If your product or service is easy to sell, or if you avoid selling to senior executives, you don’t need to read this blog. Save the time.
OK. Some of you are still with me, so consider this: in the 2010 Sales Risk Survey I conducted with CustomerThink in February, nearly 25 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “our salespeople lack the basic skills required to compete in our markets.” An astonishing finding that would be big news if it were hospitals and airlines self-assessing the competency of physicians and pilots. But the sales profession enjoys an advantage. Nobody dies when a salesperson screws up. We tacitly accept poor performance because the top 20% of sales achievers often cover the inefficiencies of the bottom 80.
Think about it: 25 percent of companies knowingly send salespeople into situations destined to fail! That’s horrible. But imagine what it’s like for a prospect when a significant proportion of salespeople are utterly ineffective at helping people buy. Add the costs, and it seems nutty to say “sales training just isn’t in our budget this year.”
Selling doesn’t favor the weak. Today’s revenue contributor (I’ll use salesperson from now on) is thrust into buying situations with decision makers, influencers, economic buyers, technology buyers, plain-old buyers, advocates, adversaries, VP’s, COO’s, CFO’s, CEO’s, CIO’s and CTO’s. Some brilliant. Some clueless. And everything in between. Online. Face-to-face. In “the community,” and around the world. The list goes on, but I’ll stop here because you get the point. Leading a sales engagement requires knowledge and know-how that almost eclipse the mere mortal. Today’s sales professional needs serious skills, including business, leadership, technical, interpersonal, communication, and last–but far from least–persuasive.
Do we understand which competencies salespeople need? More important, do we know how they can obtain them? Probably not—evidenced by all the hand wringing going on in discussions and in sales forums. For convenience, we shortcut the list of competencies with code-speak. We want “salespeople who can sell to C-level executives”, and salespeople who “understand how to sell strategically”. You know what I mean. But there’s a problem. You don’t. And I don’t. Because if we did, we’d be really, really, good at teaching what C-level selling and strategic selling require. And we’d be less insistent that salespeople get their skills elsewhere—on-the-job training, but on another company’s nickel.
I have an answer. Not a perfect one, but an answer: it’s called an MBA. Ironically, for salespeople, it’s largely ignored. Every sales recruiter I contacted before writing this blog shared that an MBA is almost never a candidate requirement. That’s a mistake, because many competencies we desperately seek are already taught in business schools every day around the world, and the resource is as close as our keyboard.
If you’re not familiar with what graduate business school offer today, it’s worth a look. (This list is copied from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration). As you read the list, identify any topics that are unimportant knowledge for your sales team.
Accounting for Managers provides terminology, frameworks and concepts with which to understand and analyze the financial consequences of business activities.
Business Ethics encourages students to think deeply about the nature of business, the responsibilities of management, and how business and ethics can be put together.
Decision Analysis presents a philosophy for framing, analyzing, and proactively managing decisions involving uncertainty, whether the uncertainty results from general conditions or the actions of competitors.
Financial Management and Policies focuses on corporate policy and the tactics that increase the value of the corporation, by stressing how managers interface with the capital markets to learn the return required by the firm’s different investors.
Global Economies and Markets applies the ideas and methodologies of economics to the analysis of the business environment in which firms operate and managers make decisions.
Leading Organizations helps students cultivate mindsets and develop practical tools to influence behavior in organizations.
Management Communication provides the guidance and hands-on experience that allow students to communicate more effectively as managers and leaders.
Marketing provides an introduction to consumer behavior and marketing analytics. Students confront difficult marketing issues faced by companies in the United States and abroad.
Operations Management conveys both the fundamentals of operations and the understanding that the link between operations and performance is a crucial source of competitive advantage.
Strategic Thinking and Action develops the student’s ability to analyze the organizational and external factors essential for crafting and executing a firm’s strategy for sustained success.
Did you see any trivial topics, or ones that are tangential to your sales mission? For the ones that are important (for some, this might be all of them), how many do your sales team really, really understand? Finally, which ones are you mentoring?
No sales training program I took (and there were many!) ever provided anything close to what an MBA curriculum provides. Frankly, there are only so many times you can teach a salesperson “best closing techniques,” before he or she becomes starved for insight that will accelerate a break from the pack.
Which is exactly what compelled me to earn a graduate degree management information technology in 2005—the best professional investment I have made (not coincidentally, the most time consuming and expensive). Only three out of eighty students in UVa’s MS/MIT class of 2005 had a sales background. That yielded the greatest benefit: when a salesperson is out of his “comfort zone,” he thinks differently. He begins to think like his customers and prospects, because he has to. Collaborative projects, case analyses, and classroom discussions offered a window into how my non-sales classmates view problems, and how they work to solve them. No sales training “role play” approaches that experience, and its value for a salesperson cannot be overstated.
If you’re a salesperson considering a graduate business degree, here are some questions to answer:
1. Do you enjoy learning and going to school? No matter what, you have to love the subject matter. If you’re in it just for the degree, any graduate program can become drudgery.
2. Is your primary motivation to become more valuable to your prospects and clients? Given the right program, you will. Whether that value translates into higher income or a promotion at your current company—or your next one—well, that’s less certain.
3. What is your learning style, and what are your timeframe and financial constraints? A great advantage of MBA programs today is the flexibility they offer, including full-time, part-time, online, and instructor-led. Each one has specific benefits. At the University of Virginia, my face-to-face program offered an experience that couldn’t be duplicated online. But that required getting to a classroom—something not everyone can do.
According to The Economist (Case Studies, May 8, 2010), “the business-education market has been booming for decades.” The magazine reported that between 2006 and 2007, US business schools awarded 150,211 MBA’s. I don’t know how many degrees went to salespeople, but there’s reciprocal opportunity. MBA curricula offer undeniable value to sales professionals and to those who support them. Likewise, MBA programs need to take a page out of their own marketing textbooks and capitalize on an opportunity. Graduate school deans should stop looking at salespeople as low-level worker bees in an enterprise. With Wall Street layoffs totaling 240,000 since 2007 (including many MBA’s), enticing sales professionals back to school could just create the next B-school cash cow.
Further reading: Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads by Datar, Garvin, and Cullen. Harvard Business Press.
Parlez Vous Business?–Building the Language of Business into the Sales Process by Janet E. Spirer, PhD, and Richard D. Ruff, PhD