My friend Steve Subar, CEO of Open Kernel Labs, made an interesting point over dinner the other night.  “Do you realize you can’t major in selling at any business schools?  You can major in accounting, or marketing, or finance, or economics, but not in selling.”

To test Steve’s assertion, I did a little searching.  It turns out you can major in sales management at a number of business schools, but I couldn’t find any majors in selling.  As anyone who’s ever been around sales organizations knows, there is a big difference in the job of selling and the job of managing sales people.  So, as far as I could tell, Steve was right.

Pretty ironic, since sales ability seems to be one of the greatest career differentiators out there.  Need proof?  Go look at any law firm, insurance agency, financial advisory firm, dental practice, auto dealership, restaurant, software company, real estate firm, etc … just about any type of company, in any type of industry … and you will most often see that the people with the most lucrative and most satisfying careers have been successful at selling.

Are Steve and I wrong?  Can you get an MBA with a major in selling?  If not, does it matter?

People are always saying that it is ludicrous that medical schools don’t focus enough on teaching future doctors about nutrition.  Add to the mix that business schools don’t teach about enough about sales.


  • Amanda Cullen
    May 28, 2009 - 09:14 am

    While you may not be able to major in sales, marketing programs often require you take a sales class. I think many traditional salespeople would scoff that their techniques and ability could be made into a curriculum and taught in school. Perhaps there just isn’t the market to profitably support a Sales major.

    Another factor could be academic strictness. When I was getting my marketing degree, the business school was very adamant that sales is a part of marketing. They saw the prevalence of separating sales and marketing into two departments as a war to be fought with the business world. Because of their battles, I think they relegated sales to a lower status.

  • Mike Festa
    May 28, 2009 - 10:12 am

    As someone who has worked with and for Steve at a few different companies, I can attest that selling skills are always developed via OJT. Some of us may be lucky enough to have trained at companies like Xerox or IBM where some sales skills were actually taught…which is a better scenario (i.e. you get paid to be taught versus paying a university a pile of money to be taught). The drawback is you are taught myopically, meaning that you are taught to sell the company’s products in the company’s way…which may or may not be best. As I wander deeper into my 40’s (ok, almost 50), I have a PhD in sales because of people like Steve, some company training, and lots of sales cycles.

    • Steve Subar
      May 28, 2009 - 12:58 pm

      My business school advisor said, “If you want to learn how to sell, get a job with IBM, Xerox, NCR or P & G.” I chose soap & coffee, graduated with corporate honors and then left after 1 year. SInce then, I’ve been adapting all that was taught about consumer products to software. I still feel badly that It cost Proctor a full year of investment in me for which they got some ROI but…much less than could have been if my motivation was other than primarily seeking that education. Steve Ballmer and Meg Whitman share similar stories – P & G training to technology companies – albeit theirs with a few more “O’s” on the personal ROI at this moment in time 🙂 All this makes me wonder about the legions of alumni who wanted a degree that was only available outside the university. Seems like a missed opportunity that’s not too late to capitalize on. Someone go SELL this one!

  • Larry Kaufman
    May 28, 2009 - 13:15 pm

    The only sales course I ever took — out in the world, not in college — taught technique, in a context of regular practice until the technique was so internalized it would be applied automatically. The course, by the way, was specifically devoted to selling business services.

    The sales textbook I edited for its author — Synergistic Selling, by Jack Berman, published by my then client, the Manufacturers’ Representatives Educational Research Foundation — was specically devoted to multiple-line selling (related but non-competitive products of a number of ma nufacturers). It was also meant for practitioners, not for students.

    My conclusion, from these experiences coupled with half a century out there doing it, is that sellong is a combination of art and science, and one is well-served to gain the academic understanding of what lies underheath in the college of arts and sciences — prior to applying the lessons in the field. And the most important lesson (inherent, Steve, in your “We” emphasis, is that your job is to help the customer buy.

  • Andy Thorp
    May 28, 2009 - 15:33 pm

    I had an interesting experience yesterday: I was asked to deliver a people skills workshop to a group of jazz musicians as part of a personal development course. The aim was to help them progress their careers and grow their reputations through improved communication skills, both on and off stage – in other words to help them sell themselves and get more gigs!

    For someone who’s used to delivering sales messages to business people, I found the audience unusually sceptical and, shall we say, non-compliant! Of course, the musicians represented that classic dichotomy between artistic integrity and the need to sell yourself to your audience – not natural bedfellows. Their view of ‘sales’ was of a rather unsavoury process of preying on others, a dirty profession.

    Now we might counter by saying that sales is about problem solving and win-win but the perception out there is somewhat different – it seems that sales has a bad name. Can we change this? Perhaps if more of us adopted a consultative, problem-solving approach and aimed to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships, we’d begin to elevate the status of selling in schools and elsewhere?

  • Dan Gunter
    May 28, 2009 - 19:32 pm

    I often question whether we might be TOO hung up on the idea of “selling.” I will admit that in large companies there is often a needed division between those who produce the goods/services and those who specialize in the marketing and promotion of those goods and services. I guess what really bothers me is the number of people I’ve seen so consumed with the idea of selling themselves, their services, etc. that they fail to spend adequate time on continuously improving the quality of what it is they are trying sell to begin with.

    We live in a far different world now. “Viral marketing” and so many new forms of communicating have totally changed the landscape. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying matters, but my small business grew by about 600% last year and all I did was focus on making good videos, doing good work in terms of web design and graphics, treating my clients fairly (always trying to exceed their expectations), and being honest with them.

    I find myself at this moment wanting to simply go back to Steve’s other posts regarding customer experiences and “branding,” with the general idea that it’s easier to provide good products and services and let happy clients help you do your selling for you than it is to try and get someone to just go out on faith. Yes, they might need a little nudge now and then to get them to do so, but that’s a heck of a lot easier than doing 100% of the selling yourself. And the message tends to be perceived as more credible coming from a referral than it does from a “salesman.” Maybe my issue with all this is that I see networking to the Nth degree as the new form of selling and marketing.

    Maybe it also boils down to the fact I totally despise doing “call calling.” I’d rather focus on building a better mousetrap and… well, we all know that saying.

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