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It is believed that half of all business and MBA graduates enter a sales-related role. But how prepared are they and, indeed, how effective are they in that role?
The reality is that despite the fact that in the UK alone, 2.2m people work in sales – 10 per cent of the overall workforce, (globally this figure is rising to approximately 300m), the preparation many receive is non-existent. So why are business schools dedicating such little time and resources to preparing the majority of their students for their future career?
The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, there is the clear issue with sales as an industry being poorly perceived and not viewed as a “real” profession – with staff stereotypically seen as junior and transient. As such, business schools tend to teach the subject within marketing modules.
The knock-on effect of this is that sales is then bolted into an academic framework and consequently taught in a largely theoretical and passive way. Sales in practice is largely about communication and persuasion. But in business schools it is taught theoretically – strategically and mathematically – in stark contrast to the real-life scenario that a sales person will face, which will involve human interaction, often face-to-face.
A second problem is that business schools often do not have any collateral such as research on sales to share with their classes, let alone pedagogy. First hand experience or case study scenarios are integral to preparing students for the situations they will encounter on a day-to-day basis.
What does this mean for business schools and their prospective employers? Ultimately, business school students are not graduating with the right “communications” tools to become quickly useful in sales. Crudely this leads to businesses not receiving any bottom line benefits. And, for the sales people themselves, the vast majority will rapidly feel disillusioned and as a result become transient between businesses as they are perceived to be delivering little value.
Some businesses try to combat this by setting ambitious targets, which will usually only result in a demoralised sales force. The crux of the matter is that many employees within the sales team simply never develop the right skills to be successful. Perhaps worse still, the business school graduates will then go on to propagate the sales stereotype – that sales people do not stay at one job for long and are often not worth their salt.
Of course, there will always be people that naturally possess the right skills. But for the few “natural” sales people, who quickly become a premium within the industry, the future isn’t always rosy. They will soon suffer the disadvantage of a lack of preparation once they are promoted to a sales management position. Having never received the right foundation in sales skills development, they soon feel at a loss when it comes to teaching their sales team.
So what’s to be done? Firstly there needs to be a cultural shift so that sales is taken seriously. In the US and Japan it’s widely recognised that sales is a viable career option and one that is held in high regard with clear progression opportunities. In Europe it’s fair to say the opposite is true.
Business schools have an important role to play. Outside Europe, business schools are fast catching on that sales can no longer be taught as a bolt-on to marketing. In the US there are a growing number of schools adopting a far more market-driven approach, with an emphasis on role play and communication skills to increase the return on investment for hiring companies. They partner with organisations and professionals to give their students the foundation and preparation they need to be successful. One of the key benefits from this is access to feedback and learning from real-life situations.
However many European business schools have a long way to go to catch up with their US counterparts. To address this there needs to be an appreciation of sales as a viable career and dedicated teaching time to sales methods.
Ultimately the companies that hire well-prepared students will see the benefit. As it stands, I wonder how many of them will be in the UK?
Shaun Thomson is chief executive of Sandler Training in the UK.