A young professional recently asked me whether I still thought selling was a good career choice considering the vast amounts of information and ease of access to it that technology created.
Always a salesman, my immediate reaction was to exclaim: "Yes!"
I paused before responding, however, hoping to learn the reasons for his doubts.
After asking several questions, I soon learned that he viewed technology as a salesman's enemy rather than aid. He thought a buyer's near-instantaneous access to vast amounts of information undermined the professional salesman's role as counselor.
Additionally, he expected the advances in Internet technologies, powerful databases and automated procurement systems would, with increasing frequency, put the buyer and seller together directly. This would shorten delivery time, lower prices and thereby reduce the need for quality salespeople, he supposed.
His viewpoint is widely shared and has strong merit when considered in a vacuum. However, it was and still is my belief that this hypothesis is fundamentally flawed for one reason: It devalues, and possibly eliminates, the importance of human interaction and consultation as a complement to an excellent offering.
Just consider the implosion of Internet-based companies during the past year. According to the December issue of Fortune, 89 dot-coms have disappeared since the end of last summer. We know that number to be significantly higher today.
And in January, Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas Inc. estimated the 13-month layoff total for U.S. Internet companies at 54,000 and counting.
Granted, many of these company failures can be attributed to poor business models, unclear business objectives and the like. But it's important to remember how many people -- investors, shareholders, employees and so on -- bought into the myth that technology by itself was the business cure-all.
Obviously, I'm not implying that businesses should abandon technology and revert back to pen and paper. In fact, I believe technology can be one of a salesman's biggest allies, as it can assist him throughout the selling process in terms of communicating with the client, providing information, ensuring accuracy and speeding up the sales cycle.
What I am implying, however, is that along with a great idea, a company must be able to sell the solution.
Do you consider Bill Gates to be only a technological visionary or an excellent salesman as well? I consider him to be much more of a salesman than most people recognize. Remember, he had to "sell" Microsoft Corp.'s first employees on teaming with him, he had to sell his idea of a Windows-based operating system to those entrenched in DOS and then his company actually had to sell the software.
It's important to realize that a company or person with a great idea who can't sell the idea isn't any better off than a person or company without any ideas.
Many who have viewed technology as the replacement for salespeople have it all wrong. Certainly, it's logical to predict technology can eliminate many non-productive sales positions -- and non-productive salespeople -- yet it never will eliminate the need for the high earners. Remember that in selling, top salespeople earn big money because they sell a lot and they're the only people in the company who directly generate revenue.
The inherent truth is high-producing salespeople don't cost a company money -- they make the company money. And combined with advances in technology, this is the best time in history to be a salesman.
With the Internet, satellite and wireless communications, there aren't any geographic boundaries to a company's offering. If it desires, a company truly can be global and have customers anywhere.
I'm not in the minority in characterizing the current and future prospects for a career in sales as outstanding. Several U.S. universities are championing the trend, also having recognized the significant opportunities and increasing demand for quality salespeople.
The University of Akron's Fisher Institute of Professional Selling and Baylor University's Center for Professional Selling, for example, both offer bachelor's degrees in sales. Many other universities have similar programs in the works and are continuing to increase the sales curricula offered.
The leaders at these institutions realize selling no longer should be an after-thought as a career choice. Just as students train to become highly skilled doctors, lawyers and accountants, it's increasingly possible for a student to train to become a skilled salesman. And an excellent salesman has more earning potential than the preceding three career disciplines combined.
So, contrary to what my young colleague believed, the technological advances in recent years have created an even greater need for skilled salespeople -- salespeople who not only understand the complex offerings but who also can convey their value in everyday language are at a premium. And as more companies focus primarily on the technical side of what they're offering, the more companies we see failing.
It's becoming apparent that personal relationships, rapport-building, interpersonal communications and face-to-face selling can't be automated. Consequently, salespeople always will play a vital role in any company's success.
They are the link that provides the human touch between buyer and provider, making today the best time in history to be a professional salesman.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.