbreaking and dynamic sales conference. Its mission was to promote the dignity of sales-manship and thousands of representatives showed up, including top executives from Ford, NCR and Cadillac.
Another leader in attendance was the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The year was 1916.
“We’ve been talking about improving the image of the sales profession for over a 100 years,” says Dr. Terry Loe, associate professor, Kennesaw State University. “Finally, thanks to the movement in business and higher education to get people trained in the area of sales, I think we’re going to make a difference.”
Smart Business spoke with Loe about how the best companies are training their sales forces and how the latest iteration of college marketing graduates may help vanquish the negative stigmas attache to the sales profession.
What foundations of selling will always be relevant?
It’s not a shock that when we’re talking about selling, we’re talking about communication and persistence. Notably, a recent study a meta-analysis of earlier studies came up with 114 different variables that had an impact on sales, and not one of them accounted for more than 10 percent. Adaptability was high on the list as a key trait that deals with critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills to provide solutions.
What spawned the negative stigmas attached to selling?
The first peddlers, at least in the U.S., went from town to town with their cart, bringing news, information and products. People loved to see them. But when the industrial revolution spawned the mass production of goods, companies realized that just because you had product, it didn’t mean it was going to fly off the shelves. So, quotas were developed and salespeople were asked to push their products. In the 1960s and 1970s, it no longer worked to con or manipulate somebody, so companies had to start looking more at what the customers wanted and needed.
Meanwhile, nobody really trained the sales-people. Companies gave them a lot of product knowledge and sent them off to get people to buy their goods. That’s pretty much the genesis of why we have a lot of the stereotypes we have now.
What trend is demanding even more from sales-people?
Companies, rather than having dozens and dozens of suppliers and vendors, are now cutting that number by 50 to 75 percent. So instead of spreading it out, they’re cutting down to fewer relationships with companies they can trust.
How are the best companies increasing the skills and ethics of their sales teams?
Normally, companies bring in salespeople and then give them weeks of product knowledge training, without ever helping them to understand basic sales skills. The best companies are actually teaching their sales force the selling process and how to improve it, including how to prospect, how to communicate to better understand the customer and how to break down barriers to communication to better help the customer. In any relationship, including marriage, you’re going to have a good relationship if you understand the other person because then you can help to meet his or her needs.
Why should CEOs take a closer look at sales?
Companies tend to view their sales force the same as they do other employees. But salespeople are in a uniqu situation they’re the boundary spanners, the people who have the most contact with customers, and they’re the ones in the public eye. They represent the company, they represent the product, and they represent the industry. The CEOs and leaders who understand this do a good job of making sure their salespeople are representing them in a manner that is beneficial not only to the business-client relationship, but to their public image as well. That tone starts at the top and must be communicated not only to sales, but also to marketing, accounting and every other aspect in the firm.
How are colleges and universities changing the face of sales?
Our corporate partners are telling us that they are looking for businesspeople who can read their customers’ business statements and understand their balance sheets so they can help them do their business. That’s where the companies are going now, and that’s what we’re teaching. Prior to 1994 there were hardly any universities who taught sales. It was mentioned in marketing classes but was never considered a viable pursuit for learning. The facts are that about 75 percent of all marketing majors coming out of universities go into sales. With that kind of pressure from the market to provide sales candidates, we’ve gone from one or two universities with sales centers and sales programs to 12 with sales centers, and many more with a sales curriculum. Now, students are learning the sales process, and learning it in a way that will enhance the integrity, professionalism and character of the sales profession.
TERRY W. LOE, Ph.D., is associate professor, director, Center for Professional Selling, and director, National Collegiate Sales Competition, Kennesaw State University. Reach him at (678) 797-2017 or firstname.lastname@example.org.