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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.

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