By Frank Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter
For decades, Sales and Academia remained worlds apart and the business world did fine. But Sales is changing, Academia is out of touch, and this is bad for business and the academy.
Compared to professions like engineering or business disciplines like Finance or Operations, the concept of a dedicated salesperson is relatively recent. Sales was traditionally seen as a form of service work, with an emphasis primarily on developing moral character. The Order of United Commercial Travelers, for instance, was founded to “improve character and instill temperate habits,” and Gideon bibles were originally put in hotel rooms to help “eliminate gambling, drinking, dirty jokes, Sunday trading and other forms of temptation peculiar to traveling (sales) men.”
As Walter Friedman documents in Birth of a Salesman, sales wasn’t seen as a function that required specialized training or education until well into the 20th century. And companies performed the training, not schools. Salespeople were told what to say (word for word), how to dress, what expression to wear, how to hold their hands, and even how to hold a pen when handing it to a customer to “sign on the dotted line.” You still see this Taylorite assumption that selling can be deduced to a series of behaviors in various areas: generic assessment tests, selling methodologies and “pitches” that allegedly apply across all sales situations, and chic “neuro-marketing” factoids about buying and selling.
For their part, universities viewed sales as “trade-school” stuff and didn’t typically offer sales-related courses. Even when the boom in MBA programs coincided with the rise of Marketing as a discipline, Sales was treated like a stepchild at best. As Theodore Levitt, the great former-Harvard marketing professor and editor of HBR, once put it, “Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert his product into cash; marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering, and finally consuming it.”In other words, why serve hamburger when you can teach people to cook steak?
This mentality is still prevalent. More than 50% of US college graduates, regardless of their majors, are likely to work in sales at some point. But of the over 4,000 colleges in this country, less than 100 have sales programs or even sales courses, and of the more than 170,000 students who earn MBAs annually, only a tiny fraction learn anything about sales.
This gap used to be less of a problem, for a few reasons. In the past, MBA programs often favored applicants with work experience, and many incoming students already had some sales experience. So a school could legitimately prepare a student for a business career while omitting training in sales. Now, however, students’ college and pre-MBA experience is more likely to be in a finance area or perhaps in coding. Similarly, years ago, selling in most industries was less data-intensive and more dependent upon contacts and extra-curricular social relationships than now. Many Wall Street firms, for example, were unabashedly overt about hiring the “Harvard or Princeton man” (rarely a woman), and it wasn’t because of their grades in economics courses! In its own blunt and unfair way, the world outside the classroom bridged the gap in education and preparation.
But a lot has changed.
Take, for example, the impact of online technology. Buyers now have easy-click access to information about products, prices, and other buyers’ opinions and usage experiences. Does this mean that all business goes online? No, despite the fact that the internet has existed for over 20 years, eCommerce accounts for less than 10% of retail sales and less in most B2B situations. But this contextual change does impact how sales people must navigate the needs of clients and customers as well as their own organizations.
Selling is increasingly a research-based activity. If you want to see big-data analytics in action, don’t just go to Google or Facebook. Look at what consumer goods salespeople must now do to get shelf space, design promotions, and garner in-store support at retailers. You might assume that wholesale distribution, where firms resell products manufactured by others, is a simple transaction sale. But a study for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors finds the same need for business-acumen and analytical selling skills in this sector — in part because transactional sales can migrate to the web. As one interviewee stated, “Relationships are retiring every day,” which requires distributor sales reps to do more to secure their place in the channel.
Web sites, blogs, and other digital media have also made vendors’ organizations more transparent to buyers. Prospects now touch a company at many points during their buying journeys and they expect the rep to purposefully orchestrate those interactions. As the phrase implies, a sales representative represents her company to the customer. Academics call this a “boundary role”— someone who operates at the boundaries of different organizations and must respond to the often conflicting roles and procedures of each.
Salespeople must work across their firms’ functional boundaries, and, depending upon the buying process, with multiple people and functions at clients. Each group has its own operating procedures. Many salespeople (typically a majority in our experience) now cite navigating their own organizations as a bigger challenge than managing customers and clients.
Because of these changes, companies are having trouble finding suitable people to fill sales roles. According to Burning Glass, a labor-market analysis firm, almost 60% of job postings for wholesale and technical sales reps now require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum and employers spend an average of 41 days trying to fill sales jobs compared with 33 days for all other jobs. Further, “quality of fill” is not tracked; if it were, the results would generally be more discouraging.
Better dialogue between Sales and Academia is timely, and society can benefit: studies show that jobs in sales are among the highest in career lifetime value, and, given the amount spent on sales forces in our economy (about $900 billion annually—by far, the most expensive part of strategy execution for most firms), this is also a significant productivity issue.
What can colleges and universities do to mind the gap? That’s a big topic in its own right. Selling is not a science reducible to timeless rules, and many variables affect market performance and sales success. But effective training and development should begin with awareness and shelf space in the curriculum: making sure that sales is a topic in management education worthy of the name.
It should continue with the cross-disciplinary study relevant to realistic training in the area. Right now, there is a significant supply-side problem: PhD programs for future faculty rarely focus on Sales, and academic promotion increasingly relies on big data-set research within a discipline, not the interplay of economics, psychology, and dyadic behaviors that are at the heart of most sales tasks.
And it should probably culminate in action-learning practicums that require the help, support, and sponsorship of companies. These would expose students to real-world customers and experienced practitioners.
It’s in the best interests of companies to support Academia. As markets change more rapidly, relevant selling behaviors will change as well. If students are better prepared, companies will have a better supply of talent to choose from. And make no mistake: it’s still human talent, not websites, that is the key in sales. Despite hype about the death of the salesperson, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that in 1999 there were 12.9 million workers in sales occupations in the U.S. In 2014 (the most recent data available), the BLS indicated an increase to 14.25 million. Almost all serious research about talent underscores the abiding necessity of training and development, and, at 10.5% of the total employed workforce, salespeople should be a major focus for companies and educators.
Please don’t misunderstand: we are not arguing for old-time trade-school courses, glib “pitch” fests, or making university research and course development a subsidiary of corporate R&D. There should always be creative tension between forward-looking educational institutions and profit-maximizing companies. But there’s a difference, and a mutual value-destroying gap, between creative tension and ignorance or indifference.