Smart moves: Audit balances its graduate recruitment

Selling is an old profession. Its basic principles have doubtless been known for millennia. Yet every generation claims to have revolutionised selling, when all they have really done is reinvent the wheel.

A recent survey claims that the nature of selling has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, resulting in the emergence of a new kind of salesperson. According to the study, which interviewed businessmen and salespeople, words used to describe sellers in the past 30 years have changed significantly.

Words associated with 1970s salespeople include pushy, persuasive, social, relaxed, friendly, amateur and complacent. By the 1980s, Thatcherism is seen to have taken hold. Epithets include aggressive, pushy, hard-sell, dynamic, brash, yuppie, determined, flash and arrogant. However, 1990s salespeople are seen - not surprisingly, as they are describing themselves - in a more positive light. They are seen as professional, consultative, polished, focused, understanding, aware, dynamic, sophisticated, caring and proactive.

To what extent are these perceptions real? Did the 273 sales staff and 173 business people questioned have accurate memories of salespeople 20 or more years ago? Has there really been a real and permanent change of style or does the style of selling follow a regular cycle? Perhaps there has been no real change at all. The variety of sales roles, and the people employed in them are so varied, that one can find someone to fit every description.

"Perceptions can often be more potent than reality," says Richard Rawlings, sales and marketing manager of Austin Benn Human Resourcing, which carried out the survey. "Many of the opinions in the survey were based on the fact that these people were around at that time. Others are perceptions. I wonder to what extent those perceptions are based on reality or on what people see on television." He agrees that what we may also be seeing is a regular cycle. "It may go completely full circle within 20 years." What he thinks is now happening is that "the professional salesperson is trying to turn customers into clients". He explains the difference: "I think a customer is one who buys a product or a service without professional representation and probably has only himself to blame is something goes wrong. A client is one who relies on the advice of a professional adviser. I think salespeople are trying to put themselves in the capacity of professional advisers. People don't want to be sold to anymore, they want to be worked with."

He accepts that professional salespeople in the past also acted in this way because "senior people in business don't suffer fools gladly". But what he says business people are now doing is "exerting their influence downwards and saying let's get smarter, this is the way to do it, this is the way we do it at the top".

The survey asked the business people to name the three industries with the strongest salespeople and the three with the weakest. Heading the list of the strongest were IT and technical, followed in order by advertising and communications, office equipment, industrial, and the service industries. Heading the weakest were double glazing, followed by financial services and insurances, cars, FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) and retail. Curiously, five industries - office equipment, service industries, FMCG, financial services and double glazing - appeared in both the 10 strongest and 10 weakest. This tends to suggest that standards of selling, even within a single industry, are variable. When salespeople were asked about the most desirable items to sell, information technology and technical equipment headed the list. Followed by, in order, cars, food and drink, sports goods and engineering goods. It is surprising that cars should be second favourite when this is thought to be the industry with the third weakest salespeople. Honesty is not a quality that the average person associates with salespeople. Nevertheless, when salespeople were asked what they thought were the main qualities in a good employer, "ethics/honesty" headed the list. It is also assumed that money is their main motivation. However, when asked what they most enjoy about selling, "building relationships" comes first. This is followed by "closing sales', "challenge", "the buzz" and only then "the rewards".

Does this sound too good to be true? Are the Del Boys really extinct? Having just spoken to a double-glazing salesman, I believe not. It is likely that salespeople have always spanned the spectrum from professional to amateur, altruistic to greedy, aggressive to understanding, and from honest to dishonest.

It seems likely that the Austin Benn survey veered towards the professional end of the market. Those interviewed were all candidates for sales vacancies in the business sector. And those who sell to business tend to be at the more professional and ethical end of the spectrum.

What qualities do businesses consider important in their salespeople? Determination, communication skills and enthusiasm head the list. These are followed by an outgoing personality, product knowledge and a positive attitude. Only then, in seventh place, is honesty mentioned. This is perhaps surprising, when ethics/honesty heads the list of the qualities that salespeople expect from an employer.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Sheridan Maine: Financial Accountant

£150 - £190 Daily Rate: Sheridan Maine: One of London's leading water supplier...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor