by Alberto Aleo
While underlining that the profession of a travelling salesman is both noble and nowadays cloaked in a certain romantic aura linked to the pioneering spirit, the question as posed by my grandmother had a negative connotation. What she actually meant was “How come, after all your studies, degrees and so on and so forth you have become just a travelling salesman?” Unknowingly, my Grandma had touched upon an issue under debate regarding corporate careers. There was (and partly still is) a bias that sees the job of a “salesperson” as a career fall-back when other opportunities fail to materialise. Selling is rarely discussed in the university context, and in many business organizations the business of selling tends to be associated with a talent for relationships and the experience of certain people who possess charisma, rather than a precise development of shared skills and competences.
Sales as a profession
Going back to the question in the title “Are you a travelling salesman?” I should explain that my grandmother’s concerns were prompted by my move from marketing to sales within the company for which at the time I was working. This change came in response to repeated requests on my part, but the move was not completely painless, as generally career development would be in the opposite direction, i.e. if you were a good salesperson you would be promoted to marketing and not vice versa. I remember well that I was called in by the head of human resources who was worried that my wish for “demotion” was due to some unexpressed problem. The truth was simply that when working in marketing I felt the frustration of not seeing a project through to its conclusion, delivering the goods to the customers. I also wanted to be able to respond to my colleagues in sales who challenged me with comments such as “unless you are directly involved in selling something you’ll never understand what the market really needs”.
From marketing to sales
I won my little battle and was thrown in at the deep end, involved in going out and selling a product at the fringe of the company’s range: I was a modern travelling salesman. Over time, and as my experience grew, I found out that sales is not a profession that can be improvised but is based on specific skills and competences that must be developed and structured even when based on natural aptitudes. The following list includes some of these:
- effective communication with customer and colleagues
- good customer management and an aptitude towards service
- problem solving and priority management
- sales and negotiation techniques
- thorough knowledge of distribution channels
- skill in reading and analysis of the economic/financial data of the company and the market
- knowledge of marketing tools related to price leverage and to the distribution system
- in-depth knowledge of the main performance monitoring systems
A career that deserves consideration
I do not know if you have noticed, but most job advertisements seem to be looking for salespeople or aspiring salespeople. Yet this type of profession attracts very few young people. This is likely due to the prejudices against sales and salespeople that run through our society (including many grandmothers, of course). Actually, the traditional idea of the travelling salesman no longer applies to today’s market in which few salespeople will be improvised vendors, touting wares. Working in sales nowadays requires the ability to manage a relationship with an increasingly complex market and with a clientele that is increasingly demanding and sophisticated. The modern travelling salesman must be able to manage a company’s most important asset, namely customer trust, turning “promises” into “facts”. Thus, in order to become a sales professional today you must be ready to occupy one of the most important positions in a company’s organization: an attractive prospect for those who are about to enter the world of work.
I will never forget the words that my boss (who had previously worked as a salesperson) said to me when I was leaving the marketing department: “Remember that selling is the most complex of all trades, even though many people who are sufficiently cocky believe this attitude may be sufficient.” In periods of growth, many people thought selling was easy, involving lunching out and travelling on expenses. However, as the crisis hit the atmosphere in the sales departments changed dramatically. The going became harder and only those people who were able to evolve from “taking orders” to managing customers survived. This is what it now means to be a travelling salesperson.
PS The 8th of April 2016 we were at the Positive Economy Forum in San Patrignano to show how, updating the image of travelling salesman through the Sales Ethics approach, is possible to reduce unemployment. Look at the video on our Facebook page.
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