By Doug Quackenbos
As faculty, we talk a lot about bringing experiential learning into the business-school classroom – and for many good reasons. There is no true substitute for real-world learning. But finding and bringing meaningful opportunities to a sales-oriented course can be a unique challenge.
Just as students are beginning to understand and master fundamental marketing concepts, we are asking them to apply what they’ve learned to the world of sales. All of this comes at a time when they also have multiple courses and, ideally, a vibrant university social life, creating a somewhat limited time resource. In a similar way, a company seeking student involvement on a project often does not have bandwidth to train students, and has to rely on the instructor’s guidance to make things work. By working with Moore School’s Executive Education department, we’ve teamed up to create a win-win scenario.
Marketing 446: “Sales Automation and Customer Management” is a sales-oriented, upper-level marketing elective focused primarily on the roles of SDRs (Sales Development Rep) as they carry demand generation and lead development tasks within a sales process. In this class, students learn the theory and principles of modern marketing and sales, and then apply them to a real-life client, the Moore School’s Executive Education department. DMSB Exec Ed itself straddles two worlds – it’s based in academia, but is also a business that helps executives perform better in their jobs.
And like any business, ExecEd has to reach customers to survive. The students in this course help map out and prescribe how to do that.
For anyone trying to reach out to customers today, the game is entirely different from what existed within recent memory.
The modern sales process can be better likened to a manufacturing facility, where there is division of labor and task specialization, than to what many typically might remember or imagine. Historically, sales reps would be responsible for prospecting their own potential customers while simultaneously serving an existing and growing customer base. Just as in the factory environment, we’ve learned that some tasks can be done more efficiently – and at lower cost – by less-skilled collaborators. In the case of sales, this aspect translates to having lower-cost team members do outbound prospecting (i.e., seeking and contacting potential customers), thereby freeing up important time for the seasoned account reps to focus on higher-value meaningful sales conversations.
Developing a sales process is complicated. But by having a real client involved – ExecEd -we help the students stay focused and, perhaps most importantly, make them accountable for a viable plan.
The assignment – which counts for 40 percent of students’ course grade – is to function as a team of consultants developing a sales process for programs offered by ExecEd. The class of 20 to 30 students is divided into several teams of three or four each. They focus in particular on such ExecEd programs as the Certificate in Leadership Excellence, Diversity and Inclusion, and Enterprise Resource Planning with SAP® TS410 Certification. The class meets with the leadership team at ExecEd, and develops industry-specific, customized emails and LinkedIn messages, phone call and voicemail scripts for use with prospects. Students also stipulate both the number of contacts and number of times they’d recommend contacting a prospect for optimal success. Thinking the outbound sales prospecting process through at this level of granularity prepares the student particularly well for the interviews that will hopefully come as they head toward graduation.
Sales development roles remain one of the single greatest entry-level opportunities that marketing majors encounter. And, it’s no wonder. Few jobs prepare a new hire as well as the SDR role does to understand a company’s value proposition and customer base.
The opportunity to work with an inside (yet external) customer is an especially enriching one. Furthermore, the “student sales development reps” get to interact with a real-world account executive, Program Manager Jamal Davis at ExecEd.
As for the sales results of the course? Well, we can’t measure them in classic sales metrics. There’s a limit to what you can expect nonemployees to do. For the students, the deliverable is: “here are 15 to 20 real prospects, and here’s an outbound prospecting plan for contacting and nurturing these potential leads.”
The students also get to present the plan to the Exec leadership in a semi-competitive, team format – much like the real world they’ll encounter should they end up in a sales and marketing role.
An end-of-course reflective essay has shown student feedback to be overwhelmingly positive. They know they’re getting valuable, real-world experience they can put on their resumes. For some students, their new understanding of the sales process is exciting and leads them to consider seeking a career in sales. For others, it’s the contrary. They now know a lot more about what is expected in an entry-level sales role, and that it may not be for them. In either case, it’s a win for the student. One common theme found among the comments is the surprise as to just how hard sales process design can be. That’s not as much of a surprise to us, because it is!
DMSB Exec Ed has been an outstanding project partner. They meet with the class as needed, patiently attending to student questions as they climb the learning curve. By the end of the course however, the client – Executive Education – has also expressed a high level of satisfaction from this collaboration. It’s given them a chance to think deeply about which markets and customers to target, how to best structure the sales function, as well as valuable information that can be acted upon immediately. It’s been a real-world win-win!
Douglas Quackenbos is a lecturer in the Department of Marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business, where he teaches B2B marketing, strategy, sales and global marketing to upper-level undergraduate and MBA students. Before joining the university in 2016, he had a 27-year corporate career – including more than a decade of international assignments in Europe and Latin America – leading multinational organizations in global business development initiatives.