Sales. The best career choice you’ll ever make

“About 85 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs have worked in sales at some point in their careers. Yet precious few students consider sales a good first career option. We want to change their perception of and attitude towards sales.” Professor Deva Rangarajan is the driving force behind our Sales Excellence Centre, one of the first research centres in Europe dedicated to the science of sales.

JPGSales still has a bad reputation, which it doesn’t deserve. The pushy, unscrupulous salesman with the gift of the gab is no more than a caricature. “Good salespeople are good listeners. They explain rather than tell and help customers make an informed choice. What’s more, they’re good with numbers.” Deva smiles: “You see there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a salesman. But it’s time to professionalise sales education.”

Hence the Sales Excellence Centre (SEC). Established in 2011, its activities can be broadly grouped into four areas, as Deva explains: “We do academic and applied research, provide education, facilitate networking and develop tools and programmes for executive training.”

Investigating best practices

“Our research aims to understand how to positively influence sales team performance and to encourage best practices. For example, what are the drivers of sales force effectiveness? This was a question to which one of our Prime Foundation Partners, Johnson Controls, was seeking an answer. Having interviewed 40 sales professionals, one of the conclusions was that there’s a need for qualified sales professionals and people with the right attitude towards sales.”

Another area of research stems from the fact that companies are increasingly realising that it’s more cost-effective to nurture their existing customers and turn them into key accounts than it is to acquire new ones. Deva: “Together with Prime Foundation Partner Real Dolmen, we’ve set out to investigate how to organise key account management, what competences and skills key account managers should have, and current best practices.”

And the Centre also undertakes many other research projects. Deva was recently granted a 2012 IBM Faculty Award for his work on the characteristics of successful salespeople selling complex products or projects, and on how to manage these people.

Vlerick Sales Club

JPG“We’re trying to incorporate sales into our curriculum and have created the Vlerick Sales Club along with nine sponsor companies to bring cutting-edge sales practices to our young students. We’re also working on integrating our research findings into our teaching programmes, so that our students can learn about best practices. Students with an appetite for sales are encouraged to join our Sales Club, an online community and blog on sales where students and alumni can exchange ideas. Throughout the academic year the club invites guest speakers from different companies and industries. These workshops are excellent opportunities to learn the tricks of the trade.”

Role-play competition

“To help students develop and improve their practical sales skills, we organise an annual role-play competition. Each year there’s a different product they have to try and sell. A panel of sales executives from different companies selects two winners to represent our School at the National Collegiate Sales Competition in Georgia, USA – the oldest and largest sales role-play competition in the world. Last year we took part for the first time and came third in the graduate competition. That’s quite impressive considering our students had had the least training. We were the only European business school represented there. There’s no equivalent competition in Europe. That’s why, together with five universities, we’ve used EU funding to set up a European sales competition.” Is the business community enthusiastic about our efforts? “I’d say so, yes. Last year, Unilever sponsored our sales competition and we’ve since attracted eight other sponsors.”

Sales Forum

Deva’s goal is to nurture a community of sales enthusiasts. The SEC website keeps this community informed and the Sales Club offers some opportunities for networking. But there’s more. “In November last year we organised our first Sales Forum, where we presented the results of our research into sales force effectiveness. This event brought together sales professionals, researchers and sales enthusiasts and was a great opportunity to share knowledge and experience. In February we plan to organise another one, this time jointly with Deloitte. We’ll be presenting research I haven’t mentioned yet, specifically on how the sales function should work with others within the organisation - for example procurement.”

In the pipeline

The Centre has come a long way in a short time, but Deva has a burning ambition and plenty more ideas. “Successful salespeople don’t work in isolation. They know how to interact with their colleagues in, say, finance, marketing, R&D or logistics. The plan is to develop a multidisciplinary training programme for sales managers in the near future, drawing on our research and experience in all these disciplines.”

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