By Peter Gilbert
Mike X (a real person) earned R6.5 million in sales commissions in 2005 selling top end computer software. These spectacular earnings were based on hard work, a touch of luck here and there but, most important of all, unbelievable talent. To understand why the Mikes of this world have become so important, and so well paid, we need to understand how the world of selling has changed. Back in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and even part of the 80’s, selling was a relatively easy and carefree business.

In markets where demand frequently outstripped supply, where products were frequently well differentiated, where product boundaries were clearly delineated, and where competition was generally manageable, it was not that difficult to succeed in sales. Modest academic qualifications, a genial and outgoing personality, a fund of good jokes and, perhaps having played centre for the Blue Bulls, would have been more than enough to qualify you for most sales jobs. Simply being good was absolutely good enough. But that has all changed. In today’s hugely competitive sales environment good is no longer good enough and sales is becoming a true profession.   
So the happy, glad-handed, hard drinking, golf playing rep of yesteryear, is being supplanted by true sales professionals, who are streetwise, well connected, politically savvy, financially literate, well informed about their customers and extremely talented at selling. Which brings us to a key point. Selling is a talent based rather than a learned skill. So, if you have no sales talent, or very little, stay out of sales because you will fail very visibly and have a miserable time. It is also important to understand that sales talent can be sharpened, but it cannot be created. Sales training cannot improve sales aptitude by more than about 20%. So a 5% can become a 6%, whereas an 80% can become a 96% -- a much better training investment for any company or individual.
Another key point to understand is that the “universal salesperson”, who can sell anything to anyone (ice-cubes to Eskimos) is a myth. No such person exists. Instead, there are different types of salespeople required for different types of customers and different sales roles. For example, account managers are classic relationship salespeople, who build deep and lasting personal and business relationships with a small number of clients. Relationship salespeople are generally quite conservative in their dress, religion and politics, have a very strong work ethic, unbelievable commitment to their customers and, very often remain in sales throughout their careers. Typically this type of salesperson prefers a reasonable salary and additional commission or bonus component, which can be quite large, depending on performance. Most relationship salespeople hate continuous cold calling and would usually fail or be unhappy in jobs such as real estate sales or financial services sales where commission only remuneration is the rule.
In contrast the new business development or “closer” type sales person is a completely different creature. They are hard working, success driven; typically have large egos, often with flamboyant personalities, and a strong need for status. This group is often found in commission only sales roles and the true “rain-makers” often earn huge incomes. Closers do not like or do well with long sales cycles. Most “closers” remain in sales throughout their careers and less that 15% make good managers. They themselves are often difficult to manage.
Finally, we get to the Mike X’s of this world---the consultative salesperson. They fall somewhere between the “closer” and “relationship” salesperson. They are typically more academic, professional or business oriented, patient, analytical and calculating. In addition, they are no sissies when it comes to closing. This type of salesperson is commonly found in IT or Management Consulting. Consultants usually transition quite easily into management.
About 64% of salespeople who fail, fail not because they cannot sell, but because they are in the wrong sales role. Sales can be a highly lucrative career, but be sure that you make the right choices:
• Make sure that you have the talent to succeed in sales
• Determine which sales role or roles suit your profile (there are at least 20 different sales profiles)
• Pick an industry that pays well or at least one in which you will be happy
• Work on your own professional development continuously
• Know more about your customers than they know themselves
• Seek out a coach or mentor
• Keep your professional ethics in good working order
Peter Gilbert is the managing director of meta-morphose International, a sales recruitment and training company that identifies talented young salespeople, places them and trains and coaches them.