I often hear my clients lament that they wish they had a more professional sales force.  That idea of a “professional sales force” gets a lot of conversation in sales management and sales executive circles.  But what exactly does it mean?  And why is it a good thing?

Here’s one person’s opinion.

First, let’s eliminate those things that don’t matter.

There are a number of misconceptions about the attributes of a professional salesperson that center around the externals of a sales person’s situation.  For example, being a professional salesperson has absolutely nothing to do with the product or service the salesperson sells.

I have met very professional salespeople who have sold some of the strangest things imaginable.  In almost every open-enrollment seminar that I present, I come across someone who sells something that I have never even heard of before.  In my own experience, for example, I have sold cake mixes, men’s shoes, men’s suits and underwear, surgical staplers, sophisticated amplification equipment for hearing impaired children, business opportunities, life insurance, catheters, hand soap and yes, even salespeople (as a sales recruiter), to name just a few.

Here’s another irrelevant external issue:  Being a professional salesperson has nothing to do with the folks to whom you sell.  There are people in this country who sell something to every single job description and organization imaginable.  Some of the customer types to whom my clients have sold include farmers, both crop growers and livestock growers; tool and die shops, tier one, two and three automotive suppliers; schools at every level, and government agencies of all kinds; the military, grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and retailers of every kind; contractors of every ilk, including electrical, mechanical, HVAC, plumbing; builders both residential and commercial, etc.  I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  In each and every one of these industries, there are professional salespeople.

Being a professional salesperson has nothing to do with the company for whom the salesperson works.  There are thousands of independent representatives in this country, for example, who work for themselves.  Other salespeople work for small family-held businesses, others work for large multi-nationals.  Thousands sell for distributors; tens of thousands sell for retailers of every possible thing; more thousands sell for manufacturers and service providers of every type.  Professional salespeople are sprinkled throughout every one of these business types.

Finally, being a professional salesperson has nothing to do with how long he’s been at it, his educational background or experience level.  I have encountered many salespeople who have been selling for over twenty years, for example, who don’t come close to fitting into the mold of a professional salesperson.  On the other hand, last week, I met a 21-year-old, in his first sales job, who was very professional.

I have met professional salespeople who had only a high school degree, and many with college and post-graduate degrees.  None of these things, which are external to the sales person’s character, matter.

Now that we’ve eliminated the things that a professional salesperson is not, let’s look at the other side and examine the marks of a professional salesperson.  “Professional” is the name we choose to put on a certain set of character traits and attitudes that reside inside a salesperson.

1. A professional salesperson is proud to be a salesperson.

Can you imagine a doctor who is embarrassed to admit that he is a doctor?  Or a nurse who covers up that fact?  A teacher who doesn’t want anyone to know what he does for a living?  Is a firefighter ashamed to admit it?  A lawyer who pretends to be somebody else?  (Well, ok, maybe on this one.)

You see, in every profession, the members of that profession are proud to be a part of it.  Amazingly, that is not the case with the majority of salespeople.  They don’t like to think of themselves as salespeople.  Instead, they make up other terms.  They are account executives, product specialists, customer liaison agents, mobile customer service representatives, to name a few.

On the other hand, the professionals understand the challenging nature of what they do for a living, the importance it has for their families, their companies, and the economy as a whole.  The work of the average salesperson in this nation supports four other families within the organization.  They are proud of that and proud to be salespeople.

They don’t hide it or apologize for it, they revel in it.

2. A professional salesperson likes his job.

Not only are they proud to be salespeople, but they like being salespeople.  They like the freedom and autonomy they have on the job, and they relish the responsibility that comes with that.  They thrive on customer contact and are energized by the constant challenge.  They get a high from closing a big or difficult sale and aren’t afraid to celebrate those successes.

That doesn’t mean that they relish every aspect of every job.  I’ve had a sales manager, for example, that I was embarrassed to introduce to a customer.  I’ve sold products that didn’t excite me and worked for companies whose management styles and cultures left me looking for something else.  In all of these negative situations, though, I never disliked what I did.

3. A professional salesperson believes he is a professional

He doesn’t see what he does for a living as just a job.  He understands that it is one of the most fundamental and important functions, not only in his company but in the economy in general.  He realizes that he touches and influences hundreds, if not thousands, of people, that his work supports and enables a number of other families, and that he represents much of the visible face of the company that employs them.  These are serious responsibilities, and the professional salesperson understands that to do this well, he must see himself as a professional.

4. A professional salesperson continually invests in his own development.

Over the twenty-plus years that I have been training salespeople, educating sales managers, and working to transform sales organizations, I have stumbled upon an observation that bothers me every time I communicate it.  It’s this:  Out of a group of any 20 salespeople, only one has invested $25.00 of his own money on his own development and improvement in the past 12 months.

The non-professional salespeople don’t think it’s their responsibility to improve themselves.  They won’t buy a book or attend a seminar without their bosses paying for it and requiring it of them.  To them, it’s just a job.

The professionals invest in themselves.  Since they see themselves as professionals, they understand that they must constantly and continually “sharpen the saw.”  They buy the books, get the newsletters, attend the conferences, listen to the podcasts, etc.

Can you imagine your CPA, as he delivers your tax return, mentioning that he hasn’t spent any time updating himself in years?  Or the doctor, as he goes into surgery to work on your spouse or child, off-handedly tossing off the fact that “it’s been years since he bothered to take a class or upgrade his skills.”

These seem like silly examples.  But most salespeople (95 percent) don’t bother to take the initiative to upgrade their skills and develop their competencies.  Only the professionals do.

5. A professional salesperson always acts with the best interests of his company and his customer above his own.

There is, resident in the psyche of every professional salesperson, an obligation to “serve.”  Ultimately, the professional salesperson does serve two masters:  his customers and his company.  A professional understands that the sales he makes are the tangible expressions of win/win solutions for the customer as well as profitable transactions for his company.

The professional will not “push” an inappropriate solution onto a customer, just to make a sale.  He’s in it for the long term, understanding that his reputation as a professional is worth far more than any individual deal.  “Integrity” is the overriding personality trait, and adherence to a strict code of ethics is the specific expression.

The unprofessional salesperson sees his company’s management as, under the worst scenario, the enemy with whom to contend, and under the best, as a somewhat less than competent irritant to be tolerated.  The professional understands that he is an employee of the company, and has a responsibility to nurture the company’s interests.  He is mindful of his need to provide a return on the company’s investment in him and seeks continually to increase his profitability to his employer.

6. A professional salesperson recognizes a responsibility that is larger than just the job. 

A professional salesperson, by virtue of the demands of his job, naturally develops exceptional “people” skills.  He knows how to get things done, and how to work effectively with a variety of people.  These are skills that are helpful in his communities as well as his position.  Since he’s a professional, he invests some of his time in the larger community, serving on boards and task forces, coaching the elementary kids, adding his input to PTO meetings, etc.  He gives a portion of his income to those less fortunate than himself.

He understands that he is one of the world’s more fortunate individuals and accepts the responsibility to pay it forward.  I once heard this expression:  “Service is the rent you pay for the position you occupy in society.”  Professional salespeople occupy a favored position and accept their responsibility to pay the rent.

A professional sales force is an incredibly valuable asset to any organization, and the acquisition and development of a professional sales force are one of the businesses’ greatest accomplishments.