Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar has said salespeople must commit to a lifetime of learning. If that's true, then the 33 students who participated in the second annual sales competition at MIT's Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last November appeared eager to begin that journey. Sweaty-palmed but confident, they auditioned their smoothest closes before a panel of judges from the real world who cheerfully put the rookies through the wringer.
In the day's first challenge, students assumed the role of an American Express sales director pitching the merits of accepting Amex cards to the skeptical founder of a large furniture store in Phoenix. David Spector, an account executive at Google, played the role of CEO in one of the sessions. He easily deflected the arguments made by Alaa Oumansour, an M.B.A. candidate at the London School of Business. Oumansour opened well, scoring points about Amex's marketing programs, the allure of loyalty rewards, and cardholders' fat bank accounts. But he spoke fast, leaned far forward, and gesticulated forcefully, clearly alienating the faux founder. Halfway through, Oumansour made a fatal blunder.
Oumansour: "We have 80 percent of our cardholders enrolled in loyalty programs. I use them myself. I bought my car using a credit card. I pay my tuition fees using a credit card."
Spector: "You can't buy a car on a credit card."
Oumansour: "I didn't buy it in this country."
Spector: "In the Southwest, there's no car company that's going to take a credit card, because they're not going to pay 2 percent. That's a lot of money on a $40,000 car. The same argument goes for furniture."
The timer sounded, and Spector launched into a review of the pitch. Among his criticisms: Oumansour lost sight of the goal, which should have been to land a second meeting. He made the value proposition needlessly complicated. And the student showed insufficient deference to the CEO, who took justifiable pride in his industry knowledge. "The life of a small-business owner is, Everybody and their mother wants to sell you stuff," Spector explained. "I look at you as someone who is trying to waste my time. You want to make it really clear that you have a lot of respect for the fact that I know everything, and that I have given you 15 minutes."
Spector said Oumansour's mistakes were typical of new salespeople, who often spend too much time reciting prepared arguments and not enough time eliciting customer concerns. Those bad habits persist in part because few business schools teach the fundamentals of sales. (And no, marketing is not the same thing.) That's why Spector started a sales club three years ago, when he was a student at Sloan. "It was shocking that in an environment that teaches the core principles of being a successful businessperson, there are no courses on the most fundamental skill," said Spector. "No one gives sales the respect it deserves."
The MIT club aims to foster that respect at home and to expand it abroad by encouraging other universities to launch sales clubs. Its boosters talk about a day when companies can hire M.B.A.'s with sales specializations from top schools. "Sales, like anything else, can be taught," said Jeff Hoffman, a judge at the competition and co-founder of Basho Technologies, a software company in Cambridge. "Sales can be scaled. Sales can be replicated. It's not just randomness that makes organizations successful when it comes to selling."
Despite beginners' errors, the caliber of contestants -— from Harvard, Kellogg, Sloan, Tuck, Wharton, and the rest of the usual suspects -— was generally impressive, and A-players were out in force. Larry Singer, a vice president at HP and another judge, enthused about a Stanford student from one of his sessions. "She established rapport," he said. "I got up and went to the whiteboard, and she got up and came with me. She paid attention to how I like to communicate, and then she communicated the same way. Her pitch wasn't based on data; it was based on logic and reason. She promised to deliver additional data at a follow-up meeting. She was absolutely brilliant!"
Other judges hailed from American Express, Google, Microsoft, and Novell, and some were unabashedly scouting talent. But students didn't seem to have much interest in the corporate cattle call. A person listening to conversations in the halls and chatting with contestants as they practiced their pitches would find it hard not to be struck by their intensity, their enthusiasm, their lip-smacking relish of the challenge. These students weren't just giving sales the respect it deserves. They were giving it love.
The afternoon matchup required teams of three students, portraying leaders of a start-up, to pitch a software add-on to three judges acting as executives from Google. A student named Ryan Orton, representing Columbia Business School, was relentless. Setting his sights on the prospect's CTO, played by Hoffman, Orton latched on and refused to release. "One thing I'd like to schedule a meeting with you about specifically, Steve, is the budgetary concerns and the pricing," said Orton. "I'll bring the CFO to that. Do you have time Tuesday, Steve?"
Later, as the team sat around a table littered with miniature-candy-bar wrappers and empty soda cans, the judges delivered a generally positive verdict. Still, Orton berated himself for bungling several openings. "When you asked to see our financials, I wish I'd come back with: 'Sure, if you'll sign a contract,' " Orton reflected. " 'Ink this deal right now."
Hoffman assured him such a request would have been premature. But Orton was not wholly mollified. "If you're going to ask from me," he said, "I'm going to ask from you."
Spoken like a pro.