Learning never stops for successful sales pro

In my last column, "New century will bring new sales professional," I suggested it was plausible that only 20 percent of people selling today will survive selling in the next century. My hypothesis was based on what I termed "the weeding out of the sales force," a prime example of the "survival of the fittest."

Think about it: If 80 percent of sales are made by 20 percent of salespeople, why will a company continue to employ the lower-producing 80 percent?

Sales executives are answering this question with dramatic reduction in their sales forces.

If selling were easy, most salespeople would be exceeding quota and earning high incomes. However, this is not the case. One of the problems in selling is that the majority of salespeople only learn enough to get by.

After half a lifetime in sales, instead of accumulating 20 years of experience, most end up with one year's experience repeated 20 times. This approach won't work in the 21st century.

Today, due to the rapid changes in technology and information availability, the role of the salesperson has forever changed. To keep pace, you must work constantly to hone your craft, or you won't survive.

Even if you spend only a few hours weekly learning and developing professionally, you'll reap rich rewards.

The big roadblock, however, is ignorance. Simply stated: Most salespeople don't know what they don't know. With dedicated professionals, however, the more they know, the more they realize what little they know.

Real pros continue to pursue excellence through ongoing education. That's why I often see a predominance of already productive sales people in our workshops.

It seems those who aren't performing well are much too busy for sales training.

Considering this, here are some questions to ask yourself regarding your professional learning and development:

  • How sharp is your sales "ax" compared to earlier years?

    If your sales have hit a plateau, or worse, have declined, don't keep battering away. Instead, take time out and sharpen your ax. If you don't, it will only become more dull no matter how hard you swing.

    If you continually sell the same way, you will continually realize the same results. How satisfied are you with your results?

  • How often do you think back to the "good old days?"

    Some salespeople are stuck in their own past glories. Perhaps they once made it to the "Million-dollar Club" or were awarded "Salesperson of the Year" a decade before.

    Unfortunately, many of us get caught up in our own success and start resting on past results. But once you stop growing, there is only one direction to go -- down. Some try to convince themselves that they are maintaining an even keel, with sales staying in the same range. More often than not, that belief is hiding a long, slow slide into mediocrity.

  • When things go wrong, whom do you blame?

    Those destined to fail tend to blame external factors for their own lack of results -- "the market has changed," "the buyers are jaded" or "the competition is more fierce."

    If it is always somebody else's fault, it's time to find a large mirror and take a good look at yourself. If you're not accountable and fail to make positive changes, your blame will be your only solace after having been "weeded out."

  • What professional development have you been involved with over the past year?

    As I wrote earlier, it has been my experience that the most successful salespeople in a company are also those who are most dedicated to ongoing development, and receptive to new ideas and training. They're obviously doing many of the right things the right way. The new ideas may provide a fresh perspective or a little twist to what they're already doing effectively, helping their sales increase.

    Yet it amazes me how often those that aren't in the top 20 percent and are often struggling to make quota, have heard it all before and don't need training. In their closed minds, the training is too elementary, too basic to significantly affect their results. All the while, the open minds of the top producers allow them to remain on top.

Hopefully these questions made you pause and think for a moment.

If your current sales are anything less than stellar, my advice is that you don't accept this. Create a strong interest and desire to develop personally and professionally.

A few immediate steps you can take are:

  • Ask a manager or close friend for their thoughts and suggestions on how you could improve your performance.
  • Go out on calls with someone new, and gain fresh insight into better ways of selling.
  • Purchase a book or tape program on personal development and be diligent at developing the principles.
  • And most importantly, attend sales training programs on a routine basis.

Professional selling is a transferable skill and sales excellence can be planned. If you have a favorable aptitude for sales, and you understand what it takes to be a professional salesperson in the 21st century, your job opportunity is backed by a strong job demand.

You can make it to the top.

Growing as a professional salesperson, regardless of age, sex, color, experience or formal education.
"Career Opportunities Research" by Herbert and Jeanne Greenberg in Harvard Business Review found the following:

  • When comparing on-the-job performance of people ages 40 and above with that of their counterparts under 40, there were no statistically significant differences.
  • Virtually the same percentage of men and women performed in the top quartile of their sales force after 6 months and 14 months.
  • Ethnic minorities perform on the job as well as their white associates.
  • With effective training and supervision, the person without previous sales experience is as likely to succeed as the experienced salesperson.
  • People with little education can do the job as effectively and as readily as those with college degrees.

It's ironic that despite these solid opportunities, the reality is that most people don't expend the energy necessary to build successful careers. That's why selling often communicates a mixed, unprofessional public image.

Most anyone can apply for a sales job. Many companies don't require special training or education for salespeople.

But, if you're looking for success, you have to stretch your skills and steer a different course in your thinking and planning than the average salesperson.

You have to do what it takes to improve your abilities. Otherwise, you will wallow in mediocrity, or worse, be weeded out. The choice is yours.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.