Today's marketplace is more challenging than it has ever been.
In every way we are seeing how, in this shrinking economy, Darwin's theory that only the strong survive is true.
These troubling economic times have revealed what I have known all along: that the day would come in selling when only the true professional salespeople would be able to survive.
During the boom times earlier in this decade, making a sale was often a matter simply of writing up an order. Today, everything has changed.
Those salespeople who are not professionals have found that their lack of skills, education and commitment has not only made them lag behind their peers but has resulted in their unemployment.
That's because, as with any aspect of business today, sales has evolved into an extremely challenging profession that puts salespeople under intense pressure to continually make their numbers no matter how difficult the market is.
Success today is often purely survival. Salespeople must close deals these days or perish.
Persevering in this current economic climate is a job for a professional.
True professionals have a commitment to a calling.
They have chosen to acquire the education, training and expertise that an amateur does not have and they choose to conduct themselves with integrity, maturity and dedication.
Their goal is to have a positive impact on our economy as well as on the world. They strive to always be of service to their prospects and customers.
Professional salespeople stimulate the flow of business in the marketplace; they are the lifeline that brings in the dollars to help companies stay vital. They are in a unique position to be the heroes of this recession.
Professionals may not necessarily think of themselves as heroes, however, as they go about their daily activities. U.S. Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III probably didn't think of himself as any sort of hero on the day his airliner ditched in the Hudson River in New York City. As many of us clearly remember hearing on the news, his aircraft experienced a sudden power failure, forcing him to make a split-second decision in order to save the lives of his passengers and crew.
During the Washington, D.C., hearing to review the crash, Sully's testimony reflected the importance of relying upon experience and memory in these kinds of unexpected emergencies. Written checklists, while helpful in the learning stages, must already be mastered through practice and flight time. Sully and his copilot had an impressive 20,000 hours of total flight time between them.
"Teamwork and experience," he said, "allowed us to focus on the high priorities without referring to written checklists."
The avoidance of what might have been a terrible tragedy and the remarkable survival of everyone onboard the plane have been attributed to Sully's instinctive decision-making skills and breadth of experience.
Put plainly: Sully became a hero because he was a professional.
At a time when many commercial airline pilots have complained about decreasing pay, long workweeks and dwindling pensions, Sully demonstrated that challenges and grievances must never take away from the importance of the task at hand. Remaining calm, composed and confident is how a true professional rises above all obstacles to become a hero.
How does one become a heroic "Sully" sales professional?
The same way Sully did - by making the commitment to spend the time necessary to become trained.
The first step is to find and learn a proven, comprehensive sales methodology that is consistent with the way people buy.
The second step is to practice this method - with coworkers, with friends, with a recorder - until it can be done instinctively. Sully did not refer to a written checklist amidst the crisis of saving his plane; salespeople must know their sales method by heart and be prepared to execute it flawlessly under any circumstances.
The procedure must be correct and deliberate and it must be practiced.
Practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect.
How much perfect practice does it take to become a true professional?
A recent Wall Street Journal article about improving one's golf game by John Paul Newport entitled "Mastery, Just 10,000 Hours Away," discusses this idea. The author argues that the successes of extraordinary individuals like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tiger Woods are far more likely to have been the product of intensive practice than mere brilliance.
The article cites research presented by two authors, Malcolm Gladwell in his book, "Outliers," and Geoff Colvin in his book, "Talent is Overrated." Both authors believe that the mastery of a game or profession is the product of making a commitment to, and following through on, training and practice.
"In explaining the development of extraordinary talent," Newport says, "both Mr. Gladwell and Mr. Colvin zero in on seminal research by Florida State University Professor Anders Ericsson who suggests the threshold for world-class expertise in any discipline - music, sports, science, business management - is about 10 years or 10,000 hours of persistent, focused training and experience."
The article says that the most successful performers engage in what Colvin calls "deliberate practice." That is, they have practiced a methodology or activity expertly designed and proven to improve their performance. As with any effective training system, activities were designed to be mentally challenging, repeatable and to work within a method that provided clear feedback.
While the thought of 10,000 hours of intensive practice can seem daunting to most of us who have packed schedules and hectic lives, Pia Nilsson, the instructor for golfer Anika Sorenstam and author of the book "The Game Before the Game," makes an important point.
"You don't have to spend 10,000 hours at it. If you only have two hours a week available, you can make those hours count for a lot if you commit to quality practice."
Almost anyone of any age, intelligence and education level can become a sales professional through the commitment of time to regular practice of an effective selling methodology.
Professional salespeople are not born; they are made through their commitment to a calling and their efforts to improve their selling skills.
Today, that calling is more important than it has ever been before.
It will take a new breed of courageous professional salespeople to face our current challenges.
Through commitment and conviction, however, comes inner strength and it is this strength that will help sales professionals become the true heroes of this economy.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.