Can College Teach You to Sell?

Last Updated Jul 27, 2009 6:28 PM EDT

In sales, experience trumps textbooks. The best education comes
strictly from the school of hard knocks. Or does it?

In this economy, maybe not. Fewer sales organizations have the
resources to take on inexperienced associates who require months to get up to
speed. And the recession has made the job much harder — even for the
grizzled sales veterans of the world. href="">Newly thrifty customers are also
savvier than ever, with the ability to do their own in-depth research
online. In short, the average salesperson can no longer afford to be merely
average. So where will the most successful reps get their know-how? As a number
of universities add sales programs to their curricula, more people in the field
are saying, "Bring on the textbooks."

Training the Next Generation of Sales Reps

Advocates for college sales programs say that sales
departments face a problem much larger than one recession: The very
fundamentals of the profession are changing. “You can’t
just be a universal salesperson” anymore, says Howard Stevens, CEO of
the HR Chally Group, a firm that offers sales development services. More
knowledgeable buyers eliminate the need for salespeople who merely provide
facts about their offerings. Buyers today want a salesperson with expertise,
in-depth industry knowledge, and problem-solving abilities, says Stevens. “We’ve
come to recognize sales as half art and half science,” he says. “Science
is the part that is taught and learned. In high-end sales, the customer is
expecting you to take responsibility for your product or service.” In
other words, to succeed in this new environment, href="">sales professionals need a stronger
foundation in the fundamentals of their business — and it’s
not clear they can get that on the job anymore.

At the same time, scores of college graduates will go on to
have careers in sales, which ranks second among the jobs most commonly offered
to recent college graduates, just behind teaching. Yet only href="">40 of the more than 4,000 colleges and
universities in the United States have formal sales programs,
according to the nonprofit University Sales Education Foundation. At href="">Ohio
University’s Schey Sales Centre — one of the
first academic sales programs established in the nation about a decade ago —
students learn to do more than sell a product or service, says Executive
Director Ken Hartung. “If a company buys a product, what they are
really doing is outsourcing,” Hartung says. “They are
hiring [a sales professional] to manage that product’s benefit,”
which means sales reps need to inspire trust. On top of learning the nuts and
bolts of selling and negotiating techniques, the center’s 225 students
study a specific industry, such as finance, retail, or technical sales, to
boost their knowledge of that sector. A student specializing in technical
sales, for example, is required to take two additional courses in chemical
engineering or machine design.

What’s in It for Employers

It’s no secret that the sales profession suffers
from a high turnover rate — as much as 30 percent in some industries.
But students who invest time and money into a sales education in college are
much more likely to stick it out than their peers without academic sales training, Hartung says. “They’ve
experienced it, [unlike] someone who doesn’t know what they are
getting into,” he says.

That translates into real savings for companies hiring sales
associates. In a sophisticated business-to-business sales job, Stevens says it
takes a new salesperson an average of 18 to 24 months to “break even”
— that is, to sell enough product to match what the company pays in
compensation and sales training. “The cost of [hiring and] training
salespeople is huge,” he says, adding up to about $180,000 a year.
Sales programs move some of that burden away from the companies and into the
universities, Stevens says.

A student with a formal sales education ramps up faster,
selling at the equivalent of someone with two or three years of experience
right from the start, says Jeanne Frawley, director of the University Sales
Education Foundation. She notes that companies such as Hess Corporation and
AT&T regularly report that sales graduates become fully acclimated to their
companies in about a year, rather than the three years that other new sales
associates require. “They already know their specialty and recognize
what questions need to be asked,” she says. “They can walk
in and really talk about concepts and how to create a solution.”

Can Sales Be Taught?

Not everyone believes that sales can be taught in a
classroom. Many sales professionals argue that you either have the talent or
you don’t; any additional know-how is best learned by doing. Brad
Finn, a 32-year sales veteran and president of shoe company SRO, says he doubts
that sales education will ever become a viable option in colleges. “I’ve
been in sales all my life with no formal training,” he says. “So
much of sales is life experience.”

Finn says the skills a salesperson really needs to master
are more about insight — such as when to back off from a customer or
when to persevere. A sales professional must become the person a customer looks
forward to spending time with, which Finn argues has more to do with
understanding interpersonal relationships than formal education. While he
agrees that business-to-business sales are becoming more complex, he says that
a salesperson would be better served by a degree in business or finance than in

Still, advocates for sales education say the college
programs are about more than just the training. They give the profession a
better reputation. “We’ve got to get more companies, more
students, and more families to understand that sales is a legitimate
profession,” Stevens says. The key is to carve out a legitimate place
for the profession within academia. Colleges may cobble together a few
marketing classes with an e-commerce course and call it “sales
training,” Frawley says. “But three marketing classes do
not equal a sales program,” she says. “We need programs
that address the complexity of business-to-business sales, so that students can
handle it upon graduation.”

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