|Russell Ward: prepare school leavers for work.|
It’s time to equip school leavers for the world of work and introduce a sales GCSE, argues Russell Ward of Silent Edge.
The sales profession is estimated to comprise 750,000 individuals and is the largest business sector in Britain. Beyond this core of people directly involved in sales, many other activities also incorporates some aspect of selling. Despite this central place in our lives, salesmanship barely registers in the national curriculum, and even graduate trainees can present themselves for employment in sales environments without any knowledge of selling.
Perhaps the problem is our native diffidence; the belief that selling is rather vulgar and not an appropriate subject for academic study. The view would seem to be that selling is an ability a person is either born with or picks up on the hoof. Unfortunately this laissez faire approach is proving a disaster for British business: research from Silent Edge and the Cranfield School of Management shows that only 12% of salespeople adhere to best practice and fewer than half possess ‘closing’ skills – which means that only one in five deals gets successfully closed.
Where it happens at all, sales training is clearly too little too late. As a country, we need to recognise the importance of good salesmanship to the success of UK plc. It simply is not good enough waiting until sales people are found wanting before they’re given what is, in effect, remedial coaching. School leavers and graduates should be prepared for the world of work by being able to study sales techniques, and take a GCSE devoted to selling.
Not restricted to business
Nor are sales skills restricted in value to a career in business: ‘The qualities of sensitivity, empathy, curiosity and the ability to present well are fundamental life skills,’ says the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management’s director of education, Dr William Pedley. ‘They have universal applications as well as being essential to the successful salesman.’
Children would be taught how to project themselves to advantage and how to establish a rapport with someone. Through role-play, students could be shown how to prepare an effective argument (or ‘pitch’), how to negotiate and how to conclude a sale (‘closing’ techniques).
‘Young people need to be better informed about the cutting edge of all business – sales’ says Dr Pedley. ‘This key area is often overlooked and yet every business depends on their sales force for survival.’
Employers regularly complain that job applicants present themselves lacking even basic skills; teaching the techniques and psychology of selling at GCSE level would enhance the CV and might persuade interviewers to take a second look.
Dr Shahid Fourali of the government-funded Marketing and Sales Standards Setting Agency explains: ‘For customer-focused employers, academic or writing skills are not as valuable as the ability to problem-solve, and this aspect of selling could be part of a sales GCSE in the national curriculum.’
Dr Fourali believes there is a huge demand for this sort of vocational subject to be taught in schools and, like Dr Pedley, emphasises the wider relevance of sales techniques.
‘Students would learn how to search out their weaknesses and how to sell themselves,’ he says. ‘Selling is an all-pervasive part of life.’
Raising status of sales
Preparing young people more thoroughly for work is not the only gain from introducing sales onto the curriculum. The comparatively low status of selling and marketing in the national psyche is in part to do with its image as an artless activity requiring few formal skills. Introducing sales as a GCSE will showcase the real abilities and rigorous approach needed to be successful.
‘The inclusion of a sales and marketing strand within the national curriculum will begin to redress the erroneous impression the population has of selling,’ says Dr Pedley. ‘There needs to be an awareness that sales is a profession, with clear procedures and processes, and with a strong ethical core. If the British continue to look askance at sales, then UK businesses will struggle to compete in the rapidly-evolving and highly-competitive world market.’
Practice as well as theory
As with other GCSE subjects, sales could be taught practically as well as in theory. Students could possibly sit in on real sales presentations and witness how the professionals do it; pass grades would depend not only on written examination of theoretical skills but on a ‘live’ presentation and a practical understanding of what selling involves. If students found they had an aptitude for the subject they might then move on to take a sales ‘A’ level, which would present them with more rigorous challenges.
At either level, young people who completed a sales course during their time at school would have more to offer future employers – and more to offer the world as confident, self-assured individuals.