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Higher Education’s “Sales Blind Spot”

If Alec Baldwin is your sales coach, it might be time to update your curriculum.
If Alec Baldwin is your sales coach, it might be time to update your curriculum.Credit:

James Altucher, an investor and author of a book called Choose Yourself! recently wrote a piece on TechCrunch entitled, “How to Get an MBA From Eminem”.The piece analyzes how the lyrics of the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” demonstrate some of the foundational concepts taught in an MBA program.

It took a few readings to understand the sales tactics Altucher hit on, but once we did, we couldn’t help but think, “Why is it called, ‘How To Get an MBA From Eminem’”? MBA programs don’t teach sales.

Sales is the lifeblood of all companies, big and small. Yet, over the last couple of years, sales instructors from the Startup Institute have been baffled by the fact that most business schools do not teach courses on sales, which is both foundational and critical to professional success.

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When schools do offer sales, it is usually with an underdeveloped or poorly executed curriculum. Personal example: While I (Will) was pursuing my MBA, I took a sales class — we spent two Saturdays watching and critiquing sales footage from the late 1980’s. Need I say more?

Sales is a skill set that should be part of the required curriculum in every business school. Getting ANYBODY to do ANYTHING requires sales skills. This includes your children, co-workers, employees, students, investors, parents, oh, and potential customers. So why don’t we teach this critical life skill?

One of the reasons: Sales has gotten a bad rap.

Look no further than how the dishonest used car salesman stereotype persists in our culture today. It is perpetuated through films like Glengarry Glen Ross. In that film, Alec Baldwin represents the aggressive, male-dominating, greedy stereotype known as the “salesperson.”

Another contributing factor to the poor reputation of field is the abundance of easy to attain, low quality, pitch and ditch, sales positions. These include the “jobs” where you push knives to your friends and family or sell insurance at holiday parties. These tactics give the industry a bad name.

The days of the stereotypical characters like Baldwin’s Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross are over; “always be closing” is now “always be helping.”

With the change in the way people consume information, marketing and sales have evolved as well. The “smooth talking” sales guy can’t win a deal with dishonesty anymore because, today, everyone has the power to educate themselves on any product or service they want to buy. Great salespeople uncover the needs of a business or individual, they help individuals problem solve, and then they provide value by teaching best practices while a product or service is consumed.

Unfortunately, high caliber sales jobs require formal sales knowledge and/or experience.

It may be that colleges and universities don’t truly understand modern day sales. It may be that students are just not interested a sector with a stigma like sales has. It may be that professors look down upon sales as a vocational trade rather than an academic pursuit and do not opt to include it in business curriculum.

Regardless of the reason, liberal arts schools, business schools, and universities need to teach the art of selling.

Learning sales includes psychology, communication skills, rhetoric, an understanding of business, planning, emotional intelligence, time management and efficiency, oral argument, and problem solving. While there are pervasive methodologies, there isn’s one single way to sell something.

Similar to artists, great salespeople develop their own style after mastering the skill sets listed above.

Many career paths start out with entry level employees doing grunt work-like pouring over spreadsheets. Finance majors, young lawyers, and consultants often excel at this work. However, taking the next step on almost every career path requires sales skills.

If you’re five years into a career and ready to take the next step, but you’ve never learned sales, you’ve unknowingly put yourself at a disadvantage.

This “sales blind spot” that exists in higher education needs to be corrected so that business leaders are better equipped for the workforce.

Sam Moorhead is the Principal Inbound Marketing Specialist at Hubspot and is a sales instructor at Startup Institute Boston.

Will Eaton is the Director of Instructor Development at Startup Institute. They are currently accepting applications for the spring program which begins on March 3rd 2014.

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