The Undergraduate Business School Blunder and Why We Need to Learn Sales

In the world of chess, even grandmasters occasionally make simple blunders as a result of tactical oversight, to which the move is often annotated with a double question mark, “??”, after the move.  Be it overconfidence or bad luck, they fail to consider their opponent’s moves, which leads to costly mistakes.

In the realm of higher education, business schools are making such a strategic blunder. Take a gander at the top business schools in the United States, the ones that flaunt the number of students that they propel into banking or consulting; how many, if any, have solid sales programs?

Sales is important because in the real world, it’s all about selling two things: yourself, and the company you represent. Students who are working for Goldman or McKinsey probably did a good job of selling themselves in the interview process; however, in the real world if you can’t sell a prospective client or customer on why they should choose your company or product…then you’re not contributing to the bottom line.

In a guest post in Businessweek by Philip Broughton, a Harvard Business School grad and former Paris bureau chief for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, he notes the lack of sales experience in MBA students. Many MBA students will have come from the military, Teach for America, banking and consulting, or engineering backgrounds, having everything from hand-to-hand combat to powerpoint slide tweaking experience, but surprisingly few have had the experience of meeting a quarterly quota or pitching clients. Brouhgton notes that, “selling is a curiously undervalued and undertaught skill at most major business schools.”

Many other seasoned business professionals like Sir Richard Branson have also pointed out the lack of sales skills being taught at business schools. The sad truth is that sales as an industry is being discounted in academia. As the Financial Times columnist Shaun Thomson points out, “There is the clear issue with sales as an industry being poorly perceived and not viewed as a ‘real’ profession… as such, business schools tend to teach the subject within marketing [courses].” The paradox here is that sales, an inherently interpersonal and concrete skill, is being taught theoretically and passively. So although sales needs to be taught in business schools, academia is approaching it in a non-conducive manner due to lack of sales pedagogy – a catch-22.

I was lucky. Through my internships, I was able to see the real value of sales skills first-hand through interacting with customers and clients. As a marketing intern for a daily deal start-up, I hustled every day. I was on the phone in between classes pitching vendors on why they should use our platform to sell their product. I crafted my own sales pitch and learned negotiation skills. When I worked in sales & trading on Wall Street, I listened in on sales calls where my managing director would masterfully pitch clients securities using artful persuasion. None of these skills did I learn in the classroom.

We need to build awareness and get students excited about sales. Not just learning real-world sales skills from reading the likes of Dale Carnegie, Robert Cialdini, and Neil Rackham, but actually implementing them. Sales demands action, and just like we learn about Porter’s Five Forces and how to model discounted cash flows, students should be familiar with pitching and copywriting before graduating.

If scholars deny sales its own curriculum, then sales should at least be coupled with entrepreneurship, and not with marketing. Sales cannot be taught, but through entrepreneurship, it can be experienced through startup contests or even sales contests in which students have to pitch ideas. Stop having students read about case studies and give them firsthand experience to prepare them for situations they’ll encounter after graduation.

Because the world is becoming an increasingly flatter place, there are more interpersonal actions between businesses. That is why business schools need to buckle up, and start implementing courses that will teach students actionable sales skills. The ones that do will be able to differentiate themselves from their peer schools and attract top students and businesses.

Sales is all about mixing creativity and communication with persuasion and presentation. In that sense, there is academic value as Brouhgton writes, “To take any idea, product, or service and render it desirable and valuable to a customer is a challenge.  It requires brains, as well as great persistence, optimism, and resilience.” Because at the end of the day, whether you’re selling a product or service, it’s crucial that you can close the sale…and that only comes from experience. That is why business schools need to embrace sales as a part of academia sooner rather than later. Time is ticking away on the clock, and I hope business schools are able to avoid the sales blunder and make the right move.

Title Photo Credit: flickr