Should students be taught to sell?

Mar 12, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Getting Personal About Business, the blog of Zahn Consulting, LLC.

Our education system is under attack on many fronts. Some see too much emphasis on testing and meeting federal, state and local requirements. Others question whether a liberal arts education is preparing students for the "new world" post-graduation. On top of that, an argument raging on LinkedIn explores the necessity to teach students the skills of selling.

As business owners know, "Nothing happens until a customer makes a purchase." All of the best marketing, logistics, operational efforts, managerial practices and progressive human resources initiatives won’t matter at all if there is no customer to make a purchase and pay for all of those things. So, for many entrepreneurs, the sales skill sits "first among equals" of all of the functions that comprise a business.

Skeptics question whether sales is more "common sense" than an intellectual process and if it requires on-the-job experience. Others are puzzled about how to come up with the subjects to be taught.

Indeed, many people struggle to define just what sales skills include. It seems to fall into that murky area of understanding, as in what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: "I will know it when I see it."

In my view, sales skills commonly include the need for product/services knowledge, industry knowledge and functional specificity (how the user of the product or service benefits). Prospecting, presenting, listening, negotiation and CRM are all essential. In the financial realm, a salesperson needs the ability to recognize "value" and quantify it in a way that is meaningful to the prospect.

While the focus is on the interaction between the salesperson and a prospect, the skills are transferable to internal dealings between managers and subordinates, inter-departmental relationships, or peers working as part of a team to accomplish a particular project.

So, the skill set of selling should serve students well — no matter what pursuits they may choose post schooling.

Whether someone has to "sell" their ideas as a way to improve how a department is run, "sell" the value of making a technology upgrade, or a supervisor has to "sell" a subordinate on the wisdom of doing a task one way over another, selling skills are put into use professionally in nearly every interaction. On a personal relationship level, the skills are equally relevant. Friends, romantic partners, parents and children all need to "sell" to each other and meet the same basic skill requirements listed above.

Should sales skills be taught in colleges and universities? Do you see benefits for students from other disciplines taking sales courses? What hurdles do you see towards the introduction of sales training courses?

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25 Comments on "Should students be taught to sell?"

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Paula Rosenblum
Gosh, no offense but that strikes me as a strange college level course. First of all, there remains no doubt in my mind that a Liberal Arts degree is an important offering in any case. We’re attempting to educate people, not just earning machines. I believe all this focus on “vocational training” can be very destructive. My niece is in college now, and she had an assignment to create a LinkedIn network. She was really freaked about it. She’s not ready to go out into the work world yet. As she said to me “Every other word is ‘prepare, prepare, prepare’. Why do I have to think about that all the time?” [full disclosure: she does NOT. Her family has enough money that she’ll really never have to worry.] I think it says a lot about the way education is being doled out these days. My own major was sociology. Understanding how people behave in groups has proven invaluable in all my chosen professions. But that was my major. I don’t think it was a required course for anyone who wanted to study science or math. And I am really grateful for my liberal arts education. I finally got an… Read more »
Joan Treistman

I couldn’t agree more with David Zahn. The major challenge for introducing sales training is a myopic view on the part of those who have the power to include the courses.

Every day we encounter someone who we wish could be more cordial, empathetic, understanding, polite, interested, proactive, understandable, etc. These behaviors are part of what it takes to sell a customer, deal with a subordinate, provide technical support, offer customer services and manage a romantic relationship.

Sure wish I encountered more people who took sales training courses. Thank you David.

Frank Riso

Simple answer is yes. The skills of selling are not only relevant for retail sales or sales in general but in all aspects of life itself. Whether selling oneself for a job interview, a date, or the buying of a new home, skills are needed and why not teach them at the college level?

Steve Montgomery

The art of selling (or science of selling if you prefer) involves a wide range of skill sets that are very useful in life and not just sales. For example, to understand you customer you have to understand people.

This brings into play psychology and other sciences. Learning to understand people helps regardless of the student’s path in the life-after-college world.

Herb Sorensen

The successful part of my career has been built, nearly 100%, on applying personal selling thinking, to SELF-service retailing. I do think the industry is blind to the loss of true selling at retail, due to a century of massive reliance on shoppers to sell themselves.

My book, “Inside the Mind of the Shopper,” after 5 years on the market, is still occasionally in the top 100 in 3 categories (February 22, 2014):
#17 Retailing
#31 Consumer Behavior
#63 Sales & Selling

I haven’t noticed other books on retailing being purchased by people interested in “sales & selling.” I’m sure any number of the other authors have substantial experience and knowledge of personal selling. It’s just that the vast majority of people in this business approach stores with a merchant-warehouseman perspective – that’s certainly how their clients do!

