Should Sales Education Start In College? It did, it left, and now it's back!

Should Sales Education Start In College? It did, it left, and now it’s back!

Nov 13, 2020 | Blog

Should Sales Education Start In College? It did, it left, and now it’s back!

Friday night, while my kids were building towers on Minecraft, I was reading a magazine. It wasn’t just any magazine. It was the entire 1904 stack of Salesmanship Magazine.

In it, there was an interview with Mrs. Diana Hirschler, who was running a sales program at The Bigelow School, a Boston public school. Her quote about unnecessary questions posed during what we now call “qualification” and “discovery” cracked me up. Referring to one salesperson she was particularly impressed with, she said:

“She didn’t ask me whole lot of fool questions. When I want a thing, I want to be shown the thing-and not be put on the witness stand first.”

Then it struck me.

A Boston public school was teaching sales education in 1904?

Picture of the Bigelow School in Boston

When I was even in college at Indiana University, there wasn’t a sales-focused class to be found.

I started to look around harder at the early 20th century’s formal sales education programs, and what I found was pretty staggering.

The Ohio State University. The University of Michigan. The Wharton School. Harvard. All were proud of their sales education programs between 1900-1920.

Universities everywhere were offering these curriculum paths – and suddenly…


In my research, I’ve found that around 134 universities now meet the Sales Education Foundation’s criteria for having such focused curriculum. But there’s something interesting about the pattern of those programs…

You can see from the chart above, the overwhelming majority of today’s university programs have been launched in just the past 20 years, with momentum growing exponentially.

BUT – the number of those Universities where such curriculum existed prior to 1980?


(University of Nebraska at Kearney, for those inquiring minds, started in 1975)

Which set off my “I can’t let this go” trigger in my brain. I had to know…

  • Why the focus on formal college sales education in the early 20th century?
  • Where did they all go?
  • Why did it come back?
  • Could it disappear again?

Why the focus back then?

It all has to do with the Industrial Revolution(s).

The Industrial Revolution is marked by three distinct phases…

1) The Age of Mechanical Production: Beginning somewhere around 1760, where the discovery was made around how, when you warm up water, it creates steam. Steam creates pressure. That pressure could be harnessed into building engines, which revolutionized travel in the form of trains and ships.

2) The Age of Science and Mass Production: Following scientific discoveries around the power of using gasoline, the marvel of flight and what chemicals do, coupled with the concept of the assembly line, production kicked into high gear in the late 19th and early 20th century.

3) The Digital Revolution: Beginning with the discovery of semiconductors into use with things like computing and the Internet, this period started slowly in the 1950’s and continues to accelerate into today.

The 2nd Industrial Revolution marked the dawn of salesmanship as we know it today. Books, magazines and focused education were launched to usher in this era, where the United States viewed the sales profession as a key element in the establishment of America as a world leader.

As a matter of fact, it was a key driver for President Woodrow Wilson, who addressed The World Sales Congress in Detroit in 1916 to stress how important the selling profession was to the economy.

With so much manufacturing going on coupled with massive improvements in distribution of product, the demand for salespeople went through the roof.

And, for the most part, any “experienced” sales professional learned their ways in the 1800’s – manufacturing reps (I.e., Drummers) and “Peddlers” who were known for hard drinking and backslapping methods, very little loyalty, and often unethical approaches.

With such short supply of salespeople and such high demand, sales became known as a true profession, paid better than most other professions, and jobs were fairly easy to come by.

However, in organizations without training, according to a quote from that era, turnover was as high as 72%. In organizations where sellers were trained, it fell to 24%

The problem was – organizations didn’t have the means, tools or resources to do this effectively, and sought external resources to help.

While sales “thought leaders” rose up through books and magazines, you couldn’t really hire an external sales training company to come in – , they didn’t exist, and travel took days via train. There were hubs of expertise, Chicago being a core city in the beginnings of sales education.

And, correspondence courses sprang up. The most popular was developed by Arthur Frederick Sheldon. His school taught over 10,000 students by 1915.

The first spike in University level sales education was born: There was money to be made, there was demand, and the perception of sales as a profession was strong.

Where did they all go?

Not one current university program was in existence prior to 1975, and in the majority of cases in the chart listed at the top, didn’t exist prior to our current 21st century.

In other words, NONE of the programs that existed in the early part of last century survived.

Not one.

From what I can tell, three elements led to the demise of those programs, and can serve as a lesson for today’s curriculum:

Macroeconomic Forces

Remember, what drove the need for these programs was the combination of (a) the growing, more positive perception of the sales profession, (b) the undersupply and overdemand of sales professionals, and (c) the sudden and accelerating need for standards and best practices which corporations themselves struggled to come by on their own.

