Why Don't Universities Teach Sales?

They teach everything else.  Why, in business alone, you can get a masters or PhD in marketing (sales’ evil cousin), finance, human resources and entrepreneurship (which isn’t even a business function, but rather a business practice).  In fact, for every head of a business function in a company (VP of whatever), there is a graduate degree that person can get specific to their function…except sales.

Not having formal academic training in sales opens up so many problems and inefficiencies.  For example, in hiring an young employee you have no trusted third party indicators of capability…I can say with reasonable confidence that a young computer science graduate from MIT could be a talented programmer but how to assess the skills of a young candidate for a sales position?  But more importantly, sales has become a discipline that is a compendium of anecdotes and wive’s tales.  Go look at the “sales” shelves in a book store to see the latest batch of snake oil.  My favorite, is when a sales candidate talks about her “Rolodex” as a reason to be hired (imagine a programmer saying they have “lots of code”).

On the other hand, what little academic work on sales that is out there, is amazing, like Mark Leslie’s .  Wouldn’t it be great if there was research that used real data on the expected sales cycle, deal size and other parameters in various industries?  Wouln’t you want to have a framework for predicting deal close rate?  I’m not suggesting that sales is a pure science anymore than, say, finance is.  Go ask a stock picker at Goldman how much of her work is science a la Black Scholes options pricing model versus predicting the “mood” of the market (or getting inside information, as the case may be).  And even if it were a pure art, surely we could teach it the same way we teach psychology.

I’ve asked this question of why sales isn’t taught in academia and the most frequent answers I get are:

  1. It’s an art, not a science. I think this is just bunk for the reasons I mentioned above.  First of all, it’s not and second even if it were it could still be taught.
  2. Marketing people don’t like sales. This theory goes that marketing professors at universities are protecting their turf by snuffing out any chance of up and coming PhDs studing sales.  I just don’t think professors all across academia have this kind of pull.
  3. There is no money in it.  The idea here is that universities will build programs around anything donors and sponsors will fund and that somehow there’s no money in sales.  There are thousands of endowed chairs to study things like sports in daily life in ancient Rome (I actually took that class as an undergrad at U-Michigan).  And I can’t believe that large companies wouldn’t put up serious money to fund research into better sales practices.

All of the above may have some impact, but my theory on the root cause is that there is a selection bias that draws people who are good/passionate about sales into….sales. And further, that those who would go on to be professors take a different track.  Today, sales is learned using the time-honored master-apprentice model and it usually takes 10 years for an apprentice to “graduate” and learn the trade.  At that point, they have another 10-15 years to “make hay” after which they’re so out of tune with the academic world that they have no interest in trying to use the case method or lecture method to teach sales (plus they’re fond of the apprentice model and probably are taking on one or more of their own).  Similarly, someone who’s gotten their undergrad, then immediately entered into a masters/PhD program is unlikely to be aware of sales and even if they are it’s foreign.  Their advisors are probably unfamiliar with sales so there’s really no way for them to get a sponsored project. And alas, there we are…no one to teach sales in academia.

So what’s the solution? Entrepreneurship.  I think that enterpreneurship programs are just the departments to foster the study of sales…plant the seeds for using a scientific approach to studying and learning sales that could ultimately spin-out as a major discipline on it’s own.  Every professor that teaches enterpreneurship knows the importance of sales (the theory and practice) as it applies to new ventures.  What’s more, there are really passionate, successful enterpreneurs who could break the cycle mentioned about on how to fund/staff a sales department at a university.  So here’s my call to action.  I think one or more enterpreneurs who came up through sales should step up and organize a lecture series on sales via an enterpreneurship program at Harvard, Stanford or some other school of similar stature.  Let’s use this as a springboard to bring sales into the academic fold.

Or perhaps Adeo at the Founder Institute will just do it outside the system!