@The Selling of a College CourseBy Gavin Sinclair@@How a salesman-turned-professor applies proven sales techniques to the classroom@I was terrified. My back was to the wall. Fifty pairs of menacing eyes fixed on me, waiting for a mistake . . . waiting to pounce.During the 15 years I spent working in the chemical industry as a sales and marketing manager for both PPG Industries, and Air Products and Chemicals, I dealt with many different people, from many cultures and countries. Still, I wasn't prepared for this audience with their exotic body piercings; spiked purple hair; and dark, sinister apparel. Standing before a roomful of corporate executives never intimidated me, but facing this group of 50 typical teenagers on my first day as a college professor left me panic-stricken.After a few weeks, however, I started to feel more comfortable. Sure, the body piercings still gave me the shivers, but I unconsciously began to approach this group of people the way I had approached hundreds of groups in sales situations.As a sales manager, I typically started my day by reviewing the list of customers with whom I would be meeting. I'd mentally go over my previous presentations, and decide what points I wanted to make this time. At the sales call, I would give my presentation and answer any questions. I'd then ask the customer for an order, or try to get information that could help me make a future sale. As a professor in the Purdue University School of Technology, I now go through very similar processes in preparing for and teaching my courses. In fact, I've come to realize that teaching and sales have the same basic goals. Both the professor and the salesperson aim to communicate information and motivate a response.To make the sales/teaching analogy, one needs to define "customers" and "product" from the teaching perspective. In this sense, the students are the customers. Some might argue that students are not really "customers," and I agree that the analogy isn't perfect—I never gave a customer a test or a grade. In most ways, however, I believe that professors should treat their students as their customers. The "product" in the sales/teaching analogy is the coursework being conveyed to the student.In this article, I describe seven sales techniques that have helped me become a more effective teacher.1. Focus on the customer, not yourself.In my sales job, I went to extraordinary efforts to focus on the customer. Not only did I know all of my customers' names, I knew their spouses' names, their children's names, their hobbies and interests, where they grew up, and everything else I could possibly find out about them. By demonstrating concern for and interest in the customer, a salesperson puts the customer at ease. The customer, in turn, is likely be more attentive and receptive to the sales information.In the classroom, you can also be more effective if you know your students' names and a little bit about them. A colleague at Purdue, Rodney Vandeveer, gave me the idea of passing out a data sheet to each of my students. On this sheet I ask students to list their outside interests, their hometown, what they want to gain from the course, their major, and what they hope to be doing in 10 years. Reading through these sheets is one way of showing concern for the students. The information should help you focus the course on the students' needs and provide many possible subjects for classroom discussion.As a salesperson, I also always tried to tailor my presentation to suit my customers' needs and backgrounds. For example, when my customer was a Ph.D. chemist, I explained my product in terms of chemistry. When my customer was a purchasing agent with a business background, I focused on the financial issues associated with my product.Similarly, in the classroom, it helps to adapt your teaching style to the students' interests and learning styles. For example, if I'm trying to teach the concept of momentum, I might use a mathematical explanation with one group of students and a physical example with another group, depending on their backgrounds. If I'm teaching time management, I'll start with an example that refers to a college student's hectic schedule rather than one that details a corporate scenario to which students cannot relate.When I was in sales, I made communicating with my customers a top priority. I'd tell them to call me anytime. I gave them office numbers, home numbers, e-mail addresses, beeper numbers, my secretary's name and number—pretty much everything short of a declaration that I would check for smoke signals every morning. If I left the office, I always told people where I could be reached.As a professor, you should also make yourself easily accessible. Giving out your home number, scheduling liberal office hours, and being available before and after class are all ways to accomplish this.2. Establish rapport and build trust.In sales, the best way to build rapport and trust is to become acquainted with the customer outside the office. A ski trip, for instance, allows the salesperson and customer a chance to get to know each other in a more relaxed setting.While not many universities can afford class ski trips, you can find other ways to build rapport and trust outside the classroom. Host a picnic at your house. Take a field trip to a local manufacturing company. Consider participating in student organizations where you can log some away-from-the-classroom hours.Salespeople can get hurt if they don't establish open and honest relationships with their customers up front. One of my worst days as a salesperson was when two of my customers merged into one company, and discovered that I was selling them the same product at different prices. To make matters worse, the company buying less had the lower price. There was a good reason for the price differences, but I had never explained it to either company. It took me a long time to earn back their trust.You can earn students' trust by treating them fairly. They'll realize quickly if you have different rules for different students. If you must make a special exception for a student, explain it to the whole class so it doesn't end up hurting trust later.3. Open with an interest-building statement.As a business manager at PPG Industries, I found myself on the receiving end of many sales calls. I always enjoyed meeting with one particular salesperson whom I found interesting. After a while I realized he wasn't actually any more interesting than the other salespeople. He just made stronger, more memorable introductory statements. While most salespeople started with something dull like, "I'd like to tell you about a new product my company has," he always grabbed my attention by addressing my needs and interests. For instance, he would start by saying, "I know you are having problems finding an FDA-approved product for sugar processing. My company has a new product that has the approvals you are looking for." His introduction would set the tone for the whole meeting and gave me an incentive to stay engaged and pay attention.Just as in a sales call, the first few minutes of class set the tone. Take this time to sell the students on why today's class is important to them. For example, you might