Down a hallway and through a glass door, a group of salespeople gather around a sleek, conference room table for morning meeting. Cheerful banter flies back and forth in the stylish space as each member parks an insulated tumbler of morning eye-opener and spreads out a clutch of files and reports. As the leader calls the meeting to order and asks each person to report sales progress over the previous few days, a palpable sense of focus enters the room.
This could be any conference room in Arkansas — or in America — but this particular group of salespeople is made up of students at the R.M. "Bob" Wood Sales Leadership Center on the campus of Arkansas State University. Each is pursuing a degree in sales leadership and each is a pioneer of sorts — this spring, 20 will graduate as the center's first class.
"No matter what you’re going to do, what your career path is, sales is a vital skill," said Katie Hill, the center's director and assistant professor of marketing within Arkansas State's College of Business. "At the very least, you’re going to have to sell your ideas to your boss. You’re going to have to sell yourself in an interview for that dream job that you want. So that’s really been the mission behind us creating the sales center."
Programs like the Wood Sales Leadership Center are relatively rare in higher education said Hill, despite the fact companies are clamoring to hire skilled salespeople in any industry you can name. Even where such programs exist, they are often limited to business majors, with higher level study reserved for those specifically headed for sales careers.
Arkansas State's structure and philosophy are different. Students majoring in marketing have the option to choose an emphasis in sales leadership, but students from any academic discipline can enroll and earn a sales minor. The wider inclusiveness reinforces the message that sales isn't just for those who live by commission, but is a version of communication critical in all areas of personal and professional life.
"Sales is fundamentally human. We’re always selling," Hill said. "It's really understanding how do I talk to somebody, how do I transfer my ideas so that somebody will understand, so they’ll buy into them. It’s selling a concept, it’s not just about that product.
"There’s still students on our campus, even within our college, that don’t know we have a sales leadership center or think, 'Sales? I don’t want to be in sales.' We’re trying to change that mentality. This isn’t about getting you ready for a sales job. This is about teaching you those transferable, soft skills that will allow you to build relationships with future clients, to uncover the needs that people have."
Students' coursework features a comprehensive sequence of sales and sales management classes emphasizing consultative and relationship selling processes. Included are different levels of professional selling, sales management, organizational purchasing and category management.
"They go through a negotiating class, it’s an organizational purchasing class, so they spend time on the buyer side, understanding what it’s like," Hill said.
"In advanced sales, they work on a bigger project where they take on the entire sales role from coming in with their territory, prospecting, cold calling, setting appointments. They're going through the entire process, all the way to getting a contract signed and invoicing the customer."
Classes are highly collaborative and participatory to better reinforce concepts and simulate conditions in the real world. Projects are part of each course and range from helping the university improve recruiting to working directly with local businesses and nonprofits.
"When you’re in the class you have like a mini-internship, selling," said Hill, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi and has a background in banking, specifically branch management and business development.
"There are no exams. Students have to prospect, they have to log everything, they have goals that they have to reach and if they don’t, that’s where their grade is affected. They have weekly sales meetings with me, all structured around that concept.
"The majority of my students say this has been the most valuable thing that they’ve learned since they’ve been here, because it’s so real life."
Shane Hunt, the R.M. "Bob" Wood endowed professor in sales leadership and professor of Marketing, agrees.
"I am so excited about the growth of the Wood Sales Leadership Center and the incredible opportunities it provides for our students," Hunt said. "Every organization in this region is looking for talented and well prepared young salespeople and our program is meeting that need with a hands-on curriculum that allows A-State students to hit the ground running and add value to their employers day one.”