Who’s Focusing on Sales Education? (Since Top Business Schools Aren’t)

20 March 2011


Lots of new college graduates get thrown at sales jobs. Almost none of them planned on a sales career. But sales forces have a persistent need for new recruits, vague qualifications, and the promise of solid income – and that’s a happy combination for many new grads, freshly sobered to economic reality and (more often than not) student loan obligations. Hiring firms harvest thousands of these new graduates, give them a bit of (often horrible) training, and deploy them into the sales force’s trenches. The bravest go over the top, many to be cut down in a hail of bullets. Call it the Anthem for Doomed Sales Youth.

The best business schools hum accompaniment by ignoring the relevance of the sales function. No matter the US$800 billion spent annually on the sales organization, or its 20 million-large work force in the US alone – top business schools allocate scant attention to sales-related education. Their few professors dedicated to sales do their work in an academic ghetto, in the bleakest corner of the Marketing department. It may be no small luxury for elite academics, spared the indignities of the sales organization’s front-line chaos and its suspect data. But they’re not doing students, or businesses, any favors by sending graduates to the front lines with such little exposure to sales.

Some might argue that this disconnect – between top B-schools’ focus on sales and the market demand for capable sales resources – wont last forever, since even the academy responds eventually to market forces. A more compelling question might be: Who is stepping into the breach left unaddressed by top B-schools in sales education? Here are two answers we’ve learned about recently, one impacing undergraduate education, the other at the graduate level.

National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC)

The National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC) is a 12-year old event featuring student role-play competition staged by Kennesaw State University’s Cole College of Business. The 2011 annual competition concluded just a week ago. Within spitting distance of Civil War battlefields outside of Atlanta, the event brings together a ragtag confederacy of business schools billed as the “most elite University Sales Programs in North America.” Judging by the roster of schools few of these “most elite” will be troubling the top-tier business schools’ place atop the annual rankings. The roster’s 60-plus institutions include the heretofore-unknown-to-the-author Aurora, Bloomsberg, Bryant, Campbellsville, Nicholls State, Plymouth State, Salisbury, and Widener Universities, but also some much larger schools including Florida State University, whose excellent Sales Institute is a Sales Management Association partner. Only a third of the NCSC schools are ranked in Business Week’s top 100 undergraduate business schools, including just two top 20 schools – Indiana University (#18), and Babson College (#20).

You’d never know it based on the roster of blue chip corporations queued as NCSC sponsors: 3M, ADP, Aflac, Fedex, HP, State Farm, Verizon, Xerox, and many others who provide financial support to the NCSC or its participating schools. They get front row seats for the competition and first crack at potential sales recruits. Spend even a few minutes with recruiters, student participants, or faculty from participating schools, and it’s clear to see why this event is growing. I attended a qualifying competition at Florida State earlier this year, and was stunned by the commitment of sponsoring firms, the enthusiasm, competitiveness, and quality of the student participants, and the overall seriousness of the endeavor. Clearly, sponsoring firms get a strong ROI from their involvement; recruiters from these firms actually gush about the quality of new sales hires from undergraduate programs with sales centers like those that compete at NCSC. Students are making out like bandits too (compared to their peers) – 70% of competition participants get job offers.

Should sales training have a place in the larger context of undergraduate education? It’s a question sure to raise the hackles of some traditionalists. Our opinion is that business schools, including undergraduate schools, ignore sales at their own peril given the sales function’s importance to the constituencies they serve. But we wouldn’t suggest replacing the Classics department with sales training, even if it might keep a few Classics majors from going Baroque in the post-graduate job market.

Sales Education in Graduate Schools: The Kids Are All Right

If top business schools are indifferent toward undergraduate sales education, their interest actually diminishes at the graduate level. Those top MBA programs that address sales at all provide an emphasis a la carte, with elective offerings sure not to distract from Marketing’s center-of-the-plate status. Like a drunken uncle at a Baptist reception,the graduate student hoping to indulge an enthusiasm for sales management will not find much to slake their interest, and will raise more than a few eyebrows in the process.

Which is just what MIT Sloan’s students seem to be doing, by staging a sales conference. That’s right, I said students. Unencumbered by parental supervision or faculty involvement, MIT’s graduate B-School Sales Club is running what appears to be an excellent conference on the topic “Selling in a New Normal” (6 May, Cambridge, MA). Entirely student run, the conference will raise money to support a student sales competition called the Bold Sell Competition, at which gradute students from other top-tier global B-schools (including Harvard and INSEAD) engage in a role play based selling competition. We think this event is remarkable; in fact, we were excited enough by the whole shebang that we signed on as a conference sponsor, and will moderate a panel discussion there on the topic of Sales Management ROI. Perhaps MIT’s pluky B-schoolers have engineered a way to put sales and sales management on the agenda at top graduate business schools, where it belongs. With or without adult supervision.

About the Author
Bob Kelly

Sing it! Professional Sales programs are not new, just finally getting the traction/promotion they need. The University of Toledo was the second university in the country to be launched (2000) and was the first endowed program in the country (2002). Like our other colleagues noted in the DePaul study (http://www.utoledo.edu/business/ESSPS/ESSPSDocs/2009_Sales_Ed_landscape_rpt%5B1%5D.pdf ), we have supportive Corporate Partners, 100% placement, a state-of-the-art sales lab, national and global collaborations, etc. Our NCSC student team placed 5th this year and 2nd place last year. We have consistently been in the top 10 nationally for the past decade at multiple competitions. More elite B-schools have attended NCSC and other competitions in the past and did not fare well. Some came back in future years and got better and other retreated. The WSJ is also keen to big state schools being better at aligning curricula to market needs. Check out the stories below.

