The sales sector is a huge employer, yet few of its workers are aware that courses can provide a career boost. Caitlin Davies reports

As far as some salespeople are concerned, meeting sales targets is the main aim of the job. Yet what if simply knowing how to sell is not enough? You could, of course, buy a CD that promises the "secrets of the master salesman" - or you could return to studying for a proper qualification.

Richard Tandy, an account manager at npower in the West Midlands, chose the latter. He graduated from university with a business management degree and joined a local company before realising that it wasn't for him. He then joined npower, where he was enrolled at once on a Level 3 Advanced Certificate in Sales and Marketing offered by the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management (ISMM).

The 20-week course taught generic sales skills. While he found that there was some crossover with his business degree, the new course was more job-focused. With the Advanced Certificate out of the way, Tandy began a Diploma in Strategic Sales, again with ISMM, which has taken him a year to complete.

The diploma, comparable to a first degree, is a 180-hour programme aimed at successful sales professionals who have been promoted but lack the management skills to progress further. The course covers marketing strategies, ethical and financial issues, sales management and leadership. Students complete four practical assignments and a 5,000-word work-based project.

Many companies don't encourage staff towards further study because they fear they will leave, taking their new skills elsewhere. But Tandy argues that if employers invest in their salespeople and get results, they'll have no reason to go.

Tandy is just the sort of person who warms the heart of Carol Pillinger, the director of education at ISMM. While the number of full-time sales personnel is on the increase, she says that today's salesman or woman needs to be highly educated and skilled. To be an effective professional, you need a range of skills. At the top of the list are the more obvious ones, like good verbal and presentation skills, confidence and resilience. But you also need to be up to date in "best selling practice", with excellent business understanding.

"Best practice" means the ability to actually listen to your customers, Pillinger says, and to help them to buy what they want, not what you want them to buy. It means understanding the ethics of selling and focusing on the needs of a customer, not just the business transaction. She says it is rare today that salespeople need specific degrees, but they do need to upgrade their skills.

Sales is a huge industry and career opportunities for graduates are in five main fields: consumer, technical, media, pharmaceutical and financial sales. That means you could be selling anything from cars to advertising space, and drugs to life insurance.

Graduates usually start out at the level of sales executive or representative, and progress to account manager, account director and then sales director (although the job titles vary depending on the employment area). A basic salary is between £16,000 and £24,000, but commission can and should double your salary. You could also be looking at a company car, healthcare and profit-share.

Most organisations do provide training for their sales workforce, but often this just means training in terms of whatever product or service the company sells. Larger companies increasingly use sales training companies, yet they often just provide training in basic skills, with what Pillinger calls a "sheep dip" approach. "They take a guy off the road for a day, train him because they haven't done that for a while, then put him back on the road," she says.

Pillinger insists that sales qualifications have to be hands-on rather than purely academic. That said, Masters programmes in sales are attracting more applicants, especially those who have a successful sales job but who feel they are being overtaken by more qualified colleagues.

Tandy is about to start an MA in sales management, supported by his employers, at Portsmouth University. "I'm just 26, and I feel I've only scratched the surface in sales. Things change quickly in this environment and you need to keep abreast. There is no point in stopping now."

To find out about sales qualifications, contact the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management at www.ismm.co.uk

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