HY Louis
3 years 7 months ago

I think we need to start earlier than college. A lot of good sales people I know never went to college. I see too many young people sabotage their careers in high school by making themselves unapproachable, often permanently. Learning to sell or be paid on commission early in life will benefit students in the long run. No matter what the condition the economy is in, there are always good jobs available for good salespeople. The unemployment rate for a good salesperson is zero.

Tony Orlando
Absolutely, selling skills should be taught, first by your parents, and then offer it to students as a class starting in high school, and onto college. A major in selling could be a valuable degree, as I have seen many sales people over the years, who have very little selling skills. My father taught me how to sell, which involves great people skills, honesty, and being a good listener, and boy did that help me growing up. When I went to college, I used those skills to make my life much better, as many business classes involved the art of selling. I have taught a business class in high school as a volunteer, based off of selling and marketing yourself to find jobs for teenagers back in the 1980s, and it was great. Selling is about building relationships one at a time, and requires discipline, hard work, continuing education in your field, and the ability to follow up on your client’s needs at any time. There is an art to it, and it needs to be taught to anyone, because we are selling either our skills, or a product to make a living. The very top sales people in a company… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Personal selling has been an established course in many marketing departments at universities for over 40 years. Students leave the course with knowledge and skills they did not have before taking the course: there are different kinds of sales positions requiring different skills, understanding psychology and communication theories are essential, success depends upon planning and preparation, how to identify different kinds of buyers, how to adapt their own communication skills, how to ask effective questions, the importance of ethics, and the importance of continued contact with customers after the sale. These skills do translate to a variety of circumstances and positions. Students who do well in this class do well when looking for a job and in their careers.

This is a good example of the type of class that bridges theory and application. Just learning theory does not serve students well. Applying theory is not an inherent skill or way of thinking. Instruction in how to apply theory and the opportunity to practice the application of theory prepares students well for the challenge of facing new situations and using critical thinking to solve problems.

Shep Hyken

I love the idea that sales would be taught in colleges and universities. And, why not high school? I was a natural sales person in high school – even earlier – and seem to be comfortable going door-to-door selling candy bars for our youth group or raffle tickets to raise funds for school events. I won a number of “contests” along the way. Teaching how to sell, which includes verbal and written communication, can only increase a student’s confidence and their ability to interact with people on a professional level.

Even if a person isn’t officially in a sales position, that person is always selling. Maybe we don’t actually sell a product or service, but we are always selling ourselves.

Bob Phibbs

Short answer, everyone sells. You either sell me that you’re trustworthy dependable person, or you Sell me you’re a cheater, a liar and untrustworthy.

There is no golden watch anymore, you can’t start a job and keep it for 50 years. Sales is the skill necessary to manage those changes.

The soft skills: How do I talk to another person? How can I be present when I am in the presence of another person, and yes, how do I sell myself first and the products second? These are missing and crippling many retail businesses.

Martin Mehalchin

I’m with Paula on this one, I think the education system is there to teach people to analyze and solve problems or design and build things. Sales is best learned on the job and there is a massive professional training industry out there to teach selling. That being said, a quality education should teach skills; active listening, the ability to ask good questions and to make a business case; that will later be valuable in a sales career.

Bill Davis

While it’s been a while since I completed my MBA in 1991, sales and marketing were taught along with several other subjects, so my answer is yes and yes. They are available, but unless mandated as a requirement for a specific major, these are electives.

Now as to whether they should they be taught outside of the business school, I don’t think it makes sense as other departments such as engineering, computer science, etc. have access to these classes within the business school and it’s a student’s personal choice as to whether they decide to take these classes.

Kate Blake
Kate Blake
3 years 7 months ago

The problem with those that come of age after 1996 is that they are used to relating to a smartphone and not to a person. Their ability to engage face-to-face is pathetic and that is one reasons they fail interviews. They do not know how to carry on a conversation. When life is lived in LOL or emoticons you cannot follow or create a narrative, you cannot tell a story and interact with an audience, and that is what selling is all about.

Larry Negrich

Yes, yes, yes – students should be taught the mechanics and dynamics of salesmanship.
Here’s why: I have seen many people with good ideas successfully sell those ideas to management, teams, and investors with some great results. I have also witnessed some very good salespeople promote some very bad ideas successfully to the detriment of everyone involved.

Hopefully, a good understanding of the process will prepare these future business people, engineers, teachers, et al to be more successful on both sides (buying/selling) of the sales process. Let’s teach students in all areas of expertise what salesmanship is and can do for them, their ideas, and their ability to succeed.