Great article Bob but I would correct a few points. This is not a “rag tag” bunch, but mostly a mid to high tier bunch. 18 of 100 are top USA Today business schools of nearly 3000 biz schools in US. 55 of 62 Sales Programs identified in De Paul University Sales Education Landscape Survey are from AASCB accredited biz schools, while only 35% in nation have this accreditation. My own small AASCB accredited business school (University of Wisconsin-Parkside) has been transformed on the national stage and created many new opps for students through rapidly becoming quite arguably one the 20 best schools in national sales competition over the past 3 years. This is a very credible, above average and forward thinking group in US business education. We don’t need to wait for Harvard and Wharton to join to be validated

Here’s more on professions. I was listening to NPR on my way into the OU Campus today and heard an advertisement for the university’s social work program. It highlighted social work as the fastest growing “profession” in the united states and how OU’s program carries the curriculum and certification to enter the social work profession. This makes me ask a provocative question. Is there some concept of the nobility of the good or generosity of a career that makes it a profession? We’ve all heard about the days when accounting or law were “noble professions” Is social work a profession because its giving to a charitable good? And is sales generally not seen as a profession because its mistakenly seen for private business, commission and self reward?

@Greg…right on!

Imagine a world where there were NO BAD SALESPEOPLE! Wow! It would be a nice start on utopia!

Because there are millions of salespeople and less than 40 universities with sales degrees, our Certified Sales Professional program (www.CSP-USA.org) offers another solution. Not just another seminar, CSP is professional development that makes a difference (and a money back guarantee).

@Nicholas is right about professionalism. Like other fields with Certification, to keep current there is a requirement of 20 hours of continuing ed and an annual renewal fee. Investing in oneself offers the greatest return.

Whether it is the NCSC, the PSE Pro-Am Sell-a-thon, or the MIT Sales Conference, students that CHOOSE a career in sales will be ahead of their peers that are THROWN into a career in sales. Good on ya!

As a followup to Nicholas’ comment. I couldn’t agree with you more about sales as a profession. In fact a core tenant of te ousales centre is to elevate the recognition of sales as a profession. Our forner executive committee chair, Howard Stevens founder of the University Sales Alliance, says to be recognized as a profession requires three things. Nicholas’ reference to discipline and best practices captures the three tenants, curriculum, specialization an certification. Simple example, an attorney is a profession. They have law schools, specialization in tax, real estate, litigation etc and of course have a certification with the bar. Accountants, doctors, architects, its all the same. University sales centres like Ohio University are making sales a profession by trailblazing all three!

Shout out to the students of Ohio University’s Ralph & Luci Schey Sales Centre for taking 5th at the NCSC! ( http://aspnet.cob.ohio.edu/isms/tsc.aspx) The fourth of its kind, started in 1999, the OU sales centre is preparing students with the fair/unfair advantage to compete in todays market. As part of a business week top 50 b-school, ou sales candidates mean business and will take all challengers. Come on Cambridge, the Harvard on the Hocking’s in session.

Wow, what an excellent article Bob.

I have spent the majority of my career in either front line sales or business development roles and ever since I enrolled in my EMBA back in 2006 this very topic has been bubbling away in my mind.

When I began my journey of selecting a Business School I remember being surprised that none of the leading schools I was considering in the UK had any reference to sales in their course curriculum. When I eventually selected a school I had thought maybe when we covered marketing that Sales would be introduced, as you excellently put it, like the “drunken uncle at a Baptist Thanksgiving”, but alas, this was not the case.

Having given this topic a lot of though since then, I think that the “Sales Profession” may have to take some ownership for this situation.

In my sales career, which has cut across a number of industries and geographies, I have always been frustrated by sales colleagues who have resisted the idea of sales being a professional role. Now, some might raise an eyebrow thinking “what sales person in their right mind would not want to be perceived as a professional?”

So, what do I mean by this comment?

Well, if one takes a look at all the other professional roles that operate within an a 21st Century enterprise, be they accountants, engineers, strategists, marketeers etc., there is a common thread which cuts across them all, “Discipline”.

Each of these professions have developed over time a “discipline” which has been shaped through the examination and identification of “best practices” in their respective fields. If an individual studies and follows these best practices the chances are that in the vast majority of times the desired outcome will be achieved. These professions have also developed global communities which ultimately sees the collective knowledge being harnessed and shared through professional bodies and universities which serve these communities.

I passionately believe that the successes I have achieved in my sales career has been rooted in my purist of identifying the “Best Practices” of my peers, whilst also developing some of my own, and harnessing the collective genius of the communities I operate in.

I am therefore excited to have read this article which showcased some of efforts currently under way by organizations/communities such as NCSC & MIT Sales Club. These are great examples of the efforts that are needed to raises the role of “Sales” to the same level of status as the other professions which dominate the B-School airwaves.

In time I hope we do see leading B-Schools begin to recognize that Sales plays a key role in the success of all businesses in the 21st Century.

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