As World World I started in 1914, production facilities shifted their attention on wartime manufacturing. Many workers in other companies joined in the fight. The economy’s focus changed, where economic expansion slowed, and selling goods became less in demand. The balance between sales supply and demand leveled off.

The Gap in Relevance

There was a perception brewing of a gap between the rigor of university sales education and the “art” of the sale. In one quote, school education was viewed as “irrelevant but rigorous”.

Steeped in theory, the gap was in the need for innovation and creativity in selling methods based on the specific circumstances of the seller and the buyer. Education assumed conditions of certainty, whereas we all know, certainty is not a core element of the sales profession.

External education was viewed as “in the box” training, where companies needed sellers who could combine “in the box” with “out of the box” – so their practices often did not equal reality.

Sales Perception Deterioration

As the economy changed, the shift in the supply of salespeople exceeded the demand, all while sales got harder, the concepts of sales as a upstanding, respectable profession deteriorated.

During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, many organizations unleashed aggressive sales tactics. In some cases, door-to-door sellers brought their children and delivered a message of, “If you don’t buy, my child doesn’t eat.”

Those perceptions remained for many years, reinforced by door-to-door aluminum siding sellers in the 50’s and 60’s (see the movie, “Tin Men” for the Hollywood version of the story) into even modern day car sales.

As a result, it was quite rare to find a student desiring a career in sales.

Demand for University sales education disappeared, not to return until the next Industrial Revolution.

The 3rd Industrial Revolution & the Resurgence of University Sales Education

When looking at the chart again at the beginning of this article, what do you see in terms of timing?

Similar to the beginning of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, the emergence of technological innovations spurred tremendous growth in manufacturing. With the acceleration of digital technology truly taking hold in the mid 1990’s, we soon entered an era where the supply of educated sellers no longer met the demand.

…which continued until the Covid era in the Spring of 2020.

During this period, due to the proliferation of information available to buyers, the old-school approaches were no longer relevant. Just like in the early 1900’s, the need for “modern” sellers exploded.

Forrester Article Snip - "One Million B2B Sales Jobs Eliminated by 2020"

While Forrester predicted the demise of the B2B seller in 2015, the late 2010’s represented massive growth in the profession.

The 2020’s – Will University Sales programs grow, or shrink?

If we look at the three reasons why sales education programs at the university level disappeared, could those happen again in today’s world?

Macroeconomic Forces: If the supply of sellers exceeds the demand, and said supply becomes willing to lower compensation requirements to maintain employment, the need for university-level education programs will be reduced. If a college education is meant to prepare students for the working world, to help them gain employment and become an asset to the economy immediately, if there is no demand for selling jobs, then why would students seek this path?

My answer? Yes, this issue could arise again. However, the counterpoint would be that we all sell. Similar to the concept of a “liberal arts degree”, a degree in the sales profession could be developed and viewed as an incredible foundation – because it is.

The Gap In Relevance: Have you heard the phrase, “those who can’t sell, teach”? The relevance gap between teaching and selling does exist – as those who have been teaching for a long time are sometimes viewed as disconnected from the current environment, needs, approaches, and technology. In a sales training organization (like mine), we’re selling every day to keep our businesses alive and thriving, so that disconnection is less likely. However, at the University level, could it be more likely to become the case for professors, becoming so focused on the “science”, that there’s a disconnect with the art of successful selling in specific environments?

Sure – but from my research, I’ve found that universities have learned these lessons from the past. Northern Illinois University, for example, has a sales lab, shadow days, an actual inside-sales call center, and makes investments in all the best, modern sales technology. They’re teaching the science…and the art, and as a result, staying incredibly up-to-date. The universities that embrace this level of competence in their programs will not have any gap in relevance.

Sales Perception Deterioration: Sales continues to scrape the bottom of Gallup’s annual trusted professions list. Specifically, car & insurance sales. There is an inherent dislike for the profession, and the lack of appetite in high schoolers seeking sales as a career as they enter college is still an issue.

Sales is the near the top of the list in terms of being one of the most resilient professions. As the proliferation of information on everything we do, buy and experience has exploded, the role of the salesperson has had to evolve. The successful sellers have evolved into Sherpas to the buying journey. The successful sellers practice “clinical empathy” for the buyers. The successful sellers seek ways to remove friction from the buying journey, and embrace transparency.

Sales will rise from the bottom – it has to. And, as it continues its rise, regardless of the supply/demand issue, if universities seek ways to truly arm students to be real-world ready, why wouldn’t it continue to exist, grow and flourish?

What do you think?

Should even more universities invest in sales education degree programs? Will it grow, or shrink? Would you hire a recent graduate with a sales degree over someone with real-world experience?




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