Report summary: Exchanging Skills in Sales and Marketing

Roles within sales and marketing are changing, demanding higher level skills rather than new ones. Retaining marketing and sales people with these skills is critical, since effective sales and marketing is a major lever for competitiveness. As employers recognise the need to develop a marketing culture within organisations, customer service and selling skills are becoming a requirement for many employees, not just for those employed directly in sales and marketing.

Workforce characteristics

Marketing is concerned with ensuring companies provide what consumers want to buy. It has a role in identifying and anticipating the needs of current and potential customers, and developing new solutions to fulfil those needs, as well as drawing up a strategy to exchange an organisation’s products or services.

The role of selling is to procure a stream of transactions involving the company’s products and services, building up customer relationships that maximise these exchanges. Specific occupations covered by this survey are: marketing and brand managers, field sales, key account managers, sales managers, and telesales.

  • By 1996/97 around one million people were employed in Great Britain in this group of occupations (Labour Force Survey, Winter 1996/97). The early 1990s saw some growth in the numbers employed, the majority of which was in sales and marketing management, and telesales. Numbers of sales representatives had been falling.
  • Sales and marketing management, and field sales occupations, were male dominated. In contrast, telesales was employing a high proportion of women.
  • Employees in sales and marketing occupations were mostly aged between their mid-20s and mid-40s.
  • Self employment and freelance working are a feature of sales occupations; nearly one-fifth of those working in the UK in sales were self employed.

Drivers of change

As national and international competitive pressures increase, and customers grow more powerful and sophisticated, organisations must develop their sales and marketing strategies to remain competitive. Organisational responses include:

  • introducing technology
  • changing ways of relating with customers
  • shifting away from functional marketing
  • developing the role of key account management, sales management and telesales roles
  • adjusting compensation strategies for sales people
  • changing the culture and working practices of their organisations.

Sales and marketing skills

Not all sales and marketing roles require the same skills to the same level. However, the main skills and abilities needed include:

Key Skills: identified by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications as important in every area of work, training and learning: communications skills, application of number, IT, problem solving, and improving own learning and performance.

Occupation specific skills: customer service, selling, negotiating and influencing, analysis and decision-making, and management skills.

Areas of knowledge: the business environment, product knowledge, and financial awareness.

Personal skills: drive and energy, adaptability, resilience and determination, confidence, creativity, and an ability to learn and absorb knowledge.

Intensifying competition and increasingly demanding customers, requires higher level skills, not necessarily different ones.

Particular areas where levels of skill were heightening at the time of the research included: IT, building customer sales relationships, business acumen, high level selling, customer service, understanding company goals and objectives, team working, analysis, and an ability to identify opportunities.

Recruiting to sales and marketing

The source of recruits into sales and marketing roles depends upon the level and type of appointment being made. The proportion of graduates recruited to entry level marketing occupations had traditionally been high, and their recruitment was becoming increasingly common. There was also growing graduate recruitment into sales positions. This was reported to be associated with the levels of skill required to deal with increasingly sophisticated and powerful customers.

Product and service knowledge was one reason given for recruiting sales people from the internal labour market. There was also some internal movement between sales and marketing occupations. External appointments were being made at all levels, but cross-sectoral movement was limited, particularly at more senior levels of both sales and marketing. However, some employers were widening the pool of potential recruits to industrial sectors other than their own, and to their customers.

Qualifications, personality, work experience, and track record, all play an important role in selection. The relative importance of each depends on the level and nature of the job being entered. A variety of selection techniques is used, such as structured interviews, assessment centres, tests and group activities. Many organisations, particularly when recruiting to sales positions, also assess the suitability of people on the job, either through a probationary period or on an on-going basis. In response to changes in the levels and range of skills required, skill requirements are being more closely specified and selection tools developed.

Skills gaps, recruitment difficulties

Within marketing, we identified skills gaps in the ability to be visionary, flair to identify new opportunities, influencing skills, analytical and project management skills. Skills gaps in sales were primarily business understanding and acumen, customer service, proactive selling, and essential personal qualities such as empathy and ego drive.

Recruitment difficulties did not appear to be significant, and employers were not having difficulties attracting the required volume of graduate applicants. However, among graduates a lack of communication skills appropriate to a business environment, and little understanding of commercial life, were noted in particular.

The image of sales work was viewed as something which restricted the ability of employers to attract the highest calibre recruits.

Training and development

In sales, there appeared to be a substantial amount of investment in training, covering selling skills, product knowledge, and new technologies. This was continually updated in line with changes in the market place. The large employers surveyed provided fast track training programmes for their graduate entrants. These schemes covered both generic management skills as well as specific marketing and selling skills.

Some employers were adapting to the changes in marketing and selling by developing new approaches to training. These included involving customers in the training process, and providing more flexible training programmes to suit different learning styles and needs. Within sales, the lack of a nationally recognised professional qualification was clearly a concern.

At the time of the research sales NVQs were beginning to be used by employers more widely. Sales qualifications were also being developed by the professional sales bodies. A range of marketing qualifications were offered by the professional institutes, but our research findings suggested that employers were generally not pushing marketing NVQs.

Career progression

Fast moving consumer goods: there was little movement between selling and marketing.

Business-to-business: sales and marketing were beginning to merge. This was opening up opportunities for sales people to move into roles such as key account, business development, or relationship management.

Marketing: typical promotional routes include stepping from one well-known employer to another. Another common route is to move into marketing, advertising and direct marketing agencies.

Career progression raised a number of issues. The lack of a structured career path for sales people was seen as inhibiting the ability of employers to attract high calibre entrants.

Opportunities for those working in telesales roles to move into face-to-face sales were being limited, both by the expansion of telesales and the reduction of field sales. Telesales tended not to be viewed as a career job, but there were opportunities to move on from telesales into areas such as complaints handling and customer services.

On the marketing side, some respondents were concerned about the lack of marketers who were promoted into senior management positions.

The study

The Department for Education and Employment commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies to undertake a programme of research exploring the changing nature of skill requirements within eight key occupations.

This study, into sales and marketing occupations, included a review of existing literature, and 17 interviews with key sales and marketing contacts, and managers and human resource professionals, in large employers. The fieldwork primarily consisted of two key stages: a preliminary stage of exploratory interviews, followed by a principal stage of employer interviews. The majority of the fieldwork was undertaken between Autumn 1996 and Spring 1997.