Do Sales Professionals Need a College Education?

When I recently asked a group of marketing and sales executives a related question on LinkedIn, “Do you require a college degree as a minimum credential for new sales hires,” I expected many would find the question rhetorical. Many did—but not in the way I imagined.

“I place zero value on a college degree,” one person commented.

Others agreed:

“There are many successful business men never graduated from a college.” [sic]

“Many of the world’s most brilliant people don’t have degrees, and many would argue they are a disadvantage.”

“I actually think it takes more character for a young adult to not go to college.”

“I know great sales reps in my industry without collage degree and I know some not so good sales reps with MBA from renowned business school.” [sic]

“Do you want people who can sell, or those who can spell?”

Yikes! We’re on a crash course. According to SellingPower, “selling has become more complex by the day.” Who would argue? So how do we reconcile that assertion to the common theme in these messages, that for sales professionals, a college education matters little, if at all. The ideas aren’t diametrically opposed, but the arrows surely aren’t pointing in the same direction.

Outside of the sales profession, opinions about the value of higher education are trending differently. “In the past five years, there’s been a 175% jump in the number of online job ads looking for dental lab technicians with a bachelor’s degree,” according to a news story that aired on NPR (Employers Increasingly Look for Bachelor’s Degrees, December 4th, 2012). I contacted the company that provided that statistic, Boston-based BurningGlass, but the company did not have data about the sales profession. Still, this is an odd phenomenon. For lab techs, why does a college degree have increasing importance, but it appears not to be valuable for professional salespeople?

You might be thinking we could go for the next forty years debating exactly what value a college education does provide. I agree. One reason why Natalie Warne, founder of UnCollege, said “experience has proved a far better teacher in my life than any book, classroom, or educator.” And we all know a student or two who partied their way through school and learned nothing.

Recent skepticism about higher education has spawned new books, including Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful, by Michael Ellsberg. Mr. Ellsberg is among a growing group of “academic dissenters who have made it fashionable to question the value of a college degree,” according to The New York Times (The Old College Try? No Way, December 2, 2012). Among them, James Altucher, a hedge fund manager who regrets making the investment to graduate from Cornell. “I think kids with a five-year head start on equally ambitious peers [who went to college] will be ahead in both education and income,” he said. “They could go to a library, read a book a day, take courses online. There are thousands of ways.” And venture fund investor Peter Thiel offers college-aged students $100,000 to fund their business ideas–on the condition they drop out of college first. Of course.

Plenty of grist for the who-needs-college mill. The numbers point to a similar conclusion. An NPR story (Study Reveals Skills Gap Between Education and Jobs, December 5, 2012) reports that a new study from McKinsey & Company “finds a profound disconnect between educators, employers, and would-be employees. The study of nine countries (the US, UK, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) finds that nearly three quarters (72 percent) of educators believe their graduates are ready for the job market. Only 42 percent of employers and only 45 percent of young people think so. Meanwhile, fewer than half of employers say they can find the skilled employees they need, and 75 percent report this is a drag on their business.”

But framing this debate around whether salespeople need college degrees misses a much better one: do sales professionals bring the the right combination of knowledge and skills to an environment that is increasingly complex–technologically, economically, politically, socially, and culturally? And that’s why we’re on a crash course. As a profession, we’re stuck lionizing stereotypical sales characteristics, and passing them off as competencies—the “right stuff” to bring to the job. Street smarts. Resilience. Tenacity. Aggressiveness. Outgoing personality. Money-motivation. Great to have! But all of which create incredible friction when a salesperson is chronically under-informed, or worse, dumb as a stone. As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote in a recent editorial (How About a Bar Exam for Teachers, The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2012), “We must do away with the common rite of passage whereby new teachers are thrown into [situations], expected to figure things out, and left to see if they sink or swim . . . And when they struggle, the response is too often the threat of termination, not an offer of assistance.” Substitute salespeople for teachers in the first sentence, and I see many people nodding in agreement. Been there, done that. And the fly-by product training my company provided didn’t help. But my college coursework did—somewhat. And that’s where I depart with much of the vitriol denigrating higher education, and questioning its value for salespeople.

So I propose a more challenging debate—and hopefully, one that will be more fruitful—built around these questions: 1) what are enterprises asking sales professionals to do, 2) what knowledge and skills must they bring to the job on the first day of work, and 3) what are the best ways to develop professional sales talent, and how does a formal education contribute to that effort? I’ll submit that it’s a simplification to label the answers Bachelor of Arts, or Master of Business Administration. But I have no doubt that what these programs teach–critical thinking, persuasive writing, analytical thought, and sustained intellectual curiosity–are essential skills for all sales professionals. Companies don’t have the time or patience to mentor these skills, and sales training companies don’t know how to teach them.

Like other professions, we must engage in self-examination to figure out how to improve ourselves, and the sales profession as a whole. That includes thinking about academic preparation and professional credentials. In the coming weeks and months, we will see an explosion of new professional development offerings and models. We can’t afford to be dismissive of any of them. From traditional university programs for business education that have been expanded to meet the growing needs of liberal arts undergraduates, to focused programs, such as DePaul’s Sales Leadership Center, which provides an undergraduate degree in professional selling. “Colleges are now ramping up dozens of sales-oriented business classes, many of which are producing exceptional graduates who ramp up 50 percent faster than the average candidate, and are 35 percent less likely to leave their employer,” Geoffrey James wrote in an article, The Future of Selling (Inc., November 13, 2012).

And if you don’t know about MOOC’s, Massive Open Online Courses, you will soon. College course offerings from Coursera and Ed-X will make content from leading universities accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime—most at no cost. Sales professionals can take classes in corporate strategy and quantitative analysis for decision makers. Traditional sales training providers will have to compete with these programs by offering a wider breadth of knowledge, and more varied channels for delivering it. So look for more online delivery, and hybrid programs that include strategic business knowledge as well as tactical content.

Old-world approaches, like apprenticeships, are being dusted off and re-examined. The model has strong potential for the sales profession. Robert Lehrman of the Urban Institute points out that compared to university academic programs, apprenticeships develop deeper skills, and make it possible to apply classroom learning directly into the job, rather than waiting until after graduation to remember what was relevant. He says that a key value apprenticeships provide is “learning how to learn.” A missing sales competency we bemoan when we say “salespeople just don’t know how to listen.”

But raising low educational barriers comes at a cost. The sales profession is one of the more democratized. Unlike law or medicine, it’s possible for a salesperson with a high school education to earn as much, or more, than one with an advanced degree. A sales representative who graduated from a two-year community college program can be a more valuable team member than an ivy grad. As a profession, that’s something to be proud of. Is anyone willing to give that up? We need to consider the trade-offs before we raise the costs for gaining the credentials—however they might be defined.

Do sales professionals need a college education? Like all deep and philosophical questions, the correct answer is “it depends.” Dave Stein and others have discussed what they think salespeople need to know. That’s part of the picture, but the career-path piece is naggingly missing. Many CXO’s were promoted into their positions after experience in finance, accounting, engineering, operations, even marketing—but not sales. American industry could benefit from more Ginni Rometty’s at the helm. Maybe not enough sales professionals have the right strategy qualifications and cross-functional knowledge—those, and a college degree.

Further reading:
Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable? The New York Times, December 9, 2012

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