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Sales in the 1990s: a decade of development.

Sales in the 1990s: A Decade of Development


This issue is devoted exclusively to sales and sales management. While sales too often receive little attention, the area remains an important strategic and operational focus for businesses. With the large number of graduating college seniors over the years added to the existing professionals engaged in selling activities, the nature of individual, organizational, and related sales activities has undergone many alterations over the last 40 years. In turn, many of these changes will eventually result in the development of more qualified salespeople and sales managers. Many of these modifications will take place in the next decade. At the core of these alterations, the sales profession will remain a foundation of growth for people and organizations.

The evolution will be enhanced by the practitioner and researcher working together to provide a more successful and scientific sales process. This approach to sales is evident in the articles in this special issue of the Review of Business. For example, Tom Ingram examines methods of improving sales force productivity, while Larry Chonko and John Tanner discuss the importance of utilizing "relationship selling" as part of a sales strategy. Jim Randall (selection), Rawlie Sullivan (trends in selling to businesses), and David Burns and John Lanasa (ethics) have also addressed important sales topics of the future. These issues represent an interesting and important evolution in the sales profession.

The Evolution in Sales

The sales organization is crucial to the success of most firms. Without sales representatives and managers calling on customers, there is a strong likelihood of organizational failure. Simply, the customers and sales have to originate from "somewhere." This "somewhere" is the direct effort of the salesperson who creates an opportunity for the selling organization. Thus logically, few sales professionals or managers of any discipline would question the importance of the sales organization. Still, this vital role has not always been uniformly accepted.

If one relies solely on published research to assess progress, sales early on received interestingly little attention. In the '50s and '60s, marketers often sought to initially establish marketing theory as it applied to what has commonly been referred to as the four ps (product, price, promotion, and place or distribution). While promotion does include sales (as well as areas such as advertising and public relations), little emphasis with respect to scientific research was directed to sales, excepting in those cases when theory was specifically established or confirmed. Sales were generally seen by researchers in this time period as an operational or functional aspect of selling, thereby deserving little attention.

Practitioners during this period generally recognized the sales position as being important. However, many of the individuals "channeled" into sales were not considered the best people in the organization. Instead, even successful managers and salespeople typically did not consider themselves professionals, but instead, they often envisioned themselves as simply "peddlers."

In the '70s and until the early '80s, sales organizations were more formally constructed to hire and retain the best available personnel. A significant improvement in the sales mission and the professionals required to accomplish the goals of the firm began to come into focus. Competition for highly qualified professionals also increased the general image and attractiveness of sales as a career.

In contrast to what practitioners were accomplishing, significantly more emphasis was placed by researchers on providing theory without application. As a result, many individuals graduating from colleges and universities developed negative perspectives about the sales profession. For example, this author still bristles at the remembrance of a young professor interviewing me for a position teaching marketing, who announced: "Sales are a junior college and vocational school profession ... we only want those professors who understand that being a marketing manager is where a college graduate belongs." Maybe I was offended because I was proud of having spent time as a sales representative and a sales manager. Or maybe the comments were offensive because of his ignorance. In any case, this gap in knowledge simply reinforced what too many "nonsales types" already believed.

Yet, despite some of the resistance seen in this period, there remained a core of researchers and academicians who strongly believed that sales were an important foundation of business activity. This group believed that sales were, and are, both theoretical and operational significant to marketers. Thus starting in the mid-'80s, a metamorphosis of sales emphasis began to develop. Sales professionals more aggressively sought higher levels of skill and competence. Researchers and authors joined this effort and subsequently decided that theory and functional sales operations not only can coexist simultaneously, but they enhance each other wonderfully.

As part of this evolution, universities began increasing their coverage of sales and sales management topics. The few professors who initially promoted the opportunities in sales careers to their students began seeing the results of this steadfast position. As a result, quality students today are actively engaged in seeking out future employers who have successful sales organizations. In turn, sales organizations are able to attract young men and women who are not retreads, but those who will be exceptional performers.

Conversely, sales professionals are making themselves available to talk with young people about the personal excellence and sense of achievement that can be obtained with a sales career. Sales organizations are becoming more involved in scholarly pursuits and are providing opportunities for academicians to investigate sales environments. This integration of campuses and businesses is taking place just in time. The future for sales professionals is one of need, excitement, and growth.

From the 1990s to the 2000s

New tools and greater challenges in sales suggest that the next generation of sales professional will have special skills and will be in a position of increased demand. Sales will continue to provide the firm the financial ability to survive and grow. Without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly sales, there will be no organizational survival.

Thus, it is logical that salespeople have developed a degree of importance that few individuals in the firm possess. While this vital role is expected to continue, the make-up of the people who participate in this activity will not remain absolutely static. There will be changes as well as constants in the qualities as well as activities of sales professionals, as we move into the '90s.

