Why Learn Sales?
The sales skills gap
There is a growing gap between what students are being taught in classrooms and what skills employers are expecting from new graduates.
Selling is one of the most common job types for students graduating with a business degree, with as high as 88% of marketing majors accepting a job in sales out of some business programs, and an average of 60% for all other business majors (Sales Education Efficacy in the Journal of Marketing Education).
More than 50% of all US college graduates will work in sales at some point in their careers, and yet less than 150 of the over 4,000 colleges in the US offer even one sales course - that's less than 4%.
Salespeople get hired
Selling is and will continue to be a valuable and lucrative skill. In 2020, The World Economic Forum partnered with data scientists at LinkedIn and Coursera to measure and track the emergence of a set of new jobs across the economy using real-time labour market data. The results were published in The World Economic Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow report which found that sales is one of the eight emerging roles with the highest future demand.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 14.37 million workers employed in sales-related positions in the United States in 2019 and that number is expected to grow at least 3% per annum through 2026, which means approximately 500,000 new sales positions that will need to be filled on an annual basis in the United States alone.
Despite the fact that sales positions are some of the most in-demand jobs around the world, they are also some of the most difficult to fill. In the 2020, Manpower conducted a survey of over 40,000 employers across 42 countries and found that sales reps ranked #2 on the list of hardest roles to fill – second only to skilled trades, and were notably harder to fill than engineers, technical and IT roles, and professional roles like lawyers, researchers, or accountants.
Some of the top reasons for the difficulty in filling sales job postings include: a lack of applicants, a lack of technical skills (hard skills), a lack of experience, and/or a lack of workplace competence (soft skills).
Sales skills are a critical business competency with growing demand
Sales and customer growth consistently ranks as the most important priority amongst the top global business leaders. In Gartner’s annual CEO and Business Executive Survey of 2019, 473 CEO and senior executives with $50 million or more in revenue, and 60% with more than $1 billion were asked their top priorities. The top priority among these CEO’s was (no surprise), growth (aka sales).
In another Gartner survey, The Top Priorities for Technology CEOs in 2021, the firm interviewed over 300 CEOs of technology companies and found that customer acquisition, specifically awareness and demand generation and sales as their most important priority.
What’s more, when Gartner compared the largest gaps between the maturity assessment (where the organization stands on a scale from nascent to mastery), and importance – gaps exist in every area in the domain of Customer Acquisition. This means that selling is extremely important, but many companies don't have the skills required to consistently and reliably deliver results in that area.
When these same technology company CEOs were asked what their most critical challenges were, and their corresponding level of confidence in being able to address or solve the challenges, these CEOs rated Sales Effectiveness and Marketing/Demand Generation as the most critical problem to solve with the least confidence in being able to solve it.
In short, growing sales and acquiring customers is vital to the success of start-ups, scale-ups, and large companies but the workforce lacks the hard skills to be able to consistently deliver results in this area.
Even marketing executives observe an overwhelming gap in the area of sales-related skills:
About 75% of executives placed sales skills highest on their list of all marketing areas that they would include in a required curriculum.
Marketers need to know what people want, why they want it and how they buy it so that they can create campaigns that fit what the customer is expecting. Marketers must also constantly sell their ideas to internal stakeholders and upper management for approval of marketing strategies.
A lack of sales skills are limiting the growth potential of technology companies
In 2016, the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises published a whitepaper entitled, Scaling Success: Tackling the Management Gap in Canada’s Technology Sector. Through interviews with 125 of Canada’s top founders of, and investors in leading technology companies, it was uncovered that 68% of respondents struggled to acquire talent in the area of sales and marketing:
“As several interviewees noted, the best technology won’t scale-up without sales…while Canadian founders might believe success entails building the best product with little need for marketing, the key to success is in understanding how to sell a business rather than a product, and how to correctly identify and sell a value proposition to a particular client. There was consistent recognition across interviews that a strong sales organization makes all other business operations easier, making sales the big issue for Canadian technology company growth”.
A lack of sales and marketing competencies amongst senior executives is inhibiting the growth of technology companies, but the issue isn’t isolated just to technology companies. Businesses in their earliest stages are underestimating the importance of sales and marketing activities and delaying investment in these areas. Canadian companies that overlook critical early activities like market intelligence, and business development approach the market only after a product is fully ready, thus delaying critical initial revenue and subsequent growth.
By contrast, US firms that scale quickly spend on average 73% more on marketing and sales than on research and development, leading to more early-stage traction, and faster market entry (Plant 2017b). These early-stage, sales-focused investments are a driving force behind large valuations, venture investments, and subsequent growth stories.
“Many people think the product will sell itself, the less naïve think marketing will, but it actually takes sales acumen, brute force and hustle.” Steve Cody, founder and CEO, The Better Software Company
Sales is a great way to start your career
A study by Frank Germann, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame discovered that 25% of CEOs have a sales or marketing background. There are many notable examples of famous business people and CEOs who started their careers in sales - from Gary Vaynerchuk, to Howard Schultz, and Warren Buffet.
Early careers in sales teach you how to communicate effectively, stay disciplined, and manage client demands. They'll also push you to focus on what matters, how to manage your emotions, and to demonstrate and practice empathy.
Most importantly, these positions teach you how to deal with, and manage through rejection. This won't be easy in the moment, but I believe the amount of rejection you are able to endure in your early career is a forward-looking indicator of your future success.
Everyone is in sales
While 1 in 9 employees in America are in formal sales roles, a large majority of the others are in non-sales selling roles - a term coined by author Daniel Pink in To Sell is Human. The majority of us are now spending a huge portion of our time persuading, influencing, and convincing others to make an exchange.
“Everyone, no matter what their position, uses sales skills. Anytime an accountant pitches a proposal fora new software package to the budget committee, they are selling. When a plant manager makes a request to hire additional workers, they are selling. So it is with marketing professionals. When it is time to present the marketing budget, they use sales skills. When they need to convince senior management to change strategies in one of their markets, they are sling” (A Broadened Sales Curriculum: Exploratory Evidence, The Journal of Marketing Education).
I regularly ask groups of entrepreneurs what percentage of their time they spend in direct sales (selling to customers) or non-sales selling activities (fundraising, convincing a new employee to join their company, selling their story to the media), the answer is almost always over 90%. NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway went so far as to say that the word entrepreneur is a synonym for salesperson.
[Your Skill] + Sales = A True Differentiator
While sales is a valuable skill in and of itself, I believe sales can be a differentiator as an add-on to whatever your unique and a valuable skill is. How often have you come across the brilliant entrepreneur, engineer, or even academic who lacks the ability to read a crowd, demonstrate empathy, or to package their brilliance up in a way that resonates with their audience? I've sat through too many of those meetings, and suffered through those classes.
Layering on foundational sales skills to an already competent (or brilliant) person, or team can be a game changer for your career, or business.
For decades, business schools have avoided teaching sales, despite the fact that it is one of the top in-demand jobs of the future, and consistently ranks as one of the top priorities of company executives.
There is a massive sales curriculum gap in business school programs around the world because sales is thought to be more art than science.
Over the last year, I've conducted interviews, reviewed academic research, and collected my own survey data from sales educators, trainers, managers, and front-line sales representatives to figure out what selling skills are most important and how they can be effectively taught.
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