Blogs & Comment

The age of global trade requires training a new kind of salesperson

Sales is one of the crucial skills of the global economy, but we don’t treat it like the profession it is. I'll pay to change that.

Businesswoman at airport looking out over tarmac

(Martin Barraud/Getty)

Back in 2007, Andrea Mandel-Campbell published Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson, a book that highlighted Canadian entrepreneurs’ failure to chase global opportunities.

“Companies tend to take a haphazard, scattershot approach to international business that rarely hits the bull’s-eye,” the author wrote. Because of our close proximity to the United States, Canadian firms don’t look elsewhere for sales. When they do, they’re not prepared for the nuances of selling to different cultures. Given that Canadian industry has managed to grow in a “harsh and unforgiving climate, going abroad is eminently doable,” she says. “It’s a matter of first wanting to and then familiarizing ourselves with the new terrain.”

Mandel-Campbell’s book is now eight years old, yet it remains sadly relevant. In February, I participated in a panel hosted by the Association of Atlantic Universities, focused on improving the region’s economy through entrepreneurialism. During the discussion, I made an argument very similar to Mandel-Campbell’s: One of the biggest problems for Canadian companies—particularly those in the technology sector—is selling internationally. When I make this point, nobody disagrees with me. The private sector knows it’s true, as does the government. Yet little has been done to address this shortcoming.

So I decided to put something on the table to try to fix the problem: $500,000 for an educational institution to develop a degree program in international sales.

Salesmanship is practically the only skill set needed in the C-suite that doesn’t have its own professional designation, like those held by accountants and lawyers. That’s a sign of not only how society views the work of salespeople but also how these talented individuals view themselves. We need to bring the profession’s prestige up to the standard its peer designations enjoy. Salespeople embody a similar level of expertise, investment and rigour as other professions, and this crucial job would benefit from a more formal designation guaranteeing a key set of skills.

We need salespeople who understand that the first step in selling to China or Brazil or any other rapidly growing economy might be speaking the language—but it’s not the only step. As Mandel-Campbell wrote in her book: “Language is only window dressing without a solid understanding of a country’s culture and history.” Salespeople need to recognize subtle differences across a range of global markets. We also need sales professionals with a broad enough set of skills that they can thrive at small or mid-size companies where they’re not supported by an army of marketing people. They need to understand marketing, pricing, operations, human resources, cross-cultural communications—and how to be entrepreneurial.

Achieving this sort of training requires the same mixture of academic knowledge and apprenticeship employed by other professions. Since I made my initial offer to help fund a sales degree program, I’ve heard from numerous people in senior sales roles who are interested in helping, as well as a private college and a research association that are interested. I’ve even heard from another business person who is willing to match my money. In my 13 years as an entrepreneur, I’ve never seen that kind of response, so I know the idea has struck a nerve.

The only people who seem to doubt it are the ones I hoped would embrace it most. I’d like to see this idea grow into an accredited university degree program. And while one university has said it will try to put the proposal through its three-layered approval process, most say they couldn’t possibly introduce a new program, given their fiscal restraints. To succeed, this idea needs more than just me. It needs someone within the education community to become its champion. Just as entrepreneurs sell new products to consumers, we need an academic to sell this new kind of education. Rather than worry about whether sales is actually a profession, let’s worry about becoming the best at it and exporting that ability to the world.

Gerry Pond is the BDC Entrepreneurship Champion and chairman of Mariner Partners.