Making the Pitch
An alumnus’s idea for a sales workshop becomes a collaboration of Business Badgers
Cameron Rowe (BBA ’18) never planned to take a sales job or to learn what one might entail. Between an internship and a job lined up after graduation, he’d been steering his education to stay on track for the finance career he planned all along.
Then, it occurred to him that maybe there was one necessary skill he lacked as he was about to head into the work world: sales.
“I realized the jobs I was pursuing were client-facing,” Rowe says. “And in general it’s good to know how to convey a message to management. You’re selling an idea to people—what you’re selling is yourself.”
Rowe gained those skills through a sales workshop held at the Wisconsin School of Business last fall. Students in a variety of majors dived in to learn sales tactics, as well as communication and negotiation skills.
“People traditionally think of sales as a low-end job but when you look at leaders—think of politicians, think of CEOs, think of the chancellor—their job is really about selling,” says Noah Lim, professor of marketing and the John P. Morgridge Distinguished Chair in Business, who organized the workshop with Kevin Chung, an assistant professor of marketing. “If you are in a leadership role you have to communicate value and you have to communicate strategy—and that’s selling.”
A head start for students
The interactive workshop was proposed and generously sponsored by Dan Sobic (BBA ’77), who also participated. It brought together all elements of the Business Badger network—alumni, faculty, students, and WSB’s educational innovation team.
“Sales is an extremely important skill set in business globally,” says Sobic, who retired as executive vice president of PACCAR Inc., in 2016. “Even engineering, finance, and marketing jobs are sales. A lot of companies hire from the university and I thought this workshop would help give the students a head start in a very competitive world.”
Sobic was not just a sponsor of the workshop, he helped shape its curriculum, Lim said. Sobic’s lessons to students went beyond sales tips—he told them about honesty and authenticity, about learning from other cultures, and the importance of taking care of themselves when they have a demanding schedule.
“He gave a keynote speech, he coached the students, he shared his experience,” Lim says. “He asked the students what they wanted to hear—he’s a good sales guy, right? He developed a keen sense of what would benefit the students.”
Much more than sales
The workshop was a commitment on the part of the students, too, with challenging role-playing exercises and peer critiques.
“When I saw this workshop, I thought it looked fun and I knew it would put me outside my comfort zone,” said Allee Peterson (BBA ’18). “I thought it was going to be sales-focused but this was about creating personal connections and building relationships, not about a hard sell.”
Students took on sales roles with tough clients—roles played by industry partners, many of them alumni and/or recruiters for their companies. Students met the “client,” negotiated with them, and then closed the sale. The “clients” were instructed to be tough on the students, to make a few demands, and even be stubborn if they had to be.
“This had to be interactive,” Lim says. “The only way you can learn is by doing. You have to make mistakes.”
In the three-part “transaction,” students played the role of a hotel’s sales agent. Their customer, played by the industry partner, was looking to reserve meeting space. They negotiated details from room size to food to WiFi access.
“The industry people were tough but they didn’t make it too tough on the students,” says Peterson, who wants to go into a sales-related field after she graduates as a marketing major.
— Noah Lim
Professor of marketing and the John P. Morgridge Distinguished Chair in Business
Feedback from professionals
The industry partners provided immediate feedback—what students did well, what they could do better, what approaches they could take to work through roadblocks. Other students learned from that feedback, too.
The students’ biggest eye-opener was watching themselves. The sessions were recorded, then viewed together at the end of the workshop. Students received a copy of the video so they could watch and learn some more.
“People don’t like to view their own videos but it’s important to do,” Lim says. “If you can just cut out three things you should not be doing you can be so much more effective. Maybe you nod too much. Maybe you have mannerisms you’re not aware of.”
Peterson discovered that she says “um” too much, something that wasn’t part of her feedback but she noticed on her own.
“I was playing it back in my room laughing at myself and my roommate saw it,” she says. “She’s a journalism major and said, ‘We need that.’”
The workshop will be offered annually. Details will be tweaked as it moves forward, Lim says, but its impact will only grow.
“This is a great example of our alumni, our industry partners, a donor, faculty, students, and staff coming together to create something that really benefits our students,” he says. “It’s everyone working together, and it’s hard to find a better example of it.”