As the profession's image improves, more graduates are becoming salespeople - and the best can earn up to $1m a year ARECOVERING ECONOMY has seen competition for Hong Kong's pre-eminent sales awards reach record levels this year. Sellers of cars, carpets, credit cards and even condominiums are among 131 people from 50 companies being honoured in the 37th Distinguished Salesperson Award, organised by the Hong Kong Management Association and sponsored by the Sales and Marketing Executives Club of Hong Kong. The awards ceremony will be held tonight in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Club chairman Titus Yu Hon-ki said sales skills were increasingly important for success in the workplace, not only in commercial enterprises but in many government organisations. 'A lot of university graduates each year, many more than before, are taking sales jobs. Reward in sales is usually based on personal performance, not just job title. Young people want to have a better income, better career growth - and a sales career can give that opportunity,' he said. The most successful young salespeople in certain sectors, such as property or financial products, were earning up to $1 million dollars annually, after being on the job for only a few years, he said. However, sales was hard work, Mr Yu warned. Hong Kong people were demanding and selective, so service had to be professional and creative, and exceed customer expectations. 'In the past, people may have spent money, even though the product might not be one they needed. Now, they only buy something when they need it. The seller has to put extra effort into discovering the customer's real needs,' Mr Yu said. The Distinguished Salesperson Award (DSA) programme recognises top salespeople and aims to improve sales skills and boost the profession's public stature. Mr Yu said the image of salespeople was historically low in Hong Kong, but that perception was changing. 'Some customers will treat salespeople, if they are very professional, as advisers they can listen to and rely on.' DSA organising committee chairperson Phoebe Chow Ho-yee said sales staff had to establish long-term relationships with clients. The best salespeople were knowledgeable about their products and those of their competitors, she said. They had to provide excellent service and clarify what customers needed, rather than blindly flogging a product. 'We have to be sincere and treat customers like friends, without too much pushing.' The theme of this year's awards was 'Creative Evolution'. Ms Chow said creativity and innovation were essential to continuing sales success. 'We are living in a time of remarkable changes. To compete successfully we must keep upgrading our skills. A good salesperson is someone who can adapt,' she said. The DSA programme is in its 37th year in Hong Kong, but its history stretches back to 1950 in the United States. The local awards are organised by the Sales and Marketing Executives Club of Hong Kong - which operates under the auspices of the Hong Kong Management Association - in conjunction with the US-based Sales and Marketing Executives International. In 1985, the Outstanding Young Salesperson Award was introduced as part of the DSA programme to reward promising sales staff under the age of 25. Entrants are required to write an essay outlining their backgrounds, contribution to the sales profession and their thoughts on the competition theme. They also face a panel interview, where tasks include a prepared sales presentation and a spontaneous sales pitch on a randomly chosen product to a target market - such as selling a fish bowl to a disc jockey or an abacus to an astronaut. Of the 167 entrants, 131 qualified as winners, beating last year's crop of 96 awardees. But only two salespeople will be awarded the coveted title of Best Presentation Award, one from the ranks of young salespeople and one from the older group. Each company can nominate a maximum of five people to participate in the awards programme. Mr Yu recalled some of the memorable entries received over the years. In one case, a salesperson burst into song while outlining the benefits of a product; in another instance, an applicant's presentation of a prestige property was so persuasive that one of the judges serving on the panel decided to buy the property. Participation in the awards gives companies a chance to boost team spirit and raise performance levels, as well as build their image. Meanwhile, participants gained recognition from their companies and the public. Mr Yu was himself an award winner back in 1991 and said the prize confirmed his decision to make a career in sales. Recognition that he was one of the best salespeople in his company boosted his confidence and inspired him to perform even better. This year, 16 companies participated in the awards for the first time. Ms Chow attributed the increased interest to effective promotion. HSBC sponsored the awards to demonstrate the value it placed on salesmanship and the importance of its sales culture, a spokeswoman said. Five HSBC staff members won awards this year. Ms Chow said external recognition of the company's standards was heartening.