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Sales, Profession Or Professionalism?

by David Brock on February 5th, 2015

I’ve gotten tangled up in a number of conversations about “Sales Needs To Be A Profession,” lately.  To be honest, I’m relatively indifferent about the discussion about whether sales should be a profession or not.  But you can’t drag me off my soapbox on the subject of professionalism in sales.

The “Profession Of Selling:”

Usually when we talk about a “profession,” what we are referring to is a certification process.  That process often requires a minimum level of formal training/education, some level of practical. but supervised experience, and some sort of certification process–usually some sort of exam.

When we talk about “professions,” usually we use Doctors, Lawyers, and Accountants as examples.  Each go through very tough education and certification standards.

Along with this certification come certain legal restrictions and responsibilities.  You can’t call yourself a Medical Doctor, unless you are actually certified.  You can’t practice Law in a courtroom, unless you are certified and a member of the bar.  You can’t sign off on a corporation’s books unless you are a CPA.

I suppose this process was put in place to provide some level of “protection” to all of us.  After all, I wouldn’t want to go through surgery performed by my next door neighbor–a Sales VP with an industrial products company.  Steve is a great guy, but the moment he picks up a scalpel, I run.

At the same time, the concept of having to “protect” people from bad sales people is discomforting.

Many people arguing for the “professionalization of sales,” do so with a genuine intent of raising the quality and conduct of sales people.  They believe, requiring a minimum level of training/education, requiring a minimum level of practical-supervised experience, requiring some sort of certification of sales people will raise the standard of salesmanship, creating much better customer experiences.

Some suggest creating a Profession for sales will make sales people less despised—but then I reflect on the glee I get out of lawyer jokes (What do you call 600 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?  A good start!)

See being part of a profession doesn’t mean we see good, great, or even inspired practice.

All one has to do is open a newspaper anywhere in the world and you will find stories of declining quality of health care and medical practice, scandal after scandal involving lawyers, any number of reports of financial malfeasance and deception in which CPA’s have been involved.  Choose any profession in the world, and you have no end of examples of bad practice and lack of professionalism.

We can look at the Non-Professions (note I didn’t say unprofessional).  Like the professions we can find endless examples of bad practice as well.

But also like the professions, we can find endless examples of good, great, and inspired practice.

We see truly outstanding people in manufacturing, engineering, design, development, general management, human resources, customer service, operations, and finance.  We see good, great, and inspired performances from people on the factory floor, from service workers, from clerical and administrative staff.  We see good, great and inspired performances from marketing and sales.

So I think the discussion shouldn’t be about making sales a profession–because it won’t mean we have great performance, but rather to understand and execute things that drive the highest levels of Professionalism.

Thinking About Professionalism:

Professionalism is different from being a part of a profession.  Professionalism can be practiced by anyone, regardless of the job, formal education, or ability to “pass tests.”  We can see great professionalism from a janitor, a housekeeper, a receptionist, a waiter, a laborer.

Professionalism is internally driven, we can’t be educated, tested, or examined to be more professional.  Professionalism is a never ending journey, demanding a commitment to continual learning and improvement.

Professionalism is rooted in a value system and beliefs that are inviolable.  Professionalism is constantly seeking to achieve the highest levels of performance.  Professionalism is about obsessive learning and relentless execution.

Professionalism, isn’t about not making mistakes or errors, but it’s about learning from them, improving, growing and moving on.  It’s also about acknowledging those mistakes and errors to those who are impacted.  We shouldn’t mistake professionalism for perfectionism.

Professionalism is about having the highest personal standards of one’s own performance, and having high expectations of the performance of everyone else.  But it’s also forgiving, recognizing we sometimes fail, but need to pick ourselves up and get going again.

Professionalism is immediately recognizable by the performance itself and the example the professional sets.  It needs no plaque, certificate, or framed document on a wall.  It is immediately obvious to everyone who sees it.  Yet, ironically, those who are the most unprofessional, never seem to recognize what professionalism is.

Concluding Thoughts:

So should sales be a Profession?  MEH ….  I’m unexcited and uninspired.

But show me a true professional, someone constantly striving for the highest levels or performance, and I am truly inspired.

Seeing a great professional inspires me to do better.

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4 Comments
  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    I agree!!

    Specifically, when you have a requirement to be certified, with the training etc that goes with it, you set up a new industry, and frankly the people that set it up are on another ‘boondoggle’…all the way to the bank!

    I’d hate to think that the small operation, unable to afford the costs of such certification, would be seen as ‘second class’, or that the certified become guilty by association, as over time, the standards & quality for entry in to, and certification by such a process are lowered in order to maintain the business model…

    So yes, I’m luke warm about being a professional, but unprofessionalism? That makes my blood boil!!!

    • Martin, you are so right. I really worry about the proliferation of organizations certifying people on something or other. There are actually several different sales certifications, dozens of coaching certifications, and every day I see new ones set up. There is no supporting research to their certification, there is no standards body, there is nothing but their opinion and their willingness to accept your money.

      Since those certifying bodies in the standard professions–ie. legal, medical, CPA, haven’t begun to address the professionalism problem, then how can these other organizations claim to do so.

      Having said that, I might be interested in the “Certified A**hole” recognition–just for pure orneriness 😉

  2. “What do you call 600 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
    A good start!”

    Ever since Shakespeare wrote:

    “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
    Cade: “Nay, that I mean to do.”
    Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2

    The Legal profession has been held in disrepute. Yet when two plaintiffs hire their Lawyers BOTH will give a better than 50% chance of winning. [Statistically you have less than 45%]

    So, would Selling, Sales Professionals replace Lawyers as ill reputed?

    I would never let, as I have just done, a Surgeon loose on my body WITHOUT his certifications. Yet, I buy from Car Salesmen!

    WHO should worry about Sales Professionals?
    Not Customers, that’s for sure!
    For they can and DO change their Salesperson,
    at the drop of a lie!

    Is “Professional” good for the Salesperson?
    Well, I have interviewed thousands, and hundreds appear with “Certifications” from Clubs, Associations, ‘Colleges’ and even ‘Diplomas’ from Sales Training Companies.
    ALL completely worthless!

    Who SHOULD care about Sales Professionals?
    They only people who should be promoting this are EMPLOYERS!

    I have met hundreds and hundreds of Salespeople during On-boarding.
    And, I am asking only one question?
    “But, Can You SELL?”

    Can you sell, this Product into this Marketplace, in Quantities and Margins that make it worthwhile to pay your Salary?

    The short answer, from repeated studies since 2000 is 15% can, 25% will soon be able to and 60% CAN’T. In no other area of business is a 60% failure rate acceptable! (Except Oil Exploration)

    Why is this? Why is Selling, unlike Law or Medicine, not a Profession? We have to define selling first.
    Selling is not a Craft like Baking or Gardening, but it does have a Basic Skill Set as Crafts do. Selling has more in common with 3D Chess, or Business, than Crafts it’s an ever changing Strategy in a super diverse game.

    What is the solution? After 40 years of thinking I came up with an answer.
    To make Selling Professional, we need to make Sales Management a Profession, staffed by Sales Management Professionals. They have MUCH more in common with Lawyers, than Salespeople!

    Let’s leave behind the misperception when we say “Professional” Salesperson when we mean “Ethical” Salesperson. And, develop Professional Sales Managers instead.

    • Sorry for the slow response Brian, I had to keep coming back to read, re-read, reflect……

      Simply brilliant–in many dimensions! Thank you.

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