Besides, I had to take 6 credits of worthless gray-matter-killing humanities classes in college. Could a sales class be any worse?

Ed Dunn
3 years 7 months ago

They sell the idea of cheap labor overseas to replace middle class jobs here in USA. They sell the idea of self-checkout to replace cashiers. I would think it be a great idea that American students learn to sell themselves also in this global technology competitive world….

Brian Numainville

Absolutely. I remember back to Cub Scouts and going door to door to sell candy bars and wreaths. Selling is an essential part of life whether it is to sell a product or one’s abilities to others. Someone suggested high school – might be a great place to start since lots of younger folks are working in jobs even then and might benefit from the training.

Ralph Jacobson

Less than a week ago, I had lunch with a couple members of the California State University board that I sit on to talk about this subject. Actually, it was to talk about all sorts of topics that students need to learn that are required in everyday life, both personally and professionally. Sales skills assist people in virtually all aspects of life. Whether they are in a sales profession or not.

The only hurdles to overcome are getting these types of courses in mainstream educational curricula. Sales, financial management, negotiations, etc. would be welcomed by students and the few courses that exist today are typically over-enrolled.

Jack Sheehan
Jack Sheehan
3 years 7 months ago

Not everything young people need is taught in school now. On my five list of books to supplement traditional education is Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Having a course on his material would do much for sales and civility.

Carol Spieckerman

I tell my clients and mentees all the time, “You’re ‘in sales’ whether you like it or not.”

I started my career in sales back when buyers looked to suppliers for guidance, and all you needed was a cool product, a sharp price and, every now and then, a big check. Initially, I didn’t think I was cut out for sales because many of the guys I worked with were pushy and slick and the amount of time they were able to dedicate to golf, cocktails and other extra curriculars seemed to validate their approach.

I always thought of sales as positioning, as a contextual collaboration, and although that was out-of-step with what everyone else seemed to be doing, as the tables turned (and turned) in retail, it proved prescient. My sales background has been invaluable to me as I built success for other companies and particularly so as a consultant, speaker and trainer.

That said, defining it for myself and creating contrarian paths has made all the difference.

Stan Barrett
Stan Barrett
3 years 7 months ago

Yes, but in many colleges they are already offered. Perhaps bring in some professional trainers as an “auxiliary class.” We had this opportunity provided to us. The hurdles would be a limited/experienced faculty. Also, many tech sales people have tech degrees, but no one knows or wants to admit they don’t want to be a bench chemist or engineer until placed in the workforce.

Regarding liberal arts, are the days when P&G and other major companies hired smart, capable liberal arts majors and “trained them to be a good P&G employee” over? I think yes, but not sure. The degree is still valuable, but the road to a job is a little tougher than 30-40 years ago.

I second the HS portion, but it should already be offered through DECA and FBLA. If you are passionate about this, check your local high school and volunteer some of your time to these groups or help admin get them off the ground.

Gene Detroyer

Paula nails this one. Selling is not about a stepwise, by-the-book process, it is about understanding people and their behaviors.

James Tenser

Sales theory and technique should be a required unit within a core undergraduate pre-business curriculum, alongside writing, statistical analysis, and ethics, to name a few. It certainly should not be a major at the university level.

There is a place for sales courses however in community colleges, which I think confront a great untapped potential to offer associate degrees in retail store management. Access to such courses will be of value to individuals making mid-career changes too.

Tom Borg
Tom Borg
3 years 7 months ago

Let’s face it – “everyone is in sales.” It would help all students to learn the basics. They are already selling their parents on what school they want to attend, or selling the guy or girl they want to date on going out with them.

Mark Price

Absolutely, sales should be taught to students. Being able to make the case compellingly that a position has merit from the perspective of the “customer” is a key factor for success in a broad range of fields. The only barrier is calling the program “Sales” rather than “effective communications” or something of the like.

gordon arnold
The combined efforts of the elementary and high school teachers in the Unites States of America are unable to process the vast majority of students to achieve a high school diploma. Additionally, the large majority of those students that receive a diploma can not read or write at a level equal to their awarded accreditation. At the college level we see early student withdrawal at astounding levels. Most of the lack of success can be directly attributed to basic skills deficiencies. Watching college graduates enter the work force is many times an exasperating experience that often clutters human resource departments with complaints that the new workforce entries are a worthless drain of money and time. Even more astounding is that this exists within the ranks of science degree graduates with honors. We can and do talk all day about how and why this is true, but to no avail. Sales is no different than any other profession or job for that matter. What makes it difficult is the amount of proven abstract abilities a student must posses in order to begin learning the sales process. Corporations like IBM, Xerox, 3M and others have spent millions of dollars developing and updating… Read more »

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