The One Skill Every College Student Should Learn: Salesmanship
Even for graduates who never work in a sales field, learning the related skills can be a big career boost
Although it may be known by other names, “salesmanship” is a skill that all college graduates should master, and ideally, it should be learned while they’re still in school. It’s tempting to try to limit the importance of this trait to those who work in typical sales-based areas, such as advertising, insurance, and real estate, or to individuals who sell cars or work in retail. However, the ability to communicate effectively; understand what customers, bosses, and colleagues want; and build relationships based on trust are all critical skills necessary for success in any career.
The Changing Job Market
There are at least three reasons why many college graduates, at some point in their career, will work in a traditional sales position. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute reveals that students are graduating in a competitive job market resulting in unemployment and underemployment. In the past, they could turn to a non-degree job that paid good wages, such as an electrician or dental hygienist. However, the EPI reports that a shortage of those jobs has led to graduates accepting non-degree jobs of a lower-quality and at a lower wage than anticipated, such as a cashier or bartender.
At the same time, according to a Burning Glass report, the career options for those without a bachelor’s degree are limited, since companies are now demanding more education than previously required for several types of jobs, including some positions in sales. For example, 60% of wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives and those who supervise retail sales workers now need a bachelor’s degree. Incidentally, wholesale and manufacturing sales reps earn a median wage of $59,080, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In addition, the sheer demand for sales workers makes it likely that some college students will migrate to this field. According to data from Randstad’s 2016 Workplace Trends Report, sales and marketing professionals are among the top 5 most difficult positions to fill.
Even if college students never function in a sales position, they need to understand “the art of selling.” But this is not taught in most colleges and universities.
An interview is a Sales Pitch
William Boeger, managing director at Sanford Rose Associates-Madison executive search firm, tells GoodCall that college grads will need to understand the principles of salesmanship to get hired and advance throughout their career.
“Whether it’s getting someone to look at you for a specific role that you seek or closing an interview, it’s about standing out from the crowd and all the noise,” Boeger says. “Why are you different? What is it about you, or what you bring that will differentiate you from the others?”
Sales Transcends Every Industry and Sector
Most organizations sell a product or a service, and understanding the customer and how they make purchasing decisions is crucial to surviving and thriving.
GradStaff CEO Bob LaBombard tells GoodCall, “As an entrepreneur who has built two large businesses, I know how important it is to have people who can close new business – nothing happens in business until somebody sells something.”
LaBombard says that many of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have extensive sales experience and they understand that regardless of how great a product or service is, the company can’t succeed apart from sales.
“Every company needs a high-quality sales team to identify potential customers and explain how a product or service will help the prospect meet specific business objectives and provide tangible benefits that they will want to buy,” he says.
And this expertise isn’t limited to companies that sell cars, houses, clothes or legal services. Bill Corbett Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations, tells GoodCall that selling happens all of the time.
“In government work, departments and administrations have to sell ideas and budgets to see that projects are done; in the private sector, budgets for marketing, capital improvements and even raises for staff must be sold to management,” he says.
Colleges and Graduates Avoid Sales
If salesmanship is so important, why don’t colleges and universities offer instruction in this area? Many colleges do offer a very basic level of sales instruction, but they don’t use that terminology.
Greg Chambers, founder of the sales-and-marketing consultancy Chambers Pivot Industries, says, “There is a natural aversion to the word ‘sales’ or ‘selling’ in general, and that prevents colleges from offering such courses.”
However, he says that they do offer courses with such titles as “business writing,” “entrepreneurial skills,” or “business communication.”
Regardless of college major, Chambers believes that college students should have a level of “persuasion awareness,” and he says that he instructed his college-aged kids to read Robert Cialdini’s, “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.”
Students may need to take it upon themselves to learn these skills, or try to decipher their school’s course offerings to find these types of classes. Chambers doesn’t think colleges will embrace sales terminology anytime in the near future.
“My daughter was an English literature major in college, worked in marketing and will be going to graduate school to learn how to sell fine art – but even then, it’s called Art History and Economics,” Chambers says.
And since colleges don’t offer specific courses in sales and business development, GradStaff’s LaBombard says many qualified students and graduates are not aware of the many career opportunities in sales. As a result, grads may assume that these jobs don’t require a degree.
“Also, there is also the perception that sales is ‘shady’ or requires ‘aggressive’ techniques,” LaBombard says.
However, schools aren’t the only problem. LaBombard admits that employers also contribute to sales avoidance.
“By offering highly incentivized sales positions and or little or no training, they scare candidates away or produce quick turnovers, and for graduates with student loan debt, those 100% commission positions don’t work.”
How Students and Grads Can Develop Their Sales Skills
Students should take advantage of any college courses that may address consumer behavior, persuasion, business writing, and verbal and written communication. Students and graduates can also take advantage of organizations like Toastmasters that help build public speaking skills.
“Reading books, blogs and relevant articles, listening to podcasts, and attending events and seminars will advance these skills and support relationship development,” Corbett says, adding that it’s also important to develop video presentation and social media marketing skills.
Beyond the various concepts of selling, Corbett says students must also grasp the concepts behind persuasion.
“Understanding and practicing how to present ideas, defend an idea, win an argument and close a deal must be studied and learned in order to be successful in business,” he says.