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The Schooling of Sales

The University Sales Education Foundation wants to give your reps academic cred—learn how to leverage it

Sales has been kind to Howard Stevens—a statement the HR Chally Group's CEO would readily concur with. After all, the company he founded back in 1973 has grown into an industry-leading provider of sales force assessment and development tools, today serving more than 2,000 customers worldwide.

That's why, in 2007, Stevens decided it was time to give back to the line of work that had so handsomely rewarded him. Thus was born the University Sales Education Foundation (USEF), a nonprofit group established by Chally to promote sales instruction at the collegiate level ... and in the process, finally do away with the field's longstanding Willy Loman rap.

"What's the necessary thing to make [sales] a profession?" asks Stevens. "You have to improve the image. You have to establish real, quality criteria and some real research, and universities are the best way to do that." There's only one slight problem here: Formal sales education is virtually nonexistent in U.S. business schools.

A Problem of Perception

The irony, of course, is that when it's actually time for them to enter the workforce, a good chunk of those b-school graduates will find themselves in (drum roll, please) ... sales jobs.

"What we have is a bit of a crisis in selling," says Neil Rackham, founder of the Huthwaite sales performance consultancy and a member of the USEF's governance board. "There are roughly 120 university marketing courses for every course in sales. It's roughly 60 sales jobs for every marketing job."

"It still amazes me to see the lack of solid sales training preparation done both in college and on the job," agrees fellow board member Mary Delaney, president of Personified (a CareerBuilder-owned outsourcing and consulting firm). "There are more sales opportunities than any other job type, but sales is the least taught in school. This doesn't make sense."

Alas, pinpointing the reasons sales has gotten such short shrift from academia doesn't require a whole lot of sleuthing. "Movies and other types of media typically paint sales as a 'classless' and cutthroat job," says Delaney. "The stigma exists still with our parents, high school counselors and college professors. Students today, therefore, receive little positive exposure to the option of a sales career."

Complicating matters is the overbroad nature of the term itself. As Rackham rightly points out, sales covers everything from the sleazy character who's trying to sell you a bad used car to a high-level corporate sales executive. "For example, the Procter & Gamble sales executive who runs the Wal-Mart account is at board level, and is effectively running a very large, very complex business," he says. "This word 'sales' covers altogether too much, and we tend to associate it with the low end."

Then there's the equally deleterious notion of sales being more art than science—which is to say, unteachable. "We haven't gotten over the superstition that sales is something people are born to," Rackham notes. "Selling actually is something that requires the same sort of education you have in any other profession. We wouldn't ever say that someone is born to be an accountant or born to be a physicist."

Nor is that the end of the obstacles sales has faced on the road to academic acceptance. "It's considered a trade, and that's a big, big issue," Stevens says. "In general, universities need a high percentage of Ph.Ds—and in this country, there are no Ph.Ds in sales."

"Until fairly recently, there wasn't really what you could call a systematic science of sales," adds Rackham. "There wasn't a body of knowledge that was objective and observable. We understand it now, as well as we understand marketing. But very few of the people who make the policy decisions in business schools were ever themselves given any sales education.

"Consequently, they tend to still have a stereotype of selling that's badly out of date. They still think selling is largely about persuasion, when all that we know from research in the last 20 years is that selling is much more about problem-solving—about understanding customers in-depth."

And with the Internet making it easier than ever for prospects to research your company's products and services, Stevens says the continued viability of sales may well depend on the sort of professionalization he advocates. "Companies can't compete successfully on quality, on price and so forth," he explains. "Everybody has the same supplies. Total Quality Management is teaching us the same production methods. Manufacturing and raw materials are always going to go to the country with the cheapest labor costs.

"The salesperson's going to have to add substantially higher value, because the Internet can provide everything else in just giving information," he adds. "Building personal relationships as the basis for why you should buy from me versus somebody else is gone, as well."

Delaney's professional experience bears that out. "In my 28 years in sales and sales leadership, the most significant change has happened in the last eight years as our prospects, salespeople and companies have become more informed," she says. "When I began leading sales teams, it took four objections to set an appointment. Now it takes 13 for that same appointment."

"We go back to why it needs to come through college: Some 80 or 90 percent of successful business-to-business salespeople can't read a P&L statement," says Stevens. "The customer they're selling to is a businessperson, and the language of business is P&L."

Selling a Solution

All of the above leads to an obvious query: Just what is the USEF's strategy for getting academia to embrace sales? As it turns out, it's a multi-pronged one.

For starters, the foundation maintains a comprehensive listing of verified university sales programs that do exist nationwide—all of which offer a combination of classroom training and applicable hands-on experience. Equally important, the USEF makes its presence known in the classroom itself.

To wit, the foundation's curriculum developers have been creating advanced selling courses for use in sales programs, along with textbooks, faculty manuals and other supporting materials. In conjunction with Ohio University, the USEF's research committee conducts an ongoing survey of sales program graduates, the results of which further shape curriculum development.

Copies of Achieve Sales Excellence, Stevens' own tome, are provided at cost to schools for classroom use. In addition, Chally provides free assessments to juniors and seniors at more than a dozen university sales programs, enabling students to identify their strengths, weaknesses and most promising career prospects.

And as Rackham notes, when it comes time to hire those graduates, companies may be breathing substantially easier. "It's becoming a more and more costly decision when you hire a salesperson," he says. "It's costly because salespeople are fairly highly paid, but it's also costly because of the cost of failure.

"Now, it would be fine if you'd go out and hire rock stars away from your competition, but that's a very, very expensive way to do it," he adds. "And the dilemma for most companies is, there aren't enough rock stars.

"One of the ways in which I believe sales education is going to prove more and more important is, it gives you a higher probability that the person you're hiring will be successful, because you know he/she has a body of knowledge and skill that is necessary for doing that job."

The USEF's efforts don't end there. In 2008, the foundation partnered with ThinkTV—a Dayton PBS affiliate—to develop The New Selling of America, the first of a three-part series airing on public television. This premiere installment makes the case that professionalizing sales is necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy. Part two (The Science of Sales) is being filmed this year, with the third installment (Sales as the Global Career) set to follow.

The USEF also is looking abroad to further its mission. Representatives have met with European universities to establish partnerships with U.S. university sales programs. In addition, the foundation has put together a week-long certification program for training international salespeople. Administered by faculty members from participating university sales programs, the course will make its debut later this year.

"The science of sales is fairly standard regardless of the country and culture," says Delaney. "The communication style is what varies by country—that's the art of sales—as it conforms to every culture. Some of the cultures tend to value more aggressive and candid communication, while others find that type of style uncomfortable and sometimes even offensive.

"Therefore, the research and training can be global with some edits for the cultural nuances for each country."

Through all of its initiatives, it's clear the USEF is aiming for short- as well as long-term impact—one of the foundation's stated goals is to increase the number of colleges and universities offering approved sales education by 10 percent yearly. Whether or not that target proves achievable, one thing's for sure: Thanks to Howard Stevens' efforts, his favorite profession has taken a giant step toward respectability.