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There is a shortage of skilled sales staff in the UK: How can we overcome this and boost sales recruitment?

Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again.

In recent months, we've investigated skills shortages in industries such as construction, education and healthcare; the findings suggest a common trend. 

This time, we're investigating whether there is a shortage of sales professionals. If so, why is this the case, and what can employers do? 

Is there a shortage of sales professionals?

A career in sales is like no other. Not only is it financially rewarding, but it gives people resilience, determination and drive - attributes which are useful in all aspects of life.

Unlike construction, education and health, figures about the fortunes of sales professionals aren't as readily available. 

However, in an overview of skills and talent shortages, there is evidence to show that employers are finding it hard to recruit sales staff, and many lack the skills required.  

The 2015 Employer Skills Survey (ESS) - the third in a series of UK-wide skills surveys run by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) - gives insight into the skills issues faced by employers. 

Almost 100,000 interviews were conducted with employers throughout the UK and while an increase in recruitment was discovered, this rise has also exacerbated the growing number of jobs left unfilled because companies can't find people with the right skills. 

On a wider scale, 14% of employers reported skills gaps.

In terms of recruitment and skill shortages, at the time of research, 19% of employers had at least one current vacancy, while altogether, more than 900,000 vacancies were reported. 

But if people don't view it (sales) as an attractive career, and firms cannot fill vacant roles, that's not just bad for business, it's bad for all of us. We intend to change that.

This is almost 300,000 more than in 2013

There has been an increase of almost 60,000 hard-to-fill job roles since 2013. 

The picture in relation to sales

In terms of actual job roles, the data showed that sales, along with a number of other areas of expertise, were showing persistent skills shortages

The 2015 ESS identifies skill shortages in two broad categories: people and personal skills, and technical and practical skills. 

This is where the problem of finding enough sales staff is laid bare; the skills needed to take these roles are not evident in some candidates. 

The survey showed that 39% believe customer handling skills are lacking amongst applicants, while a quarter of respondents said sales skills weren't present

Ability to sell, as well as persuading or influencing others were two of the skills in shortest supply and not just for sales and customer service roles.

There is a shortage of high quality, well trained and qualified sales staff in the UK.

There are many subjects for which you can get a qualification but something such as persuading and influencing is less likely to be found in a college, university or vocational course. 

People can enter the sales profession with a mixture of academic qualifications and the requisite soft skills that some people will have, while others will not. 

As we have seen when profiling recruitment industry jobs and salaries, you have to excel in a sales-driven environment and be able to cultivate long term relationships. 

Problems are compounded by the fact that 9% of employers have difficulty retaining sales and customer service staff

Skills gaps in sales

The findings showed that the skills gap in sales occupations is above the national average and this has been the case for each of the three ESS surveys. 

The gap is closing but in 2015, 6.5% of sales and customer service staff were reported to be lacking full proficiency, compared with 5% nationally. 

The battle that all hiring organisations face is increasing the talent pool for the positions they are looking for.

Encouragingly, the trend of sales shortages in sales and customer services is showing that they are decreasing, from 8.3% in 2011 and 7.8% in 2013. 

Despite this, more work is needed. 

ManpowerGroup, a global workforce expert, has produced its own Talent Shortage survey which confirms the problems of sourcing skilled applicants. Employers in the UK are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their vacancies.

Amongst these, sales is ranked as the fourth most difficult role to find skilled employees for. 

Sales shortages in Scotland

In Scotland, 7,000 sales jobs were left unfilled in December 2016. As a result, the Institute of Sales Management (ISM) launched regional committees throughout Scotland to bring businesses and sales opportunities together. 

It is a potentially huge financial problem considering that the sales industry is worth billions to Scotland, with exports accounting for £76 billion and those deals were negotiated by salespeople. 

What they need in terms of the sales person, is for them to be credible in their area but also need to be an expert in their interests.

Regional committees will be set up in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness; all of these cities have sales vacancies that cannot be filled. 

Jack Mizel is the CEO at ISM and he extolled the positives about a career in this industry, while sounding a warning if the message about such a career isn't delivered. 

He said: "A career in sales is like no other. Not only is it financially rewarding, but it gives people resilience, determination and drive - attributes which are useful in all aspects of life.

But if people don't view it as an attractive career, and firms cannot fill vacant roles, that's not just bad for business, it's bad for all of us. We intend to change that.

Why are there sales shortages in the UK?

It's no secret that sales is a stressful job; the high pressure environment, long hours and stress of hitting and missing targets can put candidates off this career and drive them towards other jobs. 

As with any shortage, there isn't one particular reason that can be given.

On a wider scale, we can see below the main causes of skills gaps. The inability to recruit staff with the required skills was given as a reason by 26% of employers. 
Elsewhere, 56% said training was only partially completed (a theme we'll revisit), while over a quarter said a lack of appropriate training was another reason for the dearth of salespeople. 

