Dawn Deeter is a professor and Director of the National Strategic Selling Institute (NSSI) at Kansas State University . She prepares undergraduate students for careers in sales. Dawn coaches the K-State Sales Team, which competes in various national university sales competitions. The notion of sales education programs at the university level is news to many folks in the sales community. Combined with the student competitions, there are tremendous positive implications for sales organizations.
Dawn and I got together for a chat on this topic. Here’s what we had to say.
Babette: Is university sales education a new phenomenon?
Dawn: Baylor University began the first program in the late 1980s. During the 1990s ten more universities implemented sales programs. In the past five or six years, Sales Education Foundation 2012 listed the Top Universities for Sales Education. Sixty universities are in the U.S. and seven universities are in Europe. It’s hard to ignore anymore.
B: Why should the business community be interested in programs like yours?
D: I cannot underscore enough the importance of the business community in our program. We look for multiple opportunities to engage our students with business professionals so that K-State students have a clear understanding of the sales role, and business professionals get the chance to interact with potential recruits.
My goal is to develop prepared sales professionals who can hit the ground running and be strong revenue producers from the date of hire, thereby reducing a firm’s costs of hiring and training new reps.
Research reported by Howard Stevens of H.R. Chally and the Sales Education Foundation (Stevens, Howard (2011), “The End of Sales Education as We Know It!” Sales Education Annual, Issue 4, pp. 4-7) argues that students graduating from sales programs already have a demonstrated desire and aptitude for a sales career, “get up to speed” 50% faster, and are 30% less likely to turnover than their peers who have not graduated from sales programs. Programs like ours create opportunities for students AND businesses.
B: Tell me a little bit about your curriculum and the preparation your students receive.
D: Currently we offer three classes: Professional Selling, Sales Management, and Advanced Sales. The Professional Selling class teaches students the basic selling process, and requires that each student sell a product to a buyer via role play in our state-of-the-art sales labs. In the Sales Management class, students learn about the management process as it relates to the sales force. This class includes a series of related role plays that comprise an interviewing role play, a joint sales call with the new rep just hired, and a coaching role play. Students also learn about the role of social media in sales, and write blog posts for our NSSI blog ‘Sold on Sales.’ Finally, students in our Advanced Sales class gain real sales experience by participating in a Benefit Auction for the NSSI! Students gain skills in territory management, prospecting, selling via phone, follow-up, and CRM, among others. Before the class is over, each student will have made 50 sales calls to find items for the auction and sell tickets.
Our program is relatively new (less than two years old), so we plan to expand our curriculum. A proposal for a five-course Certificate in Professional Strategic Selling is under review; similar to a minor, this certificate will be available to any student in the university and should be in place next year.
B: Does all learning take place inside the classroom, or do extracurricular activities play a role too?
D: The extracurricular activities play a HUGE role. We bring in speakers for workshops to further develop our students’ skills and hold K-State Sales Week once a year as well as other events aimed at improving students’ skills in sales and professionalism. We have started a student sales organization, the Gamma Omega chapter of Pi Sigma Epsilon; PSE is the only professional co-ed sales and marketing fraternity with a focus on skill development.
B: Do you participate in any of the sales competitions I have heard about, such as the National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC)?
D: Of course! University sales competitions offer our students a great way to improve their selling skills and network with businesses. Currently we are preparing for NCSC held at Kennesaw State University; it is the biggest and most prestigious of the competitions. Sixty-six universities will be bringing teams to the competition.
For businesses, these competitions offer a fantastic recruiting opportunity: where else can you watch potential candidates actually selling?
NCSC is not the only competition out there. We’ve attended the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-Up at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the RBI Sales Challenge at William Paterson University, and the International Collegiate Sales Competition at Florida State University. We also participated in the World Collegiate Sales Open, hosted by Northern Illinois University. Indiana University hosts the National Team Selling Competition.
B: What happens at a competition, and how do you prepare your students?
D: Typically, one company will serve as the main sponsor of the competition and the students will ‘sell’ that company’s product. At NCSC, for example, the main sponsor is ADP and the product being sold is an ADP payroll app. Students are provided role play information about one month prior to the competition; significant product information, along with training, is also provided. We train for about six weeks leading up to the competition. Our team meets to break down the scenario, identify buyer needs, brainstorm possible objections, etc. Then, we role play, role play, role play!
The competitions tend to be tournament style; usually there is a first-round in which some students are eliminated. The remaining students are given a new scenario with limited time to prepare. This process continues until there are three or four finalists. The finalists face the toughest buyers; I am always amazed at the students’ skills and professionalism.
B: What’s the major message you want to deliver to the business community about this program?
D: I encourage any business interested in learning more about the opportunities associated with university sales education to check out the University Sales Center Alliance. The USCA, of which we are a member, sets quality standards for sales education; its member schools are located across the country.
I take as many students as I can to these events. Not only do students have great experiences, they usually come away with multiple job or internship offers.
B: Sounds like some food for thought for small businesses as well as professional sales organizations. Can you imagine an annual professional national competition? I think it’s important that the sales community start to think about the NSSI as a resource, perhaps the first resource they turn to, when seeking to hire sales reps.
B: These programs give an entirely new spin to hiring a recent college grad for their first sales job. An NSSI graduate is hardly a novice, are they?
Dawn Deeter-Schmelz is the Director of the National Strategic Selling Institute at Kansas State University and the J.J. Vanier Distinguished Professor of Relational Selling and Marketing. Prior to becoming an academic, she worked as a retail buyer, spending many hours working with salespeople.