Sealing the deal

Students learn how to rise above in business at MSU Denver's Center for Professional Selling.

By Roger Fillion

Publish Date: February 18, 2015


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Are the best salespeople born or made? Some people say born. But MSU Denver’s resident marketing expert Scott Sherwood begs to differ.

“We believe it’s science,” Sherwood said. And he knows more than a thing or two about sales, having spent a 35-year career selling everything from transistors to microchips. Sherwood is director of MSU Denver’s new Center for Professional Selling — the first in Colorado — which offers an innovative sales education curriculum for both business and non-business students.

It’s the only sales program in Colorado that is a member of the national University Sales Center Alliance — and one of only about three dozen in the nation that belong to the consortium. “While sales programs at universities have more than doubled in recent years, MSU Denver remains the only one of its kind in Colorado and the region,” said Sherwood.

Why a sales center — or sales classes at all?  More than half of all college graduates land their first job in sales, according to the Sales Education Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to “elevate the sales profession through university education.” And, according to the foundation, sales-education programs report that 92 percent of their graduates (even those with only a minor or significant course work) have secured employment within three months of graduation, compared to the national average of 51 percent.

“Formal sales education can provide students with the knowledge and skills they need for professional success,” said Sherwood.

A 2014 study from the Florida State University Sales Institute found that salespeople hired from college sales programs significantly outperformed other newly hired sales reps. It also found they stick with an employer longer, deliver more effective sales presentations and do a better job of forging personal ties with customers.

The number of universities with sales centers has quadrupled over the past dozen years. When it was founded in 2002, the University Sales Center Alliance had nine members. As of December 2014, the consortium counted 38, including MSU Denver.

“Perhaps the strongest argument for increasing the number of sales education programs is that our economy is suffering in the absence of them,” four faculty members from the DePaul University Marketing Department wrote in a 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review.

“In regions desperate for jobs, good sales positions go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants,” they wrote. “Many more jobs are filled by people who are unprepared to excel at them.”

So what does MSU Denver’s Center for Professional Selling offer students? The center, housed in the College of Business, provides a unified curriculum and faculty members who are focused on different aspects of salesmanship — unlike sales programs at other universities that offer sales classes but not a comprehensive sales curriculum. The MSU Denver sales center also operates a lab where students conduct mock sales presentations and are videoed. They then review their performances with a faculty member.

“We go through the overall sales process,” said April Schofield, a lecturer in the Marketing Department and a member of the sales center faculty. Students sell actual products and services as part of the curriculum.

“We prepare students for success on the job,” Schofield added.

The center’s focus is on business-to-business, or B2B, sales. Personal, face-to-face selling is considered important in B2B sales, given the complexity of the products and the hefty price tags attached to big purchases.

And what does it take to be a good salesperson? “The ability to listen to someone makes all the difference in the world,” Sherwood said. “You have to be able to ask good questions.” Sherwood added it’s important for a salesperson to understand the needs of the customer. That means doing research about the company beforehand. 

At MSU Denver, anywhere from 10-20 students are enrolled in advanced selling classes each semester. “Almost all end up in sales for their first job,” Sherwood said.

The origins of the Center for Professional Selling date back about seven years. “I was teaching a personal sales class and trying to find out more information on current best practices,” Sherwood said. He began to research the topic and saw other universities offering sales centers. The idea for the MSU Denver center was born.

Alumna Jessica Rose (B.S. marketing ’13) knows firsthand the importance of a sales education. Rose earned a sales certificate and, prior to graduation, landed a job with Fastenal Co., a provider of industrial and construction products. Rose works for the Winona, Minnesota-based company in the south metro Denver area, selling local companies a range of products, from nuts and bolts to hard hats and chemicals.

“I knew the MSU Denver sales program would help me,” Rose recalled, crediting it with her success to date. “It was a way to give me a leg up on others who have similar resumes.”

Among other things, Rose learned the importance of a good handshake — “When someone gives you a not-very-good handshake, you remember that” — and the value of making a “gatekeeper” happy. “When you walk in and are rude to the office assistant, they may or may not give you an appointment,” Rose said.

Rose was promoted to general manager of her sales territory not long after graduating from MSU Denver. She oversees a sales team, including interns from the University. And she said she uses her sales training to motivate fellow employees.

Moreover, Rose met her prospective employer while at MSU Denver. Fastenal is one of about a half dozen companies partnered with the Center for Professional Selling. Executives from these companies come to the classroom and offer advice on resumes, interviews, sales internships and career opportunities. The companies, in return, get an inside track to recruit students who’ve learned sales techniques and skills.

“I was exposed to Fastenal and given an opportunity,” Rose said. And she’s equally grateful for the education she received at MSU Denver.

“If I ever make a lot of money, I will very quickly donate it to Metro State,” she said. “It’s a very cool school and I feel fortunate I attended."