Wanted: Skilled sales professionals

Standardized professional training and more post-secondary sales programs are among the solutions to address the IT sales talent shortage. istock.com

Standardized professional training and more post-secondary sales programs are among the solutions to address the IT sales talent shortage. istock.com

Initiatives launched to increase pool of sellers with information technology know-how

The skills shortage currently being seen on the sales side in the information technology (IT) sector could be seen as a good problem to have. That’s because it comes as a result of a boom in Canada’s IT sector over the last five to eight years.

“In Canada in recent years, a large number of tech startups have done really well. They’ve been well funded and consequently have been aggressive in hiring sales talent to drive the top line numbers they need,” explains Joan Leroux, senior vice-president of sales and customer success at Adlib Software in Burlington. “In their pursuit to do that, it’s really diluted the pool of sales people with IT knowledge.”

While the growth in IT in Canada has definitely contributed to the shortage, another issue cited by Leroux is an image problem for sales as a profession.

“A lot of grads don’t even think about sales,” she says. “It’s creating some drag in the market for uncovering emerging talent, as well as those who haven’t quite realized their talent for sales.”

Ms. Leroux says she’s been trying to hire one account executive with an enterprise technology sales background and “it’s feeling like looking for a unicorn these days.”

The high demand for IT sales professionals is good news for those who do have both IT training and sales skills because there are plenty of jobs – but for those trying to fill the positions, it’s a challenge.

The Canadian government has made it a priority to address the sales talent shortage in IT and other key economic sectors. The Government of Canada recently provided funding to the Canadian Professional Sales Association (CPSA), to allow the association to accelerate its initiatives to improve the skill levels of the Canadian sales force, attract new people to the profession and establish professional designations for sales professionals.

Expanding consistent standards for skills assessment and training, and creating professional designations are all seen as key mechanisms for building a more qualified IT sales force.

Ms. Leroux says there are plenty of sales professionals being downsized because of automation or obsolescence – those who sell newspaper ads or office equipment, for example. With a little retraining, they would be very interesting candidates for companies like hers.

“We hired a lot of people from the Yellow Pages and Xerox a few years ago. Many organizations that had historically invested heavily in sales training were redefining their go-to-market sales strategy. As a result, a new source of sales talent opened up to employers willing to invest in product and market training,” she says.

“There had been no standard for sales skills to baseline a potential candidate. We need training to improve sales competencies and elevate sales as a profession. The work that CPSA has done plays into that need in the market.”

The CPSA and its industry partners believe a comprehensive approach is needed to elevate the skills of IT and other sales professionals. The association is building a network of accredited partners who can provide training based on its standards. Another goal is to expand sales education in university and college programs.

Joan Lereoux, Senior Vice President, Global Sales and Customer Success, Adlib Software.jpg
A lot of grads don’t even think about sales. It’s creating some drag in the market for uncovering emerging talent.
— Joan Leroux Senior vice-president of sales and customer success, Adlib Software

Jordan Sheridan, general manager, modern workplace, at Microsoft, says there’s opportunity for those who might have some aptitude for sales.

“There’s an opportunity to really create a career path so people do come out of school with a career in sales in mind,” Mr. Sheridan says. “We want them thinking about sales as a profession at the college or university level, and creating more options for themselves with employers like us.”

Mr. Sheridan says introducing sales as part of a business-degree curriculum makes sense.

“We are slowly starting to see sales courses offered and people coming out of school with some form of sales experience or education,” he says. “If they’ve already been thinking about sales and have some of the fundamentals, I can bring them into my workforce and have an impact sooner.

“I could take someone with a sales foundation and then spend time training them specifically on the “Challenger” methodology, which is how we like to train our sellers. If you have someone with a computer science degree who’s also studied sales – that would be a clear indicator they want to apply their technical know-how in a customer-facing sales environment.”

Asked if a lack of skilled sales talent is slowing Canada down globally, Ms. Leroux says the shortage poses challenges for smaller companies.

“It might mean they need to deploy alternative sales methods – offshoring to call centres or alternative market strategies,” she said. “It likely means a slower start without the talent.”

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