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Teaching Sales

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programs accredited by the Association to Advance

Collegiate Schools of Business, only 101 have a sales

curriculum, and a mere 15 offer either an MBA in

sales or some sort of sales-oriented graduate curriculum.

Sales may be vital to businesses, but of the

350,000 students a year who earn bachelor’s degrees

in business from American universities, and the

170,000 who earn MBAs, only a tiny fraction have

been taught anything about it.

The news isn’t all bad, however. As we will show,

signs point to an increasing awareness among universities

that they should invest in sales education.

There is a growing consensus that professional sales

has entered a new era, requiring skills that are scarce

but teachable—and best taught in a collegiate setting.

We will share what we’ve learned from building

the Center for Sales Leadership at DePaul University

and suggest how it might guide the establishment

of other such programs in the future. But first let’s

explore why sales hasn’t been central to business

education in the past.

Old-School Sales

Until quite recently, business education might have

been perfectly justified in skipping over sales. Time

was, 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


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,

FranklinCovey, and Miller Heiman. Within universities

sales was at best a stepchild of marketing. Oldschool

sales was no-school sales.

A Profession Transformed

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



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