I live and work in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., a region that is widely viewed as the Silicon Valley of Canada. After emigrating to Waterloo from the United Kingdom nearly 10 years ago, I initially observed with amazement the volume of local technology business leaders lamenting the lack of available sales talent. How could this be? It certainly wasn't a problem I had experienced in 10 years of professional selling in the U.K.
Over the last decade the problem has become increasingly acute and the clamour for solutions ever more fervent. I recently met with the head of sales at one of Canada's largest and fastest growing software companies. He observed with exasperation that all the leading tech firms in the region are "cannibalizing each other's limited sales talent." The main winners in this game are sales recruiters who get paid for facilitating the movement of talent from one business to another. Unfortunately, this does not address the root cause of the problem.
Canada's technology and innovation sector feels the negative impact of this problem more acutely than any other. As a nation we have a wealth of established and emerging technology firms that are developing amazing innovations, but the two biggest barriers to growth are a lack of investor capital and sales talent. The two are inextricably linked and one will typically reinforce the other. These critical barriers to growth precipitate the failure of many Canadian technology ventures and often see our success stories refocus their operations south of the border. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for Canadian technology ventures to sell at an early stage, perhaps prematurely due to a lack of strategic sales leadership and the necessary sales talent pool that would be needed to take their venture to the next stage.
I have personally observed that there remains a stigma attached to the word "sales" for many young Canadians, and I have spoken with Canadian university professors who note that a career in professional selling does not rank highly on the wish list of most students graduating with a business degree.
One theory is that the introduction of professional business to business (B2B) sales courses at universities will reverse the negative perception of sales among young people, the talent pool will grow, and supply will finally meet demand. Unfortunately, I believe this is a gross simplification of the problem and misses the key to enacting meaningful change. I would question whether academics have the necessary hands-on industry experience to effectively educate undergraduates via live practical examples. While I see absolutely no harm in introducing sales courses at universities, this step is far from the proverbial silver bullet for the wider problem.
I firmly believe that the root cause of the sales skills gap in Canada, and why so many young people are not proactively drawn to a career in sales, is that they do not see the opportunity for a career. In general, Canadian businesses do a very bad job of providing their sales staff with first-rate professional sales training. It is normal for a new hire to be given one day of product training and a list of prospects to call, and then being left to sink or swim.
There remains a myth that sales people are born and that sales training and development is somewhat inconsequential to the end result. This is in direct contrast to the mindset of businesses in the U.K. and the United States. I have interviewed over 1,000 salespeople in my career and it is rare to meet a professional British or American salesperson who has not been sent on multiple globally recognized sales training courses by their employer. Unfortunately, such investments are a rarity in Canada.
Canadian businesses that sell products and services need to invest heavily to overcome the sales skills gap. This is particularly essential in our thriving technology sector. Employees, young and experienced, want to be invested in and be shown a clear career path. Salesforce.com have worked this out. They find raw talent from universities and invest heavily in their development throughout their career. It's time for more Canadian businesses to follow in their footsteps.
Ben Firman is Co-Founder and Managing Director at 80-20 Growth Corporation, a company dedicated to addressing the Canadian sales skills gap through a 90 hour sales talent identification, assessment and training process: www.eighty-twenty.ca