want to start by discussing a real-life application of the subject matter. If you are talking about turbulence, for instance, you can ask the students if they've ever been on a rough airplane ride. Once the students relate to what you are talking about, you can explain the fluid dynamics of turbulence.Presentation mechanics are also important in building and maintaining interest. In both sales and teaching, there is a tendency to talk too fast. As professors, we sometimes forget that while we have reviewed this material many times, the students are often hearing about it for the first time.4. Know your stuff, and believe in it.To be effective, salespeople need to exude a high level of expertise about and a passion for their product. The best demonstration I saw of this fact was at a meeting between a sales team from my former company, PPG Industries, and a group of experts in enhanced oil recovery. At first, the experts thought we couldn't tell them anything they didn't already know. However, as we described our product's chemical composition, our partners in the venture, and the novel approaches we were taking, the experts started to warm up to us. It became clear to them that we knew our stuff and believed in it.In the classroom, students quickly perceive if you are unprepared or unsure of yourself. Outstanding preparation and knowledge of the topic are the minimum requirements for effective teaching. You can further increase your credibility by talking about your university research or industry experiences, bringing in guest speakers, and distributing some of your publications.5. Help lead your customers to a solution.One of the cardinal sales rules is to lead the customers to the solution. Salespeople do this by providing their customers all the information they need to make a purchase. For example, in addition to lauding a product's benefits, a salesperson must tell the customer how to actually place an order.Many professors provide their students with basic subject matter, but then fail to help them connect it to related subjects or to the real world. For instance, in addition to teaching the principles of heat transfer, a professor must illustrate their applications and their relationship to reactor design. As a professor, you need to help students learn how to use their knowledge to solve problems.6. Sell by using questions.For a salesperson, the next best thing to getting an immediate sale is getting information about the customer. (This goes hand in hand with Sales Technique #1, Focus on the customer, not yourself.) The more feedback a salesperson gets about a customer's needs,  manufacturing facilities, decision-making processes, and views of the merchandiser and its competition, the better he or she can target the message or product. Questions provide a means for obtaining this information as well as for assessing whether the customer understands the sales information.In addition, questions keep the customer involved in the sales process. Otherwise a customer's mind may wander, and the salesperson won't have a chance of making a sale.In the classroom, questions provide an opportunity to get immediate feedback on how engaged the students are in the learning process and how well they understand what you have been trying to explain. In the classroom, as in sales, the most effective questions tend to be open-ended. Such interactive teaching techniques also help most students learn better.One of the most important questions I asked my customers was "How am I doing?" Performance feedback is the best way to improve. It's often impossible, however, to get honest feedback by asking a customer directly. Asking through a third person or using confidential surveys usually yields the best information.Universities often have staff groups that help evaluate courses. For example, Purdue University's Center for Instructional Services (CIS) offers a "Small Group Instructional Diagnosis" program. During class time, without the professor present, two CIS members meet with a small group of students to get their feedback on the course and the professor. The feedback is very valuable, and the students are impressed with the efforts to solicit their opinions. The results are usually more representative than individual surveys, as group participation helps temper the responses.7. Get and stay enthusiastic.Salespeople often switch territories or product responsibilities every five years or so to keep the job challenging and interesting. Otherwise it's easy to get in a rut, calling on the same customers repeatedly and forgetting to look for new ones. There's a trade-off between the benefits of having an established customer base and the need to do something different to stay enthusiastic.As a student, I was always disheartened to get a professor who had taught the same course for the past 20 years. Most teachers cannot maintain their enthusiasm that long. Even though it is uncomfortable and more work, all professors should consider when it is time to give up a course and move on to something new.When I was in sales, I had a great deal of latitude on how to do my job. I usually structured my work according to what excited me the most. For example, as a business manager of process chemicals, I dealt with several industries including mining, sugar processing, and fermentation.  I spent extra time on fermentation because the field was more technically challenging and the business potential greater.  Likewise, professors have the latitude to structure their courses in a way that interests and challenges them. If teamwork excites you, include lots of group activities in your courses.  If you're interested in conducting educational research, try out different teaching methods. It is critical to consider students' needs first, but an enthusiastic professor is often what they need the most.Sales TipsMany of my sales techniques are based on tips outlined in Nancy Steven's Customer-Focused Selling (Adams Media Corporation, 1998) Here are some of her tricks of the trade.Put yourself in the customer's shoes.Determine each customer's particular concerns and needs.Leave your ego at the door, and learn flexibility.Respect how your customer prefers to communicate.Always do adequate precall planning.Don't mistake being busy for being productive.Use questions to keep the customer involved in the sales process.Start with broader, not narrower, questions.Don't become complacent.Keep experimenting and comparing notes with others.ConclusionWhat's the difference between professors and salespeople? In many ways, there's not much. Both groups must present information, help the listeners analyze the information, and motivate them to take some action. Professors won't earn a commission on every student who graduates, but they can gain the satisfaction of making a successful sale.Gavin Sinclair is an assistant professor of organizational leadership and supervision in Purdue University's School of Technology. The author would like to thank Dan Lybrook, Bill Krug, and the other participants of the Midwest Leadership Conference for their helpful ideas and suggestions.______________________________________________return to PRISM online; or October PRISM onlineOctober PRISM online