Academia and Sales

I’m concerned. In fact, I am really worried. After finishing a lecture on sales at a local university to a room full of bright and eager students, I have a question for the administrators who are running our institutions of higher education. Do you know what is missing in the curriculum? To me, it’s obvious – and it’s a perfect opportunity for higher education to differentiate and create more successful students. To some purists, it may be anathema, and to realists, it’s unavoidable. Read on, please.

The world has changed BIG time. I assume you get the same news that I do and know what a difficult time students are having finding jobs. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that people embrace the idea that to get ahead, students need to learn the principles of sales and how to sell themselves, and gain the confidence to do it right. This is way more than good interviewing skills. Although many students will bring passion, smarts, and energy, they’ll need to sell themselves against other and, in some cases, more qualified candidates. Fewer jobs and more candidates. Differentiating skills are needed desperately.

Some things never change

When I was in school (a million years ago), you went to career services and signed up for interviews and eventually got a few offers. Students today may be great at their subjects, but they lack the one thing that’s not being taught in schools: sales and how to sell themselves. Throughout one’s career, a person will have to always (and I do mean, always) sell himself or herself in order to advance. Selling yourself not only begins with getting the job, but it also continues throughout one’s professional career. That will not change. Not ever.

I have vivid memories of being told in high school that if I knew math and science, I would always be in “good shape.” Therefore, I made it my business to get very good at math (well, most math – loved algebra, hated geometry) and science. Here’s the newsflash – being great at math and science made me pretty good at math and science – but not any more successful at selling myself to prospective employers. This is not to say that some jobs won’t be won on academic prowess alone, but the one indisputable common thread to advancing one’s career is to know how to sell yourself and gain “buy in.”

What schools need to do

Why don’t more schools offer a full sales curriculum? At the very least, one course in sales or personal selling should be mandatory for every student. Created and taught by people with real-world experience who can make the appropriate points with the students. Seriously, we make students take gym courses but not personal-development courses? The good news is that there are some schools (a very few that I am aware of) that actually do offer sales courses, and I have lectured in a few of those classes. The students are from all backgrounds and in all majors. The one thing they understand is that they will have to be good salespeople to get ahead.

Still think I’m crazy? Think about this: If you are interviewing young people today for jobs, how well are they doing letting you know about their passions and how they think they will do in the job? I actually don’t care about a student’s GPA if he or she can’t tell me who they are and sell me on what they will do and why. I was a mediocre student with a mild learning disability, and if any employer had hired me based on my GPA, I would still be flipping burgers somewhere. Grades and the courses you take are only a part of the picture. Every day, I am thankful for my first mentor at Xerox, who saw in me something beyond my grades.

Encouraging news

One encouraging development I see is the rise of the entrepreneurial programs in higher education. These help prepare students to sell. But what also is needed are courses that prepare young people for today’s world. The ability to articulate and speak about your strengths and make the employer want you and be willing to take a chance on you is the differentiator between people with the same GPA. You must be able to sell the whole package. Yeah – that’s right – you must be able to sell yourself. Success is measured not only by a GPA, but by real smarts, passion, and the ability to articulate and tie these things together. One more thing: Schools that are looking for more ways to find revenue – this class would be filled!

2 thoughts on “Academia and Sales”

  1. Joel Mickelberg

    I interviewed hundreds of college seniors looking for sales people, in my time at Xerox Corporation, as Todd can attest, as he was one of them. One simple thing I would usually do is hand the interviewee a yellow # 2 pencil, and say “sell me the pencil”.

    Frankly, all I was looking for was the student smart enough to ask any question about my writing requirements, before proceeding on to try and sell me on the features and benefits of using a # 2 yellow pencil to write.

    If sales were taught at more colleges I suspect more “sales students” would understand the importance of knowing what customers’ requirements are, before verbally “shot gunning” features and benefits of their product at a potential customer.

    And how do you get to know what their requirements are? Ask them questions!

  2. Totally agree Todd! In fact, I’ll take it a step further and say that too many people are going to the higher education level these days. We need people in the sales/service industry and that kind of stuff isn’t taught at the University level. It’s learned and acquired like almost every skill – through the trials and tribulations that we practice every single day.

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