Communication-savvy sales professionals are key to business growth

Putting paid to old stereotypes, BCIT Business grads listen to and engage customers 

Harj Dhaliwal, associate dean, marketing management, at BCIT’s School of Business, notes that all faculty members have worked in industry – contributing to the real-life work environment the school provides its students. Dhaliwal's own experience includes entrepreneurship in the commercial-janitorial and high-tech fields

We’ve all winced at them on page and screen. From moody loner Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman to the glib liars of Glengarry Glen Ross, dodgy salespeople abound. There’s just one problem. Compelling as these fictional characters are, they wouldn’t make even the preliminary-interview phase for a real-life sales and business development position.

That’s because these days, it’s skills in communication, critical thinking, research and teamwork that define successful salespeople – and eventually set them on a career path to upper management, says Harj Dhaliwal, associate dean, marketing management, at the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s School of Business (BCIT Business).

BCIT Business students working toward a diploma in professional sales learn to approach customers as partners. And that, says Dhaliwal, makes all the difference. “A professional salesperson will go to a business and say, ‘How can I help your business to thrive?’ You don’t feel like they’re trying to sell you something. You feel like they’re trying to help you.”

Some of us retain vague, unpleasant memories of venturing onto a used-car lot, say, and getting accosted by a sales rep of the perspiring Willy Loman variety. But that’s the old-school approach, maintains Dhaliwal, who has a PhD in business leadership from Capella University in Minneapolis. In 2017, it’s time for the rebirth of the salesperson image.

As conduits for market research, salespeople have become integral to companies’ ability to move forward. “There was a time when companies were about, ‘OK, we’re going to design a product and now we’re going to sell it.’ So the design was all done internally without any external response or feedback. Now salespeople play a dual role. One, they’re representing a company. But they’re also acting as a market researcher for the company, because they’re listening to the customers. They’re coming back and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Our customers are saying you guys are offering this in yellow. They want it in red. Have you thought about making it in red?’”

They’re also coming back with information about a company’s competitors, Dhaliwal notes. “As they’re sitting down with the customer, the customer is saying, ‘Your competitor is offering it in green and red.’ The salesperson is able to take that back and it makes the company’s offerings a lot stronger and more responsive to the marketplace.”

Such interaction is not only key to a service economy like Vancouver’s – but also key to helping that service economy continue to grow and prosper. Recognizing this, BCIT Business has embedded teamwork skills throughout all of the school’s two-year marketing management programs.

“Students work in teams basically from Day 1,” Dhaliwal says. “The teamwork allows them to learn communication skills. It also gives them the opportunity to do mock interviews and mock presentations. We also take them step by step through prospecting skills, such as where and how to find prospects; we walk them through negotiation skills.

“Critical thinking is embedded in all this. We define critical thinking as the ability to think on their feet. If a business owner asks the question of a salesperson, they should be able to respond reasonably on the spot because they’ve done their research and prep work.”

In Glengarry Glen Ross, the Al Pacino character rapid-talks prospective clients into submission. As sales by torture, it’s great drama. But today’s professional salespeople know that, by contrast, two-way communication is vital. Engagement is everything.

This, believes Dhaliwal, is how BCIT Business grads excel. “They are trained to interact with people. They are trained to look for cues, to get to the nitty-gritty of what the customer really needs.”

Grads are ready for the real-world business environment because they experience it at BCIT. “All our faculty come from industry. We push students hard and we work them hard. They’re expected to be in school from 8:30 to 5:30 – not solidly, but usually – and to do a bit of work in the evenings. It’s intense, but it does simulate the real work-life experience that they’ll have out there.”

Known for its business partnerships, BCIT regularly brings industry leaders into the classroom. “If it’s just a teacher talking to them all the time, it becomes like Mom and Dad telling you to do something. But if they hear from the COO of Ledcor, who comes in and says, ‘This is how I started and this is why this is important,’ they are paying attention.”

Through consulting projects or industry practicums, students keep interacting with industry. “That constant interaction is what sets us apart,” says Dhaliwal. “It’s tough, but when they graduate, the students tell us not to change anything.”

Not a surprising sentiment, since 90% of those who earn the marketing management diploma get snapped up by employers – with the other 10% opting to go on and earn a bachelor of business administration or join a family business. The richly varied jobs include: inside sales; outside sales; account management; high-tech companies like Sophos or Traction on Demand; large construction companies like Ledcor; heavy machinery companies like Leavitt; Ricoh Canada; Kraft Canada; and more. “Basically, you name it,” says Dhaliwal.

The reason: employers recognize BCIT Business graduates as well-rounded professional salespeople. “They know that our students are interested in what’s going on around them, that they have people skills. All of these are critical to succeeding now and to moving up the ladder in the corporate world in the future.”