We spoke to those in the profession to get a better idea. 

Geographical reasons 

High quality sales professionals are hard to come by according to the people at Love Energy Savings, a business electricity comparison site. 

One of the reasons for this, according to Head of People and Compliance, Claire Penson, is that geographical challenges are hard to fight against. 

In the company's case, the bright lights and city life of Manchester are more alluring than the town of Bolton, where the company is based. 

This will undoubtedly be the case in many of the UK's major cities; people will choose job opportunities in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Liverpool, rather than towns around those cities. 

So it's not necessarily a challenge of recruiting, but one of finding people up to that challenge of being an expert.

Claire explains that Lover Energy Savings "historically have a problem recruiting sales staff due to a shortage of high quality available salespeople, particular in the area in which we operate, Bolton.

It's a challenging area, particularly as there's a direct train line into Manchester where Sales roles seem more attractive due to the city vibe.

Shortage of high quality staff

We're fairly sure that readers out there have worked in organisations that have taken on sales staff with varying degrees of success. Some are suited to it, others are not. 

We spoke to the Association of Sales Professionals, who are working hard with companies to improve the quality of staff in this profession. 

Their spokesperson told us that this is a huge issue and there is a real need to increase the talent pool. 

"There is a shortage of high quality, well trained and qualified sales staff in the UK. 

"The battle that all hiring organisations face is increasing the talent pool for the positions they are looking for."

The training programme has helped with recruitment as it shows our prospective employees that we as an employer are serious about our people and set them up to succeed.

Soft skills are required - building and cultivating relationships, as well as negotiation - which aren't the easiest to teach. 

High quality staff can combine these skills with providing expertise in their particular field of work.

It is something pinpointed by Doctify - an ambitious start-up company that brings the model of Uber and JustEat to the healthcare sector. 

Through Doctify, patients can book doctors and dentists quickly if they need appointments. 

In order to do this though, salespeople are needed to get these health professionals on board. This is where having the ability to build relationships, sell a concept and even massage the ego of a potential client is crucial. 

To be able to do this, sales staff have to be able to speak from a position of strength. If you're speaking to somebody in the construction sector, you need to show a level of experience in the industry.

It goes back to development. Lots of companies, particularly if somebody is a good performer, don't continue to develop. It's something we're really passionate about.

It's no different in the health sector and it's a point their Sales Manager, Sophie Idjer, made. 

Sophie pointed out that salespeople will be speaking to GPs and surgeons; professionals who have trained for years academically, and she said: "What they need in terms of the sales person, is for them to be credible in their area but they also need to be an expert in their interests.

"They have to match our customers in their own area of expertise. 

"That is a real challenge because you have to get up to speed very quickly. So it's not necessarily a challenge of recruiting, but one of finding people up to that challenge of being an expert."

How can the sales skills shortage be eased?

The questions that employers are asking are not always the right ones, many centre on previous selling history and essentially end up hiring a contact list.

To get a flavour of what is needed to help the sales profession, we spoke to people with experience of hiring sales staff who discussed challenges they face. 

The most common themes were:

1. Need for the correct training and continuous development. 

2. Make sure that underlying skills needed are present in candidates. 

3. Improve the idea of sales as a career profession. 

Training and development

Unsurprisingly the importance of thorough and successful training cropped up as a necessity above all other reasons. 

It resonates for all companies and we touched upon it above with Doctify, who seek to make sure their staff are experts in healthcare. Training helps this approach.
 
We mentioned earlier that the stress of hitting targets can be too much for people and drive them away from this career.

Good training and development can minimise this, by nurturing staff and easing them into the job.

Claire Penson at Love Energy Savings cites the development of "a fantastic sales training programme with a great success rate" as a reason for improved recruitment. 

Finding and hiring the right sales talent is difficult and sales as a career destination is not at the forefront of the best talent.

It's also important that employees feel they are pursuing the right career in sales - again, this is something to be discussed further. 

But the point is that training is paramount because as well as upskilling an employee, it also gives that person the feeling that the company is investing in them.

Mike Edwards is the Learning and Development Manager at Love Energy Savings. He said: "The training programme has helped with recruitment as it shows our prospective employees that we as an employer are serious about our people and set them up to succeed."

This includes nurturing employees rather than putting them instantly in a 'sink or swim' environment. 

It is reassurance that the employee is making the right choice, and the training strengthens the talent pool for the future. 

Should nurturing end when training finishes?

Employers may need to leverage external expertise to help make sure the right questions are asked. A good recruitment consultant is worth its weight in gold in this process.

At the risk of stating the obvious (even though we are), the answer has to be no. It's a common mistake companies make; train staff and let them get on with the business of selling. 

Providing thorough training and ongoing support can help employees overcome the skills gap and start hitting their targets.

