Over the last decade Americans have seen the devastating effect of unemployment. The C-suite continues to get tighter and smaller, and employees at all levels are challenged to do more with less. So what’s an up-and-coming business student to do? The challenge for our schools at all levels is providing students the requisite skills that meet the hiring needs of today’s employers. But there’s one big gap across the board in our business education, and that is sales. We must work together to change this.
Companies have an insatiable need for competent sellers that deliver revenue. Sales, which remains the backbone of the American economy, no longer is as simple as it used to be. Over the last two decades, the numbers of schools offering bachelor degrees in selling has increased, albeit at a fairly slow rate. Why aren’t more universities getting on the bandwagon when it could be a path for them to improve their job placement percentages for graduates -- and the American business bottom line?
Here are my thoughts about why more schools haven’t offered undergraduate degrees in sales:
1. A pervasive negative stereotype exists.
People assume sellers will do anything to close sales. The general consensus is that salespeople are guilty of hype, omissions and even outright lies in their quest to earn commissions. In my mind, the stereotyping has its roots in poor business-to-consumer (B2C) buying experiences early in our lives in transactional sales. The biggest contributor to the negative stereotype is the barbaric ritual of having to deal with new or used car salespeople. Everyone seems to have a horror story about how dealerships took advantage of them in these large transactions.
People fail to realize that business-to-business (B2B) selling is a very different selling environment and that making buying decisions for businesses usually happen 10 years or more in a person’s career. Unlike transactional B2C sales, long-term relationships are established. Sellers and vendors that deliver consistent value and good services have several opportunities for additional business moving forward. Competent B2B sellers don’t want to sell anything that would fail to meet buyer needs as it can jeopardize or terminate relationships and revenue streams.
B2B selling is incredibly challenging. Sellers have influence without authority. In complex sales they have to sell to committees having diverse sets of buyers. I know many successful professionals that would starve in sales. I wish the profession were viewed with more respect. The skill set for competent sellers is daunting.
2. Selling is viewed as convincing, persuading and overcoming objections with the ultimate goal of making people spend money.
This definition is widely shared by buyers and sellers. It positions selling as a zero-sum game. I find it amazing that B2B sellers can view their mission as convincing senior executives to buy. I have three children and as soon as they could talk, they didn’t want to be convinced or persuaded of anything (i.e. what to eat, when to go to sleep, etc.). Why on earth would executive buyers want to be convinced to spend money?
In general, executives want to be in control. When “being sold," a seller is trying to control the buyer’s actions. I submit people want to be empowered to buy and that B2B selling should be defined as this: Asking questions to help buyers understand how to use a sellers’ offerings to achieve a desired business outcome.
3. Selling skills are difficult to transfer.
In my experience, after being hired, B2B sellers go through extensive product training, receive territories and quotas and then are left to their own devices to make sales. Their biggest challenge is making effective calls at decision-maker levels and learning buyer requirements before presenting only parts of offerings relevant to address buyer needs.
Most superior sellers are intuitive and I refer to them as being “unconscious competents.” By that I mean they are superior sellers, but haven’t codified how they sell, so they struggle to coach or teach their direct reports. This is born out by top sellers to go from heroes to zeroes when accepting their first promotion to become sales managers.
4. Selling is situational and personal.
Generic skills aren’t helpful because calls require context. Consider how different calls should be dependent upon:
- The type of offering being sold (hardware, software, services, etc.)
- Buyer titles
- Whether the buyer is a customer or a prospect
- The type of company the buyer works for
In an ideal world, sellers would have industry knowledge as well as a common set of skills to maximize the chances they will be successful. A-level sellers absorb product training and can distill it into a coherent 30-minute executive call. That said, most sellers have sweet spots where they have industry knowledge in specific verticals.
Beyond offerings, industries and titles, there is the dynamic of how sellers and buyers interact interpersonally. How can sellers have buyers conclude they are sincere and competent? This is a prerequisite before buyers are willing to share desired business outcomes or admit problems they have.
5. Sellers are told what to do either by their managers or in books they read.
Sellers of complex offerings are advised to call high, don’t lead with product, establish values, etc. The elephant in the room is sellers aren’t told how to do these things.
Many manipulative techniques adhere to the notion of making people buy. The “always be closing” high-pressure technique will offend most B2B buyers. In complex sales, I believe sellers should gain commitment on an ongoing basis, but haven’t earned the right to close until buyers have all the information needed to make decisions.
The solution: Universities would serve their students and businesses well by offering courses with specific offerings to sell, teaching students how to make calls on the different titles within buying committees and having students walk through numerous buying cycles to gain competence. Graduates would then be better prepared to apply what they had learned in the classroom to what they need to do when carrying a quota and representing a vendor’s B2B offerings. And businesses would benefit.