New marketing courses aim to shift the public perception of salespeople and improve their training. Sue Jones reports
SELLING has a poor image. Whether it's a competitive number-cruncher in a Ford Mondeo, or the cold caller pushing double glazing, the mental image of Arthur Daley - that spivvy mover of iffy merchandise - is likely to come to mind.
Salespeople are even unappreciated by their employers, who rarely take the time to train them properly, says Karen Harvey, programme manager for business and marketing courses at Solihull College.
Yet this is a tough market and the sales team is often the "economic driver of the business". The public identifies selling with retail, but most salespeople now work business to business. It is the difference between selling you or me a personal computer and selling a network to a college.
It is well paid and complex, says Ms Harvey, with firms taking big deals into Europe and Asia, far beyond their traditional 50-mile radius. "A sales guy who's trained can meet a business on the same level, but inexperienced people are a liability," she says. "If they are negotiating at directorial level, they need more in their tool kit."
So why are employers, who increasingly expect personnel and marketing staff to be qualified, unwilling to train their sales teams? "We do not have a perception of sales as a skilled job," says Ms Harvey. "We assume salespeople are born, not made."
And selling is often only a brief part of a person's career. Graduates may start in sales before they move to other roles in the company. People who sell often switch companies too , and could take their expensive training with them. But now that sales cycles often run up to 18 months, this argument does not convince Ms Harvey.
"You are working with a client for a long time now, so you need to keep staff," she says. "It is much more expensive to get new customers rather than keep old ones. They might get trained and then leave, but suppose they do not get trained and stay?"
Stuart Summers moved from banking into selling IT training packages, but it was some time before he found a suitable course for his own professional development.
"I left school at 16 and did business studies at college," he explains. "I had done accounting and management courses, but this was the first time I'd seen it relating directly to my work."
Mr Summers is at Solihull College on an Institute of Sales and Marketing Management course. The level 2 course runs for 10 weeks, and requires three hours' study on one evening a week. It covers marketing theory, research on the student's job and the practicalities of selling.
"It makes you understand your own company and your customers, and to be aware of what is going on with companies," he says. "I believe in ongoing education, and it's been enjoyable and more difficult than I thought." The level 3 stage will cover the same topics in more depth.
Established in 1966 to promote the professional development and standing of sales and marketing personnel, the ISMM has devised courses from levels 2-4 (that is GCSE A-C grade up to degree equivalent), which can be undertaken with colleges, training providers or employers. As with NVQs, the courses are mapped against national criteria that can be related to firms' specific needs. But unlike NVQs, the practical assessment is through role-play - and not on the job - as sales people spend so much time on the road.
Solihull College has adapted to the sales lifestyle by tailoring courses to the needs of companies and has developed a website with chat facilities for those who cannot get to the college sessions.
ISMM believes that in a more competitive market, salespeople's interpersonal skills must be underpinned by greater market intelligence and knowledge of customers' needs. Good training also shows investment in individuals and sends out a powerful recruitment message, says ISMM's chief executive Patrick Joiner.
Yet so far the NVQ in sales has attracted little interest. Occupational standards are under review by the Marketing and Sales Standards Setting Body, and there is no sector skills council for the area. Of the half-million people employed in business-to-business selling, about 3,000 have ISMM qualifications. The skill levels of the rest can be up to MBA level, but are hard to gauge as most firms use their own or private providers' schemes, which are not mapped against national standards.
"There is a huge market for training and it is not well-regulated," says Mr Joiner.
Accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and eligible for Learning and Skills Council funding, the ISMM courses are filling a genuine gap in the market, says Karen Harvey. "But colleges and providers need to raise the profile of the courses," she says. "We have a long way to go before that programme is in the minds of sales managers.
"Managers need to encourage commitment and teamwork, not rivalry," she says, although she believes bosses are starting to see that self-development can be of benefit to companies. Gradually, she says, the image of salespeople is changing from "blaggers" to knowledge workers.
"Employers are looking more closely at CVs and skills," she says.
"Companies have realised the need to train for personnel and marketing - and sales could be next."
In-service training courses such as the institute's could also help to hit the Government's target of 1 million more adults with at least level 2 qualifications by 2007. The institute is in talks with the LSC to make funding available for training, both in-house and through colleges. At Solihull, the level 2 course costs pound;80, compared with pound;250 through a private provider.
But the first task is to get the employers to support the targets.
"There is still a lack of awareness of government strategy," says Patrick Joiner. "There is a tendency for initiatives to be drawn up without consulting employers."