[GUEST COLUMN] Howard Stevens
Sales and Academia: Preparing
Distribution Sales Pros for the Future
For decades, sales and academia remained worlds apart. Many salespeople lacked a formal education, and did not see the need for one, nor did their employers. In turn, the academic
community, even business schools, saw selling as a trade or vocation.
So, the training of wholesale distribution salespeople has largely occurred outside academia. Few colleges or universities offered
courses on selling or sought enrollments from salespeople, except
for those looking to get out of sales into a management role.
The gulf between sales and academia, however, is shrinking.
Sales pros realize that they need deeper and broader business
knowledge to add value to their customer relationships. And,
pressures on academia to make their business programs more
practical are driving them to include sales training and sales management in the curricula.
The concept of a dedicated salesperson – and selling as a separate function that requires specialized training or education – is
new. Originally, selling and the role of the wholesale distribution
salesperson were akin to service work. Selling was seen, and
trained, as a set of behaviors that could be instilled in anyone
motivated to learn the craft. Salespeople were told (even scripted)
what to say, how to dress, what expression to wear, how to move
their hands, and how to hold a pen when handing it to a customer to sign on the dotted line.
The notion that selling behavior is standardized has remained a
potent paradigm. Even today, we tend to view selling as a low-lev-
el function. Some sales training courses, internal and external,
still include selling scripts and other artifacts from earlier decades.
Academia has echoed the attitude of business towards selling,
tending to view it as something that’s vocational (not a profession
appropriate for college courses, or worthy of research).
Over the past century, sales has evolved from a trade to a technology to a profession. Traditionally, salespeople were the point
of contact and purveyors of information. They carried information
to the customer, did some selling, and then carried the order back.
Sometimes the rep would ensure that the order was fulfilled and
serviced correctly. But they mainly made the sale and moved on.
Today, wholesale distribution sales pros are asked to create solutions and manage the delivery. So, the selling function has been
transformed from just a people-oriented job into a business-ori-ented job with strong associated people skills — like the ability to
maintain long-term business relationships.
Wholesaler-distributor sales pros are expected to become trusted advisors, consultants, and outsourced managers who can work
with customers to improve the customer’s business. In this collaborative environment, selling means cultivating and maintaining a
business partnership rather than simply selling a big-ticket item.
Demands on Sales Training
Customers expect salespeople to manage the relationship, under-