Traditionally, salespeople would be given a script to use when selling and be expected to bring in the numbers. But this can often be demoralising if results don't follow. This is why training is so important. 

At Doctify, Sophia operates a "sophisticated training, induction and ongoing development model."

The main reason for this is to make sure the employees hit target and are a success, while also understanding the unique brand voice of the company. 

Once initial training is completed and a salesperson is warming to their task, there's the temptation to feel they've 'cracked it', when hitting targets. However, this is the very point where stagnation can occur.

It is something Doctify seek to avoid. 

The key is ensuring that the sales professionals have the underlying skills that are needed for the role.

Sophia explained: "It goes back to development. Lots of companies, particularly if somebody is a good performer, don't continue to develop. It's something we're really passionate about. 

"If somebody's hitting targets and pulling in their numbers each month, they're pretty much left to their own devices to continue to bring money in whereas actually, you really need to invest in people."

Love Energy Savings also believe in continuous development because, as Mike Edwards said: "Our people are the biggest and most important asset of our business."

This is especially true if we are to encourage more people to seek a career in sales; if the profession as a whole has a reputation in training and skilling their employees appropriately, that reputation will spread. 

And importantly, by training properly, employees will feel a greater sense of security, increased confidence in their own ability, and ultimately, reduce the speed to competency time of training which increases business revenue. 

Everybody wins. 

The key is identifying the correct skills, ensuring the candidate possesses them. 

Identify and extract the correct skills in candidates

How often have you made a hire based on a salesperson's previous record? 

You're not the only one. 

Is this the best way to find candidates for the sales profession?

Well, perhaps not. 

Now, that previous record may well indicate somebody with entirely the correct skills and competencies for the role; they may also be the product of being passed a particularly productive contact list from somebody else. 

Previous good sales could also be due to somebody having a select few clients, but what about when those are exhausted? Can the salesperson go out and sell to new people?

The key is identifying the correct skills, ensuring the candidate possesses them. 

Nobody likes to sound like a broken record, but again, this comes back to training; putting in place better practices will improve your business and broaden the talent pool externally. 

It is reassurance that the employee is making the right choice, and the training strengthens the talent pool for the future.



The Association of Professional Sales highlighted the problem:

"The questions that employers are asking are not always the right ones, many centre on previous selling history and essentially end up hiring a contact list.

"The key is ensuring that the sales professionals have the underlying skills that are needed for the role."

Sophia at Doctify has experience of interviewing clients and believes that understanding how they can grow "tends to be one of the challenges when interviewing."

Setting yourself up as a company that can identify the skills that work, and how to extract them from candidates, will create better specialists in sales which can only be good for the selection available in the profession as a whole. 

Employers may need extra help with identifying the right candidates. This is where sales recruitment agencies come into their own. They work day in, day out to identify candidates who possess the skills needed for these vacancies. 

The Association of Professional Sales added: "Employers may need to leverage external expertise to help make sure the right questions are asked. A good recruitment consultant is worth its weight in gold in this process."

If somebody's hitting targets and pulling in their numbers each month, they're pretty much left to their own devices to continue to bring money in whereas actually, you really need to invest in people.

Make sales an attractive career option

As important as training is in moulding sales experts, as is spending time to find people with the right skills, the importance of highlighting the prospects of a career in sales should not be understated. 

Generally, people don't grow up dreaming of a career in sales, so when candidates are at working age, it's not necessarily the first place to look. 

It's a point made by the Association of Professional Sales:

"Finding and hiring the right sales talent is difficult and sales as a career destination is not at the forefront of the best talent."

Therefore, those who work in the profession have a duty to advertise, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, sell the career to prospective employees. 

So, what should be highlighted to attract people into this profession?

1. Great earning potential.

2. No day is ever the same. 

3. Plenty of progression opportunities. 

But the point is training is paramount because as well as upskilling an employee, it also gives that person the feeling that the company is investing in them.

There isn't a set salary because the amount of commission varies significantly. However, at a basic rate, a sales salary can start at anything between £20,000 - £30,000. 

At a senior level, the basic salary can be double this amount and commission, depending on industry and product, can add anything up to £100,000 to basic salary. 

Very lucrative indeed. 

It is a career that involves interaction with a variety of people from all walks of life, and hard work equals more responsibility; whether handling larger accounts, working as a trainer or manager, the rewards are there for those that want them. 

Therefore, it's crucial that employers and others who work within sales, promote working in this field relentlessly. 

Can the skills shortage be closed?

From what we've seen, there's certainly the appetite to create working environments that attract more people into sales. 

What is essential to this strategy, is that employers undertake a commitment to thorough continuous training to spread the good reputation of sales.

Combine this with promoting the benefits of working in sales and it should give more exposure to the profession. 

With any luck, this will encourage more people to seriously pursue a career in sales. 

Written by John Train

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