Is sales / sales management a trade, craft, or a profession?

Define trade:

a skilled job, typically one requiring manual skills and special training.

Define profession :

a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

According to these definitions, Sales is still a trade. Something closer to being a blacksmith than to being an investment banker.

Why is there no formal qualification or education for sales?

1) the skills are hard to quantify, and the perception is that they are soft skills
2) selling is different for each client or product
3) pride in learning via trial by fire
4) technology is changing sales

No one has really pinned sales down to a certain set of hard skills, which makes it hard to teach (although sites like try to help with aspects of sales like e-mail marketing through the posts on their site). To make matters worse, each product / industry / go-to-market strategy might require different profiles for the model to succeed. Combined the 2 things make up a big part of the reason that sales lags behind engineering or even marketing in its structured formal education.Man with hammer working on stone statue

The some of the cultural habits of sales people and sales leaders further compound the issue. In some of the more “old school” sales environments, I’ve seen people take pride in throwing sales people and sales managers into the deep end. Lack of training and preparation is viewed as a badge of honor, because that’s how the leaders learned when they were starting out. This way of thinking holds the profession back, and doesn’t make each subsequent generation of sellers and leaders stronger than the last.

Last, sales is changing. Technology is advancing so quickly, that sales leaders will require analytical skills. But the tools and software for sales leads are bound to make the process a lot easier. No doubt in that. Lead-based sales intelligence tools, for example, can help salespeople close leads much easier than the traditional way. If you research more on Crunchbase or similar resources, you can learn about how sales intelligence software helps close deals.

Do other areas of expertise have this problem?

I think a lot of other fields have this problem, but the one that really comes to mind is Product Management ( ) . For a startup building consumer facing technology, everyone has an opinion on product, because everyone is technically a potential user. Many startups try to take a democratic approach, and the results are typically an unusable product designed by committee.

For professional product managers, the risk here is that few people understand the value of the profession since everyone thinks they can do it. This has to be supremely frustrating because if you’ve focused all your time and energy developing one skill, there’s a high chance you’re more effective than someone approaching the job cold.

Is it a problem?

Not having formal training or qualifications is part of what has kept sales as a profession in a state of confusion. The reality is that its really kept “sales” as a four letter word for most people. People don’t want to be sold, and their experiences with bad sales people being pushy / obnoxious / cheesy sets how they think about the profession as a whole. Why do you think so many people try to escape the title of “sales” and try to hide under “business development” (besides trying to avoid a concrete financial target or quota).

Because of these factors, less people are interested in a career in sales, and ultimately the talent pool is reduced. Another side effect, is that people still believe sales is something your’e born with, so they’re not as quick to accept that you need training programs in companies to get people started, and attrition of sales people goes up.

Sales got a head start over other professions like marketing / product / recruiting because it was the first department in a company held accountable for hitting revenue numbers. In theory it was supposed to be the first profession that had a data driven approach. But Sales as a profession never used that fact to get ahead, as you can see in our Sales Machine interview with Saad, he states ” The last decade was about marketing automation and the next decade will be about sales enablement.” Although he’s right in terms of popularity, marketing automation is still used widely and is necessary for a good marketing plan and managing it properly.

Now we’re in a position where we’ve got to play catch-up.

Can Sales be taught?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Just like any other profession, some people will be a better natural fit than other individuals for the role, but ultimately a large percentage of the skills are teachable.

Highly teachable skills:

  • understanding their client – you can make sales people walk a mile in their clients shoes to truly understand their pain
  • product knowledge
  • presentation skills
  • industry knowledge
  • objection handling
  • technical skills / analytical skills
  • prospecting skills

Less teachable skills:

  • coach-ability – the ability to take and apply feedback, it requires some introspection or humility
  • challenger mindset – asking smart insightful questions that challenge the client to think

What advantages do we have?

Sales was typically the first department in a company to be held accountable to a number. In the day and age of big data, we should be ahead of the curve, not behind. Now, more than ever, we’ve got some really amazing digital transformation tools that can help us get ahead. Tools such as:

  • Rivalry
  • Outreach
  • Yesware
  • Datanyze
  • Signals

The stakes are higher. In a world of performance management, sales more than any other department feels the consequences of not hitting their numbers.

What do I suggest?

First and foremost, anyone in a sales leadership role needs to treat their job like a profession. They need to stay on top of their craft, and they need to take the time to teach that craft to others (other sales people and other managers). Do as many of the following things as possible:

Some of the main skills we need to be focused on learning:

  • Management
    • How to lead
    • How to motivate
    • How to get buy-in
  • Coaching skills
    • Analytical skills
    • Learn excel.
  • Sales Tools
    • Know whats out there
    • Know how to apply them in your sales environment
    • Learn how to rollout technology to teams

From our side at Building the Sales Machine, we started the event and the blog to push ourselves to get our ideas down on paper and exchange with other leaders. We believe sales, and revenue growth will only get more important for tech companies over-time, and that will require amazing, educated sales leaders to lead the way!