You can cut ramp-up time of your college hires for sales jobs by 30% while increasing their tenure by 50%: How? Hire from universities with sales programs!
So says a 2009 research study by the Sales Education Foundation, a not for profit organization founded to encourage collegiate sales programs nationwide. As of 2019, 134 Universities offer at least three sales classes to undergraduates. Thirty of these provide full Sales Majors, while 64 offer sales Minors and the remainder a Sales Certificate. The difference between the above is more a matter of University policies on program status than they are about the quality of graduates.
Experiential Sales Education
The new university sales classes are experiential in nature. Students conduct actual role-plays to help them learn to sell. They are taught to prepare hard-hitting value propositions, ask penetrating questions to uncover business needs, make effective presentations, handle objections, and close deals. They perform real-time, on video, with feedback, until they are comfortable with the sales methodology, learn to think on their feet, and develop skills and confidence. And of course, they learn to close effectively.
A more recent research study by Florida State University found that sales reps hired from sales programs …
- Significantly outperformed other new hires.
- Reported significantly higher levels of organizational commitment, supporting the above-mentioned Sales Education Foundation research.
- Used specific successful selling tactics more often in their persuasion attempts (the skills listed above).
And why not? These students have first of all self-selected a sales career, they have chosen to take these classes and to do the work to excel. Secondly, they are taught proven sales techniques such as Neil Rackham’s, SPIN, and other system selling techniques. Third many of these students have participated in Intercollegiate Sales Competitions like Kennesaw State University’s National Collegiate Sales Competition, Florida State’s International Collegiate Sales Competition, or Chico State’s Western States Sales Competition among many other national and regional competitions across the country. They have experience in demonstrating their sales skills in highly competitive and stressful environments.
I Speak from Experience
How do I know this? From personal experience on both sides of the issue.
First, let’s discuss the hiring side. I retired a few years back after 30 plus years in sales in the telecom industry, mostly with MCI, then with Verizon. At Verizon, I served as a Senior Vice President responsible for a $10 Billion business unit selling to Enterprise Customers and the Federal and State Governments. These customers had sophisticated buying centers and influencers, they contested every point, and we required salespeople who were industry experts well trained in uncovering needs and differentiating our products in very competitive circumstances.
My biggest challenge in that position is simple to state yet extremely difficult to address. I’ll be the first to admit that I never did solve it to my satisfaction. It was finding and retaining the best sales talent in the industry. Sound familiar?
We, like most companies, did extensive searches for sales talent, developed an ideal rep profile, recruited from top colleges, from our competitors, and non-traditional sources looking for the best sales reps. And then we spent millions training and developing them. Yet it was and is a very inexact science. In many ways, it was hit or miss no matter how systematic we thought we had made the process.
What prospective sales hire does NOT perform well in interviews, claim a history of stellar results, show pristine references, and look good in a suit? Right? In the end, we either fool ourselves with a highly complex rubric, consensus through multiple levels of interviews, or go with our gut, (though we never admit to the latter).
A Football Analogy
Since we are in football season, I’ll compare the sales talent recruitment process to that of the NFL. Teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours evaluating talent. They measure everything at the combine: 40-yard dash time, leaping ability, even a cone drill supposedly to measure direction change speed. They have hours of tape of the player in college and maybe even high school. They use numerous levels of the organization to conduct in-depth interviews. Some also interview friends and family members. Scouts have personally watched and evaluated the player, and most perform individual workouts for teams of interest.
Yet, every year, we read of the failed top draft pick, the undelivered promise, and ultimately the replacement of another General Manager responsible for that pick. So, let’s take it as a given fact. Talent recruitment and development is not an exact science. It’s hard. And expensive. And time-consuming. So what is a sales leader with limited resources, time, and, let’s face it, skills in recruitment, to do? (After all, you were hired for your ability to bring in revenue, not for your recruiting expertise).
There is a Way to Reduce Your Risk
My second relevant personal experience was teaching at a university program. After retirement from Verizon, I taught in the Undergraduate Sales Certificate Program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. As a member of the marketing faculty, I also taught marketing to undergrads and MBA’s, but it was the sales students who captured my interest and became the most fulfilling part of teaching.
Georgia State is an urban university of some 50,000 students. Most students work, either full or part-time. It is a very diverse student body with numbers of white and black students nearly even at 37%, with significant numbers of Latino and Asian students making up the rest of the population. My experience showed me that many were first-generation college students. The net result: a very motivated student body.
Georgia State students were in college not because it was the next thing to do after high school but because they wanted to better themselves, to get a professional job, and pursue the American dream. And, again from my experience, the students in the sales program were the epitome of this student profile. They wanted to be in sales. They wanted to be paid based on what they produced. They were competitive and had that “fire in the belly” we so often look for on our sales teams. And they did the work required to master the skills necessary to achieve success in sales.
The Talent You’re Missing
Here are a few examples of the students I had the honor of teaching.
- Latin American student: Her mother immigrated to the US and was a housekeeper in South Florida hotels. This mother instilled a desire to succeed in her daughter that has proven to be real thus far in her career. Her mother is illiterate yet raised this amazing daughter. Her daughter successfully competed in sales competitions with poise and confidence and landed a great sales job when she graduated.
- Korean student: His parents sent him to the US for a better life. He lived with a Korean host family and paid his way through GSU via part-time jobs and scholarships. He landed a great sales job upon graduation and was named “rookie of the year” at his company.
- White student. This student hailed from the suburbs. He worked full time at an IT help desk yet wanted more out of life. He excelled in the sales program and landed a great sales job.
- African American student: This second-generation student was from Nigeria. He was so focused on a sales career that he joined the sales club as a freshman before he was even able to enroll in a sales class. He went on to finish third in his first sales competition. Upon graduation, he had six job offers, all with top companies with sterling reputations in sales.
These stories repeat in all 134 sales programs across the country. Many of the schools are urban, public Universities like Georgia State. If you are looking for minority candidates, these schools are the places to recruit, as is Morehouse College, a renowned HBCU. Many are also more traditional state Universities like the University of Alabama, Florida State, or Chico State University. The University of Wisconsin system has some great sales programs at their rural campuses like UW Whitewater and UW Eau Claire. By their very nature, sales programs attract competitive, bright, driven students who want to succeed. And they provide these students the tools, skills, mentorship to be successful.
Let’s go back now to our original premise. Recruiting and retaining top sales talent is hard, it’s time-consuming, and it’s expensive.
Work with Universities to Maximize New Hire Recruitment
From my experience on both sides of the table—as a recruiter of talent and as a trainer of young talent—I suggest you contact Universities that offer sales programs in your recruitment areas.
Like the NFL, their use will not guarantee your success, but it will increase your chances of landing that top draft pick and developing them into a superstar. Like the NFL, you can obtain scouting reports from their professors, tapes of the performance from the schools or sales competitions, (upon approval of the student), and you can be assured that they have received rigorous professional sales training taught by both academics and experienced sales leaders.
To get a list of Universities offering Sales Programs, please contact the Sales Education Foundation at https://sales education foundation.org.
Stephen P. Young is Founding Director of the Sales Executive RoundTable and the Sales Management Association of Atlanta. Young recently retired from the faculty of Georgia State University where he taught Marketing and Sales.
Prior to joining the faculty of Georgia State, Young was Senior Vice President, Corporate and Government Markets for Verizon Business. In his career, Young progressed through assignments in Commercial Markets, Sales Channel Support and Development, Global Account Management, Product Marketing, Multi-National Accounts, and National Accounts.
Young currently serves on the Boards of the Outreach Advocacy Center and the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Development Corporation.