Sales will remain a profession of risk and reward. There will continue to be an element of uncertainty and risk in the profession. As the risk remains relatively high (compared to, for example, an accountant), the rewards will also remain high compared to other positions. The opportunity for sales professionals to make a substantial living will continue to exist.

The recent emphasis in selling based on a client driven perspective (e.g., building long term relationships) will continue. This means that the relationship between the buyer and seller will remain a highly personal one, requiring the successful seller to understand and predict the needs of the buyer. Additionally, the sales representative will continue to need to provide the communication linkage between what is needed by the buyer and what is available from the seller.

Differences required by management in the '90s compared with previous decades will include the increased need to emphasize the ongoing crucial role of the sales force. This will require the management staff to provide special recognition of salespeople. While financial rewards will continue to be an inherent reward factor, there will be the need to satisfy personal (nonfinancial) desires more than has been done in the past. Simply, managers will need to spend more time developing relationships with sales representatives to understand individualized motivations and needs. This will translate into more firms offering increased development programs to ensure personal and professional growth.

A greater degree of analytical skills will also be required for successful salespeople and sales managers. The emergence of computer hardware and software, which is sales oriented, will require more knowledge and information by sales personnel to operate. From a managerial perspective, the need to create a differential or strategic advantage among sellers will require an increased usage of tools, such as expert systems (an expert system is a software program that provides the user information as though an "expert" were present)[1]. These computer based tools will provide increased flexibility as well as greater response levels to customer needs. Additionally, computer usage will enhance sales management abilities in areas such as quota development, compensation, training, record keeping, etc.

As business needs become more specialized, the ability to satisfy buyer needs will also become more specific. This means sales representatives and sales managers will have to become more specialized within the sales function. More sellers will specialize not only in types of customers they sell to, but manufacturers and distributors will try and develop salespeople with greater degrees of specialized product knowledge.

Salespeople will also be encouraged to spend more time with decision makers in developing stronger personal bonds as a method of increasing sales. Thus, the demand for increased productivity will require greater levels of goal accomplishment (e.g., more quotas). This will result in greater degrees of personal stress being exerted on sales representatives and sales managers. Organizations will have to be constructed to allow for the pressure of increased productivity on the individual.

A New Sales Management Role

Sales managers will also experience a number of significant changes in the '90s. The emphasis on profit by top management will require a higher level of productivity by sales organizations. This will translate into sales managers seeking strategies and programs that will drive increased productivity at every level.

So how will productivity be increased? First, a stronger bond will be developed by sales managers and their subordinates with other members of the firm. There will be a need for the entire organization to work in synergy for the goals of the sales force (which impact all company personnel). For example, there will be an enhanced emphasis on ensuring that "just-in-time" inventory levels will be maintained. That is, the seller will try to ensure that the buyer has the product exactly when it is needed (and not before). The importance of this quality is evident through the increasing cost of premature inventory levels. This approach will likely result in a greater reliance on technology improvements (e.g., laptop computers, as well as other technologically oriented methods), which can be integrated into the sales organization.

The sales management job will also become more complex, with greater responsibilities in areas such as developing strategic markets, improving margin contributions, and decreasing costs[2]. This will require that the sales manager develop and maintain a stronger background in those tools, which enhance control over these systems. Additional education and work exposure to accounting and financial systems will become increasingly important. The sales manager will have to be knowledgeable about the impact and influence of many disciplines, not just sales on his/her position.

The physical nature of the position of sales manager will begin to show dramatic changes as well. For example, females will begin to compose a significantly larger percentage of sales managers. While increased recruitment in the late '70s and '80s resulted in more women sales representatives being hired, few females had previously made the sales management position. This slowly developing trend will begin to show significant and rapid advancement, since females have demonstrated excellent sales skills and will be promoted to managerial roles in increasing numbers. As part of this alteration, organizations will need to develop retention and attraction strategies for outstanding sales and sales management personnel that are not uniform. Specifically, the diversity of the sales force will require different approaches to managing employees with needs which are unique from those previously employed.


It seems that many changes in the near future are likely. The evolution of the sales profession over the next ten years should be an exciting time. While this special issue of the Review of Business certainly does not identify and discuss all the important topics of sales in the future, many significant elements are presented for the reader's consideration. It is certain, however, that the sales profession is a dynamic profession that will continue to be one of excitement and opportunity. To meet this environment, sales professionals need to be ready for a decade of change, challenge, and a commitment to excellence.


[1]O'Connell, William A. and William Kennan, Jr. "The Shape of Things to Come." Sales and Marketing Management, January 1990, pp. 36-41. [2]Rangaswamy, Arvind, Jehoshua Eliashberg, Raymond R. Burke, and Jerry Wind. "Developing Marketing Expert Systems: An Application in International Negotiations." Journal of Marketing, October 1989, pp. 24-39.

David J. Good is Associate Professor of Marketing at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Missouri.
COPYRIGHT 1990 St. John's University, College of Business Administration
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Author:Good, David J.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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