Anyone who has ever worked in sales knows you have to have certain skills: You have to know your product or service. You have to know your audience, and you've got to be able to close.
All that is traditionally learned on the job, costing employers hundreds of thousands of dollars in new hire training.
William Paterson University is trying to change that.
Sales holds a place of honor at William Paterson, one of the first universities in the country to turn the art of selling into a bona fide field of study with the launch of the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales 10 years ago. Students there can actually get a degree in sales, allowing them to hone their selling skills in college rather than the workforce.
So when big-name companies come calling — as they often do at William Paterson — those students are ready to hit the ground running.
"This is an academic discipline," said Prabakar Kothandaraman, executive director of the Russ Berrie Institute at William Paterson. "When it started, sales was not considered cool as an academic discipline. We've come a long way in the last 10 years."
This week, students from 37 different universities will head to William Paterson for the seventh annual Russ Berrie Institute National Sales Challenge, an intensive two-day battle in which top-ranking students from across the country will get a chance to prove their worth to executives from major corporations.
"At the end of the day, you can win a trophy, but it's even better to win a job," Kothandaraman said. "So many of these students get placed in really good companies."
The National Sales Challenge comes on the heels of a sales triathlon that took place at William Paterson in October. That event, soley for William Paterson students, also was hosted by the Russ Berrie Institute, which launched 10 years ago through a gift from the Russell Berrie Foundation.
Berrie was a salesman, first and foremost, who built an empire around stuffed teddy bears. His products are still ubiquitous, and easy to distinguish from his plush toy competition thanks to a tiny red tag that reads "Russ."
One of his favorite lines, which faculty members at William Paterson can quote on command, was: "Nothing happens until someone sells something."
The focus on sales makes sense, said Kothandaraman, because sales is typically one function a company cannot downsize, even in times of recession.
Students from all majors at William Paterson now sign up to take sales courses, he said. And companies are recognizing what an asset recent college graduates with dedicated sales training can be to an organization.
McKesson, for example, hired Christopher Gonzalez, a 2010 William Paterson grad, straight out of college — and sent him back to the university for the recent sales triathlon to scope out new talent.
"Ever since me, they realized they can trust younger people with these responsibilities," said Gonzalez, a retail sales manager at McKesson.
"You already know what it's like to feel uncomfortable. You already know what it's like to dig yourself out of a hole," he said. "They give the students real-life experience as best they can."
In the national competition this week, two William Paterson students who scored highly in the sales triathlon last month — John Kaplan and Andrew Mazzella — will get a chance to showcase their training in front of an audience of 17 major employers, including Canon, UPS, Oracle, Michelin and McKesson.
The event will break down into two separate yet equally intense days of competition. The first day will consist of a sales call role-playing exercise, during which students will attempt to sell an HR package from ADP to a fake midsized business looking to expand.
On day two, the students will take part in a speed-selling event, when they will give judges a two-minute sales pitch about themselves, explaining why they should be the business world's next great sales hire.
The finalists from both those events will then take part in a final round of competition, from which an overall winner will be named. There also will be an overall university winner, as well as awards given for the students who performed the best in each of the separate competitions.
When it comes to selecting those winners, no faculty members are involved in the process, Kothandaraman said. Company executives are the judges in the competition, picking winners while they select potential new employees.
"They get the advantage of hiring from this program," he said. "They like the fact that these students are really hungry for success."