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Sales. Sales rep. Salesman.

We've all heard these terms, sometimes uttered with a slightly contemptuous tone. Sales can be a dirty word for Canadians, often evoking the image of a seedy used car salesman lying to an unwitting customer to get a problem-laden vehicle off the lot. To attract people to the profession, many companies have removed the word completely from sales titles, referring to the sales role as "business development representative" or "account manager."

But sales are the lifeblood of all companies. They are the top line of an income statement. The yardstick by which any company is measured. Without sales, there is no business, no income, no profit. Without sales, there are no jobs.

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Yet, even with the ability to point directly to its impact on a company's financial statement, sales are rarely taught in any formal educational environment. Anyone looking at the curriculum of major business schools in Canada and around the world might think that sales are not a crucial function of an organization. Most MBA programs relegate sales coaching to a single course in sales management or embed sales with marketing. But marketing is not sales.

So, what is "sales"? It is listening. It's the ability to understand, sense and react to the concerns and needs of others. In many ways, sales can be defined as empathy, being able to see things through the eyes of others. It is the epitome of people skills, of emotional intelligence. It is intimately knowing your customer, their specific needs, and understanding they are driven by two key motivators: pain and gain. Solve their problem, or give them the benefit they are seeking, and they will buy from you. Selling is connecting the value a company can deliver to those customers' needs and wants.

It is being aware that buying is an emotional decision, justified by logic. It is developing a level of trust with your customer so they believe you are looking out for their best interests.

It's time to change perceptions. Sales skills are critical life skills that can and should be systematically taught in high school, in undergraduate programs and in higher education.

This negative mindset towards sales needs to be changed to support Canadian companies to find new business opportunities, secure access to new markets and expand their international reach.

Many small to medium-sized businesses have expressed frustration with their endless search for skilled and experienced salespeople. It is a recurring problem in the Canadian economic landscape, as indicated by our dismal balance of trade, despite a low Canadian dollar.

Canadian companies need to better understand cultural subtleties to build successful partnerships. They need to be able to navigate between cultures, such as in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where building relationships must come before any transaction can take place, and those of Northern Europe or Scandinavia, where there is less emphasis on building relationships provided value is delivered.

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We see polite Canadians facing tough and aggressive competition from the United States, Germany, China and others – and too often coming up empty handed. With only 5 per cent of local businesses exporting, Canadians need to become more assertive when selling internationally.

We need to evolve from a trading nation into a nation of traders.

Let's encourage our younger generations to embrace the sales professions. Let's teach them that sales is not a low-grade profession but rather an enriching and rewarding career that can take them across the globe, and position them on top of the economic ladder.

Canadians need to sell like we play hockey – by going into the corners with our elbows up and coming out with the puck.

Gwenaële Montagner is the program manager for the World Trade Centre-Toronto's Trade Accelerator Program (TAP), a hands-on, individualized program developed by the Toronto Region Board of Trade to help Canadian companies increase their export potential.

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