Where Do We Learn to Sell?

Sales in higher ed

Have you noticed that there’s something missing in higher education?

Ok, perhaps you’ve noticed a lot of things missing, but what stands out to me is at the highest levels of education, we don’t teach our students how to sell. Yes, sell.

I routinely ask groups of people to describe the situations they find themselves in day-after-day, meeting-after-meeting. More often than not they describe situations where they are trying to influence someone (a child, a spouse, a boss, a peer or a customer) to do something. And when I press them a bit about the skills they need to pull this off, they say “selling skills.”

Here’s what they don’t say; Accounting. Finance. Operations. Marketing. These are, of course, critical components of knowledge to acquire, and for decades, we have taught them really well in our higher education system.

But why is that not true for selling? And what do we do about it?

Why We Don’t Teach “Sales” to Our Students

There are two primary reasons for our lack of a “sales curriculum” at the highest levels:

1. There is a bias that sales is something that is a lesser body of knowledge than other Ph.D.-worthy subjects.

2. We have mostly left the development of selling skills to corporations—a “trade school” approach.

Obviously, there are serious problems with both of these positions. Because the cultural perception of “selling” is often negative and associated with manipulative tactics, it is easily dismissed as a simplistic skill set used by a small group of specialists. Thus, why spend precious academic resources on so simple a subject and narrow a discipline?

In fact, sales is much more complex. The ability to be a high-performing salesperson requires knowledge of psychology, process, technical systems, resilience, as well as social skills and tremendous discipline. These elements are combined in a way that is distinct and different from all other pursuits. In this way, it is like no other body of knowledge that we teach. Its closest academic cousin would be “leadership,” which of course gets copious amounts of attention in our universities, graduate schools and executive education programs. “Leadership” is not saddled with negative stereotypes, yet our daily media exposes us to no end of unethical leaders.

And the second reason is just as specious. By leaving the teaching of selling to corporations and treating sales as a “trade school” skill, we are limiting this critical skill-development to vanishingly few people. In an economy that is increasingly entrepreneurial, we have to adjust our curricula to equip all kinds of students with the capability to understand how to sell themselves, how to get traction in a business, and how to build a set of critical skills and disciplines that will make their lives more successful.

So what would a robust sales curriculum look like?

5 Components of a Strong Sales Curriculum

Here are five components that would make up a strong sales curriculum, and some of the knowledge, skills and disciplines that might be covered in each:

1. Personal Selling – learning the art of conversation, telling your story, interviewing, preparation and follow up, working a room, making a lasting impression, managing and tracking your personal network, and measuring your success.

2. Entrepreneurial Selling – building your sales toolkit, filtering your target market, defining your value proposition, creating your differentiators, understanding your sales model, qualifying investors and prospective customers, asking impact questions and handling objections, running high-impact meetings, measuring sales performance, balancing execution and analysis, delighting early clients, telling your story.

3. Professional Selling – forecasting, communicating with influence, funnel management, reference selling, team selling, creating a sales process, follow through and follow up, presenting with panache, telling your story.

4. Digital selling – building your digital platform, telling your story on the web, gathering testimonials, leveraging influencers, building a conversion funnel, optimizing your digital presence, running tests, measuring performance.

5. Sales Leadership – hiring and onboarding sales people, leading sales teams, managing diverse skill sets, setting expectations and coaching, giving feedback, territory and account management, sales compensation, measuring success.

The bottom line is that we all have to learn how to sell either ourselves or influence others because we must do so on a daily basis. The knowledge, skill, and discipline required to sell can’t just be left to large corporations or the few universities that make it part of their curricula.

For a sample of several of the skills and disciplines outlined above, see these resources:

What courses would you like to see in a sales curriculum? Please let us know in the comments section below.

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