In Conversation With: Rob Peterson

Increasingly, sales is more science than art. Ask large corporate recruiters what they want for salespeople and the answer is increasingly likely to be someone with experience, with relevant expertise, highly adaptable to change, comfortable with technology, and a high propensity to learn. “People skills” are expected, but no longer the best way to predict what bright young college student will be the next great salesperson.

At the same time, sales is building cachet. College students entering into sales roles, aren’t doing so because they can’t get a job in marketing. They are doing so because they want a career in sales. And, they are wise to be intrigued. In a recent poll of 900 salespeople, 90% said that they would recommend sales to a graduating college student.

In order to turn out more equipped and more sought after graduates, many universities have created sales-specific majors within business schools. Such programs produce graduates comfortable with technology, experience selling, experience using CRM systems, building and managing funnels and more.

In fact, the Sales Education Foundation (SEF) dedicated to promoting the benefits of university sales education;  shares that they find that “graduates of sales programs ramp-up 50% faster and experience 30% less turnover” than those with general business degrees.

Robert Peterson, the Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Sales at Northern Illinois University (NIU), has led two pioneering sales programs. Before earning his PhD and becoming a professor, a board member of the Sales Education Foundation and the editor of The Journal of Selling, Rob worked for several years as a salesperson, both inside and field sales, in the Washington, DC area and still carries the mindset of ‘a sales guy’  The practitioner mindset is particularly useful in Rob’s work with university students who are planning on making a career in sales.

NIU is one of about 50 universities affiliated with the University Sales Center Alliance (USCA). Founded in 2002, the Alliance’s stated mission is “to advance the selling profession through setting and monitoring sales program standards, sharing best practice, enhancing sales curricula, and preparing students for a career in sales.”

Any student attending a member school can earn a Certified Sales Student certificate, which is both a competitive differentiator for job-seeking graduates and an aid to hiring for employers.

For students, a window into the sales world is meeting with real employers. The sales program at NIU has many corporate sponsors, and these companies are invited in to role play with students to help them prepare to enter the work force. Rob notes that, “There is a huge need for qualified sales talent, and there is 100 percent job placement for students finishing the NIU program.”

Rob Peterson has observed that for individuals as for sales organizations, learning is a competitive advantage. “When people invest in a serial entrepreneur, they’re investing in the person; that person is going to pivot and change to meet marketplace demands. Now that model is no longer just being applied to startups; it’s being applied to everything, including salespeople. Now the thinking is: We need our salespeople to not just learn the product, but to be able to continuously evolve and change.” He carries this need for agility into his curricula through a range of activities even including use of improvisational techniques within business conversations. He’s a student at Second City himself.

But Dr. Peterson’s work is not just for college students; he strives to advance sales in the broader marketplace as well. A good example of that is Journal of Selling, where Rob has been the editor for six years. “In addition to the academic side, there are application articles that are highly pertinent to the street,” he says. “In the academic articles, we always have a section on managerial relevance, but the whole point of application articles is market consequence for the reader.”  He is also partnering with CSO Insights to help bring more instruction on sales enablement onto the radar screen of the sales academic community.

Check out Journal of Selling here.

Related Blogs:

Sales as a Profession (SaaP)

In Conversation With: Michael Ahearne (Part 1)

In Conversation With: Michael Ahearne (Part 2)


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