Why is the most important entrepreneurial skill seldom taught?

Globally, little evidence exists that business start-up and survival rates are improving. In fact, UK data released by Experian (November 2011) showed a record 70% of start-up businesses are failing within 36 months of being launched.

Experts cite many reasons for business failure. But for me, a key factor underpinning early closure is the business owners’ inability to sell effectively and ethically and thus bring sufficient cash into the business on a sustainable basis. Why does this happen and what needs to be done to remedy the situation?

Salespeople give ‘Sales’ a bad name

Do you like people selling to you at your front door, over the phone or in the street? For that matter, do you enjoy being sold to in a retail store?

I believe most of us don’t like being sold to because so many people in sales aren’t that good at selling and/or are untrustworthy. People aren’t good at selling because they have either never been trained, or the limited/unethical training they did receive was on the scale that starts with ‘Crap’ and ends at ‘Criminal’. For reference, between 1993 and 1997, I was part of a small team that retrained over 3,000 sales professionals. Over 80% of the people I worked with (over, 1,000) were poor at their job.

As a consequence, selling has got itself a bad name. In my opinion, this has led to the subject being shunned both by people who need to learn the real skills of how to build long-term business relationships (small business owners) as well as teaching/training institutions.

Entrepreneurship in Universities

Earlier this year I was asked to speak at a HEEG Conference in Kingston. Towards the end of the day one of the delegates asked an open question – “How much time was devoted to teaching entrepreneurial students how to sell?” Not one of the 25+ universities represented that day ran courses to teach sales.

Curious, but unsurprised by this finding, I went to the interweb to seek out any university sales course. Portsmouth University does run an MA in ‘Sales Management’ and the word ‘Sales’ does get the occasional mention in the glut of marketing studies available.  I thought that was just about it…

Then I discovered the world famous and highly reputed department store ‘Harrods’ had teamed up with Anglia Ruskin University to provide a highly innovative training programme that leads to an Honours Degree in Sales. People who complete the course master the ‘Art of Selling’. This short video provides more detail about the potential of this powerful learning experience.

Is Anglia Ruskin on the right track?

Being a competent salesperson takes understanding, repeated practice as well as hard work. Just like any marketing degree, there is no quick success fix. Best practice selling has moved a long way from ‘technique driven’ hard sell methods that have us all running for the hills. Best practice is much more about understanding human behaviour and working with customers to ensure they get what they need.

By providing opportunities for repeated practice (Harrods) and backing it up with sound theory, Anglia Ruskin is in my opinion definitely taking the appropriate steps to prepare students for employment. I don’t know the exact methods used for teaching and training, but I would be surprised if video role plays and behavioural science theory are not key components of the course.

In my opinion, education and training institutions should follow Anglia Ruskin’s example. By recognising the depth and importance of the subject (and the fact that sales should not be marketing’s impoverished relation) budding entrepreneurs especially will be provided with a critical skill. And if this happens more students will be attracted to pay to learn about ‘how to sell’ because they will value the subject’s relevance in terms of future employment ambitions.

Entrepreneurs encounter sales situations daily. Most people are not at all prepared for the opportunities they face. However, if business owners have been trained to sell effectively and know how to make the buying experience enjoyable for the customer, their business will bring in the cash and thus be more likely to survive and thrive. But if nothing changes, education institutions are set to miss out and the start-up failure rate is unlikely to change.

Your thoughts and feedback on this article are very welcome.

Key Learning Points: Running a successful business means knowing how to sell effectively. To equip budding entrepreneurs properly, educational institutions need to place much more emphasis on sales training and specifically the art of selling.