What One University Is Doing To Fill The Professional Sales Skills Gap

Demand for skilled labor is at an all-time high. Yet, well-educated and well-trained talent is either hard to come by or prohibitively expensive. A 2015 study finds, “ManpowerGroup’s annual survey of more than 41,000 hiring managers in 42 countries and territories found that 38% of employers are having difficulty filling jobs — a two-percentage point rise from 2014.”

Indeed, the skills gap is real. And this is especially true in sales. Another report by ManpowerGroup ranked “sales representatives” to be the fourth hardest job to fill last year. By comparison, “engineers” ranked 10th. Whilst Silicon Valley tech startups groan about a shortage of highly skilled programmers, companies everywhere else struggle to find enough willing and able bodies to peddle their wares.

But rather than accept this as fact, the leadership at Bentley University enlisted James (Jim) Pouliopoulos to establish a Professional Sales program to train workforce-ready talent for a promising career in enterprise sales.

From idea to inception

“Since I had a corporate background and had spent part of my career in sales, I was asked by the Marketing and Management Departments [at Bentley University] if I’d be interested in spearheading an effort to create a more formal program around Professional Sales,” says Pouliopoulos.

Prior to starting a career in academia, Pouli — as his peers and former students like me prefer to call him — worked as an engineer, sales director, marketing manager, and small business coach. His accolades include a three-year stint at General Electric (GE) and a 13-year tenure at IBM. In 2002, Pouli was presented with an opportunity to teach at Bentley and for nearly a decade, he was a part-time adjunct instructor. In 2012, he became a full-time lecturer. And a year later, the school commissioned Pouli to build out the institution’s newest major. He recalls, “When we looked at the landscape of sales programs at U.S. colleges, we found that about a dozen offered a major in Professional Sales. With employers telling us they needed more students who were educated and interested in sales as a career, it made sense for us to create a full-blown major in Professional Sales.” The opportunity felt perfect for him, and the timing was just right.

Gathering early support

“There are significantly more career openings for salespeople than there are qualified college graduates to fill them,” sighs Pouli. Of course, he hopes to change that.

Early on, EMC Corporation and Liberty Mutual Insurance (LMI) voiced their enthusiasm for the program. “Both EMC and LMI asked us to put more emphasis on sales in our curriculum. They both have a solid history of hiring Bentley students and they wanted to see if we could prepare a larger number of students for sales careers,” shares Pouli.

But corporate interest alone couldn’t guarantee the program’s survival. To ensure this was something the university could fully support, Pouli had to convince leadership that enough students would enroll in the Professional Sales major. “We also had to show that there would be student interest in a major related to sales,” explains Pouli. “We had some pretty good data that stated about 20% of our undergraduates were taking roles in sales or business development after graduating. There was definitely interest in the topic from a career-path point-of-view.”

Creating a holistic sales program

To ensure the program would also meet Bentley’s education standards, Pouli worked alongside the administration to create several new courses. According to Pouli, those include:

  1. Effective Selling: This course explores the basics of consultative, question-based sales skills. The course is a student’s first exposure to theories of persuasion and also the basic processes used by most sales professionals.”
  2. Sales Strategy & Technology: This course looks at the rise of ‘Sales 2.0’ where technology and well-defined processes lead to predictable revenue generation for companies. Students learn about how sales has changed in the last 20 years due largely to the abundance of information available to buyers from the Internet. This has caused salespeople to become better at relationship building and finding problems that buyers do not know they have. This course prepares students for many inside sales-oriented roles where sales process rules over ‘sales pros.’”
  3. Sales Management: This explores the creation of a sales process and how to build a sales team to execute that process for organizations of various types.”
  4. Sales Internship: Each student in the major has to spend a semester in an internship where they work for a company with a defined sales process. The field work is invaluable in giving students a leg up on the competition when looking for their first job out of college.”

Additionally, the institution opened its first on-campus Sales Lab which provides students with opportunities to apply their studies to real-world situations. Pouli tells, “The Sales Lab employs eight students in its Professional Sales internship. These students are actively engaged in selling services for a real-world company under the direction of an experienced sales professional who is a Bentley alum. In the near future, we hope our Sales Lab could become an incubator of sorts for firms that want to test new sales programs or run special promotions on a limited basis too.”

