What is in your sales tool kit: analytics, software, forecasting, and negotiation? Do you have a sales education program in your company?
Until quite recently, business education might have been perfectly justified in skipping over sales. The model salesperson was two parts personality and one part product knowledge. The job was to carry a bag, get a foot in the door, and talk up your offering’s features and benefits. Perhaps a formal sales education couldn’t add much to that. Product knowledge was unique to a company and therefore handled by internal training. People skills weren’t considered teachable in any conventional sense. Selling was something to be learned by doing. As with riding a bicycle, you could read about it, but real knowledge came from trying, failing, and trying again.
Meanwhile, it was also true that many people enrolling in MBA programs had already proved they could sell. Graduate schools of business, back when they were fewer, favored applicants with work experience, and much of that experience had been won on the front lines of revenue generation. In seeking a master’s degree, these go-getters wanted to acquire the general management skills their day-to-day jobs didn’t teach. The boom in MBA programs coincided with the rise of marketing as a discipline, and mass producers relied on heavy advertising and strong brands to control the sale and distribution of goods. Sales, in contrast, got little respect.
To the extent that instruction on how to sell was needed, the demand was met by a sales-training industry that included companies such as Axiom, Franklin Covey, and Miller Heiman. Within universities sales was at best a stepchild of marketing. Old-school sales was no-school sales.
Fortunately, things have changed. Selling and sales management have come a long way since the days when most business school curricula were designed — so far that the term Sales 2.0 is now commonly used by people (such as the editors of Selling Power magazine) who have spent their careers watching the world of revenue generation. That term borrows from Web 2.0, or the idea that the real power of the internet is not to enable traditional content producers to publish more cheaply but to give users a hand in creating content.
In the realm of selling, it’s the buyer who is newly empowered. Customers no longer need a salesperson to learn about a company’s offering, much less to place an order. As a result, sales has become more about helping customers define the problem they are trying to solve and assemble a complete solution. The sales tool kit has advanced dramatically: It now includes sophisticated analytics to identify opportunities, software to discipline processes and produce forecasts, and negotiation expertise to broker complex deals.
There is, in short, plenty of substantial material to be taught. And we know that when it is taught in a university setting, it affects performance. Research conducted by DePaul at a major industrial manufacturer in 2007 indicated that among sales personnel hired over a 10-year period, those coming from sales education programs hit the break-even point in their territories 30% faster. Moreover, their tenure with the company averaged 40% longer. That is an important difference, given the problem most companies have retaining capable salespeople. (DePaul’s recent best-practices survey found that annual turnover for all sales positions averages a staggering 28%.) Thanks to both effects, each hire with a sales education saved the manufacturer nearly $175,000 over a hire without one.
Perhaps the strongest argument for increasing the number of sales education programs is that our economy is suffering in the absence of them. In regions desperate for jobs, good sales positions go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. Many more jobs are filled by people who are unprepared to excel at them. For at least five consecutive years, Manpower, the recruiting and workforce development firm, has ranked sales as one of the hardest positions to fill.
The shortage only threatens to grow as today’s older workers leave mid- and senior-level sales positions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, companies will lose 40% of senior talent by 2016, placing a significant strain on Gen X talent, which is already insufficient to replace departing boomers. Today a company that has not been able to develop a sufficiently large sales staff pays a premium to recruit proven professionals from other companies. Soon even that option will be cut off by the declining supply of sales talent. To acquire new talent, companies will need strong college recruiting programs, but those can take several years to build. And right now only a few thousand graduates each year have been exposed to some sales education.
We believe the best way to launch new sales education programs is to partner with industry. Indeed, nearly all university-based programs that exist today originated with funding from business partners or acquired partners over time. Support from and involvement from businesses is vital to the success of any sales education program. Several sales centers exist across the country, but there could be many more. If your company would benefit from access to a larger pool of talented sales professionals — and if your community would benefit from higher employment levels — consider become an active business partner to a college sales program.
- Solving the Sales Talent Shortage (blogs.hbr.org)
- What’s Wrong With Your Sales Training Program (heavyhittersales.typepad.com)
- To Build a Great Sales Team, You Need a Great Manager (lumbertribe.wordpress.com)