Teaching sales: Why is it being swept under the rug?

Sales excellence is vital to any business but rarely taught by business schools, here or overseas. At home, neither the Melbourne Business School nor the University of Technology in Sydney offer sales subjects.

Traditionally there have been reasons for that, but as selling becomes more sophisticated and solutions-oriented, and good sales jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants, the value of university-based education rises.

New sales education programs face substantial barriers in gaining funding and recruiting talent. Partnering with industry is the surest route to success. When businesses offer input to curricula and encourage their salespeople to contribute to classroom discussions, the benefits flow both ways.

As the state of sales education improves, another deficit will be addressed: the frustrating lack of scholarly research relevant to improving sales capabilities.

What’s the problem?

We all know that a well-staffed sales function is vital to business success. Consider, for example, the findings of a series of studies conducted since 1988 by the sales force consultancy Chally Group. Analysing data from more than 100,000 business decision makers, Chally discovered that 39% of business-to-business buyers select a vendor according to the skills of the salesperson rather than price, quality or service features.

But the curricula of the world’s top-ranked business schools might give the impression that sales is unimportant. Most Master of Business Administration programs offer no sales-related courses at all, and those that do offer only a single course in sales management. Even at the undergraduate level of business instruction, sales courses are sparse.

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, which 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.

Meanwhile, many people enrolling in MBA programs had already proved they could sell. Business graduate schools favoured applicants with work experience, and much of that 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. Old-school 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. 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.

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