Enrolling students and scaling demand

Tedx Pouli

Pouli spent the better part of a year developing the program; after all that work, his biggest fear was that students wouldn’t show up. But, so far, Pouli and his team are pleased with the turnout. “The Professional Sales major has been in existence a little over a year and we already have 25 students enrolled in the major. This May, our first senior will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Sales. This semester, we have 100 students taking various sales courses and we have 12 students working in Professional Sales internships.” For a newer program in a school with 24 majors and 4,200 undergraduates, those numbers aren’t too shabby.

“Working with Bentley’s Career Services Center, we’ve also launched a Professional Sales Career Community which currently has about 35 students who are all interested in learning more about sales careers through a series of career workshops conducted by Bentley alumni and employers,” says Pouli. Naturally though, this is just the beginning. “In the short term, I’d like to see the number of students in the major double to about 50 in the next 12 months. Ultimately, I’d like to see the number of students in the major at about 200 or 250.”

Bentley has also begun to use its Professional Sales program to recruit prospective students. “We are beginning to see high school seniors applying to Bentley because they have an interest in sales as a career. Bentley is the only school in the Northeast with a major in Professional Sales so we are attracting a lot of attention.”

With such rigorous coursework and thorough training, Pouli hopes that Bentley University soon becomes a go-to destination for recruiters hiring entry-level sales associates. “We have bright, hard working students and sales is a great career path. By offering sales programs at Bentley, we are allowing students to self-select into the sales career. If someone spends four years of college focused on becoming a sales professional, they have made a long-term commitment and they truly understand what is required in this career. That is gold to a hiring organization.”

Parting wisdoms for sales-minded businesses

Pouli himself has nearly two decades worth of sales experience; and, now, as the director of the Professional Sales program at Bentley, he has learned even more about what businesses should and shouldn’t do to recruit, develop and retain sales reps. Three things he would advise companies to do are:

1. Hire sales-minded candidates

“Too often, employers hire candidates who might not be the right fit for a sales job. Many of these candidates, would prefer a different career path but have a hard time finding an entry level job in industries and roles where there are limited opportunities for employment. As a result, some entry-level candidates take a job in sales just to have a job after they graduate college,” states Pouli. “Unfortunately, many of these individuals are unprepared for a role in a Professional Sales environment. Many of them will exit these roles, sometimes within months of starting them. This creates a negative feedback loop where these ill-equipped candidates spread the word that sales is not a great career path.” Sadly, that sort of turnover can be costly for employers too. Research from Aberdeen Group reveals, “The average price of replacing a full-time rep is over $29,000, and it takes over seven months to locate and onboard each individual.” For businesses, Pouli recommends, “If possible, look for students that have either majored in Professional Sales or taken extensive sales coursework. This is a limited pool today but it is growing.”

2. Recruit interns

To curb the high costs of hiring and firing subpar sales talent, host an internship program. “Offering an internship is a great way to see how students perform in an actual sales situation over an extended period of time,” notes Pouli. In three or four months, employers can easily evaluate an intern’s long-term potential and extend top-performers a full-time job offer. Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) also shows that more than one-third of a business’s entry-level college recruits came from their internship programs.

3. Find someone who is coachable

Today, the most productive sales teams are process-driven. Pouli believes, “The profile of a successful entry-level salesperson has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. There was a time when only extroverted, gregarious and highly competitive individuals were considered for sales jobs. However, most of today’s successful sales organizations rely on the sales process, not ‘sales pros.’” Indeed, nowadays smooth-talking salesmen can no longer pawn off snake oil. Because prospects are fully empowered with the essential information they need to make a wise purchasing decision, smart selling requires a different set of skills. Thus, Pouli urges, “Employers should look to hire talent that fits their culture and can execute the process in place.” Thus, companies should hire folks who make selling an effective team effort.


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Danny Wong

Danny Wong

Danny Wong is a marketing consultant, sales strategist, and writer. He is a member of the marketing team at Tenfold, which provides a seamless click-to-dial solution for high-performance sales teams. Connect with him on Twitter @dannywong1190.

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