How to make salespeople less expendable

Barry Hilton says more care needs to be taken when it comes to sales training – then, everyone will benefit.

Reading time: 4m 30s.

Psychological attrition amongst salespeople is high. Why? Being rejected on a daily basis takes its toll and few are built to withstand that kind of emotional battering. Some hardy souls survive on instinct and mental resilience without following a methodology.

What athletes would call digging deep.

Product training, smart clothes and a company vehicle are rarely guarantors of sale success and longevity. Attrition rates bear witness to the toughness of the role. Alarming drop-out statistics are a stark indicator of how unprepared many organisations can be when it comes to equipping key front-line personnel for the challenges they will face.

Pilots and surgeons are not given the tools of their professions and told to ‘have a go’. Their training is intense with checking both regulated and rigorous. The long run-up to operational competence involves focusing on knowledge, skills, attitude and mental toughness.

The return almost always justifies the selection process and investment in development. Careers are long, productive and we the public are safe in their hands, thank goodness.

The long run-up to operational competence involves focusing on knowledge, skills, attitude and mental toughness. 

Why then are the Keepers of the Sacred Flame – your brand, so expendable? Salespeople are the messengers and the caretakers. They hunt, then they farm and protect. Yet in many cases, it is all made up as they go. Experiential learning is an overly generous description of that journey. Being thrown to the lions is an alternative perspective.

Many have ‘tried sales’ and very often ‘it didn’t work out’. The horror stories associated with unrealistic employer expectation, low self-esteem and mis-selling are legion. An inconvenient truth associated with this trial by fire is the pervasive negativity which lingers around sales as a profession.

Although much has changed in the last 30 years, there often remains an extremely deep-rooted suspicion around the true motivation of salespeople. This simply confirms the widely accepted perception that bad news travels quicker than good.

Any misbehaviour carried out by a tiny minority is likely to grab far more attention than the professionalism of the vast majority. Jobs done well rarely make the news. Today at Heathrow airport 1,300 pilots achieved success in taking off or landing. That’s not news. Today, a salesman received a suspended sentence for mis-selling financial products – That is.

If the recruitment selection process had been right and the development path thorough, many of sales casualties would have been survivors, perhaps even wonderful success stories. Numerous mis-selling scandals would have been prevented.


Under-pressure sales managers may not have felt it necessary to bend the rules in order to make quota, yet again. Sales may have been the career choice rather than the last refuge of the desperate.

An opportunity finally exists to qualitatively benchmark salespeople against a nationally recognised level of competence. The Sales Executive Level 4 qualification has re-drawn the map. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, has physically drawn a map which up until now, existed only in the heads of those who have successfully made the journey.

Undertaking an important trip in unfamiliar territory is always going to be easier with GPS. The road to sales success is suddenly a whole lot clearer and straighter. The journey remains challenging but need not be the emotional roller-coaster ride of the past.

Industry’s collective appetite for the new qualification has most definitely been whetted. For organisations specialising in the delivery of sales training the market place has always been crowded and tough.

Being heard above the ambient noise of the competition requires effort and investment. Buyers of training are infinitely more well informed than in the past despite the fact that keeping pace with each new zeitgeist learning trend before it is replaced is a neverending struggle.

Nevertheless, the chemistry created by mixing together the Apprenticeship Levy, Millennial and Generation Y life choices, macro-economic turbulence and technology have resulted in the market changing its default setting from jaded and apathetic to, curious and keen.

This relatively seismic shift has taken many by surprise, not least veteran operators in the sales training space.

Both buyers and sellers of sales training have suddenly found themselves in the stretch zone. New norms are being created on both sides of the training transaction. Most importantly of all, the learner is now at the very core of the process.

The Sales Executive Level 4 qualification is not just for new hires fresh from uni, college, school or a non-sales career. With the all-important dimension of recognition of prior learning or RPL, experienced, successful and instinctive sales survivors can calibrate their achievement and accrued knowledge against an industry benchmark.

With the appropriate supplementary knowledge and skills, they too can achieve professional, industry recognition – at last. With a substantial stake in the creation of their individual learning journey, these are indeed exciting times for our country’s sales professionals.

As increasing numbers of employers make educated choices and more recruits understand exactly what is expected, expendable sales people will thankfully become an endangered species. After that, all we need is a higher level of awareness in schools about the life opportunities available from a successful career in sales and every piece of the puzzle will be connected.

Roll on the day.


About the author

Barry Hilton is mangaing director of Mercuri.


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0 thoughts on “How to make salespeople less expendable

  1. TimRoyds May 2, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    it’s important to realise
    it’s important to realise that sales qualifications are not new. I gained a Diploma in Strategic Sales Practice in 2000, and have taught at Certificate, Advanced Certificate, Diploma, and MA level since then. I was also part of the steering Group which oversaw the development of the first National Occupational Standards in Sales, which were designed (among other things) to inform the objective structuring of the content of qualifications. That was a long while ago too! So ‘new’ is something that sales qualifications are not. Newer qualifications aligned to the needs of the profession today though certainly are most evolved products though.

    I’d also argue that most of the problems we have in professional sales are Sales ‘Leadership’ issues (NB the inverted commas!) rather than professional sales – the finance sector illustrating this well. A close friend in banking was required to personally phone the Regional Director of the well known bank he worked for every time he sold a loan without PPI. Failure to ‘sell’ (more inverted commas!) resulted in disciplinary actions too. Sales were rewarded with £. No surprise that he left. In this case it was the environment that Sales ‘Leadership’ created that was the issue.


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