The Invisible Salesman

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ralph Goodale is finally talking productivity. It’s a brave step for a federal finance minister who is nearing an election, because in many minds higher productivity results in job cuts — hardly the foundation of a successful political campaign.

Of course, boosting productivity can also mean injecting our products and services with more value, thus making them more competitive. But no matter how it’s defined, productivity improvements are meaningless if the product doesn’t get sold (preferably at good margins). As it happens, we’re running out of people to do the selling.

Toronto-based Merrithew Corp. is one company that’s hamstrung by a shortage of good salespeople. Although it’s a successful manufacturer in a hot niche — Pilates equipment and accessories — Merrithew struggles to fill its sales openings. For example, just 55 people responded over a two-month period to Merrithew’s recent posting of a sales job on the massive Workopolis website. Meantime, openings for an event manager and lowly admin clerk pulled in more than 300 and 350 resumés, respectively.

At PROFIT’s recent GrowthCamp, the No. 1 complaint of the HOT 50 CEOs in attendance was the dearth of qualified salespeople at reasonable prices. The consensus: young people don’t have the motivation for a sales career, while the old pros want big base salaries but don’t want to pound the pavement in search of clientele.

Statistics on the sales-pro shortage don’t exist, perhaps because no one is measuring it. Harvey Copeman, president of the Canadian Professional Sales Association, hasn’t heard of any research into the issue, but he’s positive there’s a problem. “We hear it from our members day in and day out,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a figment of anyone’s imagination.”

Ironically, business might be to blame for the shortage. It has pressed government and academia to develop the workforce’s technical skills; they’ve responded by building research parks and funnelling more money into science and engineering education. Liberal arts programs have suffered — even if they teach essential sales skills such as communication, persuasion and problem-solving with fuzzy logic.

Also, businesses over the past two decades have placed increased emphasis on marketing, often at the expense of sales. Thus fewer people have developed the critical sales skills and experience that so many companies crave today. Educators aren’t helping, either. “People get to business school, and they’re taught everything except how to generate revenue,” says Colleen Francis, an Ottawa-based sales consultant. “They come out of school and see sales as a necessary evil.”

Perhaps the sales function needs to do some rebranding of its own, beginning with what salespeople are called. “Client-decision facilitator” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but it does convey the increasingly consultative role of salespeople in a world of proliferating choice. (It doesn’t conjure up images of Herb Tarlek, either.)

Whatever is causing the sales shortage, we need to fix it as baby boomers begin to leave the ankle-deep pool of skilled, experienced salespeople. If Ralph Goodale wants to be brave and prudent, he’ll add solving the sales shortage to his productivity platform.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com