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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Why don’t they teach sales at university?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

It seems odd that sales doesn’t appear in the course outlines for leading MBAs.

Likewise, first degrees offered by universities across the country give budding sales graduates few options.

It’s clearly unfair; near neighbours – marketing, operations, business administration, psychology and finance – appear in abundance. Marketing students, in particular, are very well catered for; they have applied marketing, business and marketing, marketing for small businesses and the very attractive sounding marketing and social media.

But what about sales? Has anyone ever met a BA in Sales let alone in Applied Sales? It can’t be there’s a lack of demand as there are a lot of salespeople about. Daniel Pink in his book ‘To Sell is Human’ estimates that one in nine American workers are in sales. Indeed ‘the U.S. private sector employs as many salespeople as all fifty state governments combined employ people.’

It can’t be that sales isn’t an important business function. What’s the point of a great product, marketing and branding if there are no sales?

Philip Delves Broughton in his excellent book ‘The Art of the Sale’ has no doubt about the impact: ‘the effects of this omission are grave. Many supposedly well-educated people in the business world are clueless about one of its most vital functions, the means by which you actually generate revenue’.

It‘s in Broughton’s book, though, that we find the clues to answer to our question. You see most sales courses that are run in companies cover topics like getting appointments, product knowledge, negotiation and close techniques. Broughton says that fundamentally these aren’t the really important factors for long-term success in sales; particularly in more complex areas like professional services.

Success is more about nebulous factors: relationship building, delivering value, doing what one says, being flexible, likeability, putting things right when things go wrong and generally going the extra mile.

Perhaps sales should be more aligned with the emotional intelligence discipline than the marketing one.

There was a famous study (at the time) in 1961 published by the Harvard Business Review. After intensive research, involving large numbers of salespeople, a leading psychologist named McMurray identified the characteristics needed to succeed in the profession as:

  • Boundless energy and optimism

  • Self-discipline and capacity for hard work

  • A state of mind that sees rejection or obstacles as challenges

  • High degrees of personal empathy and compatibility with others

  • The ability to hold the affection of clients and to win them over.

There are two thoughts that come to mind when looking at the list. Firstly, if these are truly the characteristics of successful salespeople, then it’s incredible that anyone can do the job in the first place.

And secondly, not only are these traits difficult to find in the same person, but none of them are really trainable. McMurray points out that what can be trained are the procedural aspects of selling; product details, time management and identifying customers. The true qualities that count, however, are those that cannot be trained.

Seems like sales may be a profession that one is born into.

So, perhaps next time you interview for a sales role, the questions shouldn’t be ‘how do you go about getting sales meetings in the diary?’ or ‘how do you close the sale?’ but ‘how many lemonade stalls did you have before you were twelve years old?

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