Sales Education: A History

We used to teach sales

In the Harvard Business Review article, More Universities Need to Teach Sales, Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Frank Cespedes, and co-author Daniel Weinfurter call out colleges and universities for failing to realize the importance of sales education programs:

“For decades, Sales and Academia remained worlds apart and the business world did fine.  But Sales is changing, Academia is out of touch, and this is bad for business and the academy”.

But it wasn't always this way.

In the 1940s, courses in sales force management, purchasing, retailing and salesmanship were among the most frequently offered marketing courses in academia.  However, between 1943-1974, despite a growing desire by graduates and employers for these courses, the percentage of schools offering courses in sales declined due in part to reports that criticized the courses for being “too vocational and lacking conceptual foundation and analytical rigor” (Kellerman, 1989).

In a 1961, psychologist Robert McMurry wrote an article for Harvard Business Review called The Mystique of Super Salesmanship in which he argues that sales is qualitatively different from all other aspects of business:

“(Sales) does not lend itself to the empirical, quantitative research methodologies of the more exact sciences.  Instead, it tends to have a “mystique” of its own which is peculiarly baffling. Even the most successful practitioners of the art rarely know precisely how they accomplish their magic.  There is, therefore, great uncertainty as to how one proceeds to penetrate such a mystery”.

McMurry identified the key qualities that are important for good salespeople to possess:  a high level of energy and drive, self-confidence, a hunger for money, self-discipline, and an ability to view objections as obstacles to be overcome.  This article begged the question in the 1960’s: could any of these be taught or trained or are they innate? 

The article also outlined several ‘teachable’ elements like time management, product knowledge, and various sales techniques (cold calling, presentation skills, objection handling), but without the five pre-requisites, McMurry suggested one could not become an effective salesperson.

Old school door-to-door sales relied mainly on product knowledge, and personality: know your product enough to talk up its features and sell it so convincingly that your prospect finds it irresistible.  Most product training came from internal manuals and brochures, and it was believed that the softer people skills were learned from repetition. 

At the same time, the rise in popularity of MBA programs coincided with the rise of marketing as a discipline as large brands started to rely on mass advertising to boost the sale and distribution of goods.  Formal sales training was left to private companies, and sales took a backseat to marketing at business schools. 

We've seen this before

In the 1970s there were only 100 formal entrepreneurship programs offered on college campuses in the US. Today, entrepreneurship education is one of the fastest growing fields with over 3,000 college programs, 5,000 courses and 9,000 faculty members in the US alone. This is due in large part to employers, economic development organizations, and higher education institutions realizing the need for such education.

In The Emergence of Entrepreneurship Education, Donald Kurato demystified the study of entrepreneurship and validated the efficacy of teaching it.

It is becoming clear that entrepreneurship, or certain facets of it, can be taught. Business educators and professionals have evolved beyond the myth that entrepreneurs are born, not made.

Peter Drucker, one of the leading management thinkers of our time, has said, "The entrepreneurial mystique? It's not magic, it's not mysterious, and it has nothing to do with the genes. It's a discipline. And, like any discipline, it can be learned".

So too can sales.

Colleges and Universities can play a critical role in addressing the growing sales talent gap

A survey conducted by the Sales Education Foundation in 2007 showed that the graduates of schools offering robust sales education and training programs are 30% less likely to turn over, and productive 50% faster than their non-sales-educated counterparts and can save employers over $200,000 within the first 12 months of employment.  Sales students also average 90%+ job placement at graduation versus 72.3% for college students with bachelor’s degrees or higher.

Data from the Sales Education Foundation, 2007.

Despite huge market demand for well-trained sales professionals, and proof that early sales training works (see above) students are graduating from most post-secondary programs without the necessary tactical and analytical skills to sell effectively.   The scarcity of skilled sales talent is a detriment to high-potential firms, especially within Canada, where many firms are forced to recruit and hire talent in the United States to cover their talent gap - as outlined by The Lazaridis Institute.

To sustainably address this gap and build the domestic sales talent to help high-growth companies scale, sales-related programming must be developed that targets current executives and directors, as well as a next generation of students and entrepreneurs.

Selling is one of the most common job types for students graduating with a business degree, with as high as 88% of marketing majors accepting a job in sales out of some business programs, and an average of 60% for all other business majors. More than 50% of all US college graduates will work in sales at some point in their careers, and yet less than 150 of the over 4,000 colleges in the US even offer sales courses.

Several notable events spawned a small revival of the teaching of sales at colleges and universities:  The establishment of the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management in 1980, and the founding of the first university sales center, the Center for Professional Selling at Baylor University in 1986. 

Since the 1980’s, sales education in the United States has started to grow again.  By 2007, 44 colleges and universities offered a sales program, or certification.  This number grew to 67 in 2009, 101 in 2011 and 132 in 2015.  Of the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Top 40 Business Schools in 2013, 25% offered an introductory to sales course, and 53% offered a sales management course. 

What's holding sales back at colleges and universities?

Colleges and Universities have an opportunity to fill the sales talent void by creating high quality sales education programs, but such programs face substantial barriers in funding and support at academic-focused institutions leading to a lack of scholarly research on improving sales capabilities.

There are a number of issues hindering the growth of sales education, including: lack of qualified faculty, difficulty in keeping classes small, lack of resources, a lack of student interest, increasing competition from other universities, lack of funding, and lack of university support.

Few sales professionals have the time or interest to obtain a doctorate, and universities find it difficult to find and recruit tenure-track faculty who can publish quality academic sales research partly because no prestigious journals focus on sales

However, there is increasingly more pedagogical research on sales education published in leading marketing education journals like Marketing Education Review, the Journal of Marketing Education, and the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, and researchers continue to call for more articles on sales education pedagogy.

How can we fix this?

Continue to grow student interest

Educators, entrepreneurs, and sales leaders, need to continue advocating for the virtues of early sales education. While data shows that almost 50% of college graduates will end up in direct sales roles, the other 50% will find themselves in non-sales selling roles.

A basic, foundational understanding of how to structure a meeting, ask great questions, and gain buy-in from clients or colleagues will help more students get jobs, get promoted, and grow their companies.

As educators, highlighting how sales can be a great jumping off point into other careers, bringing in guests from high-profile companies, and highlighting that great salespeople are often the highest paid people in the company are all great places to start.

Recruit more qualified faculty members

Until more sales-focused PhD programs emerge, colleges and universities will need to rely on adjunct professors to teach these courses. "Adjuncts" as they're referred to, are those with experience working in industry, and typically don't have a doctorate or a focus on producing research. These "teaching professors" lean on their work experience, and industry connections to create meaningful and relevant learning experiences for students.

The risk in bringing on an adjunct is that they may become the "sage from the stage": exclusively sharing stories from the trenches, and inviting in their friends as guest speakers without integrating evidence-based research that is grounded in truth and more broadly applicable to all, not just distilling what has worked in the past for them.

Having been through the process of moving from industry to teaching, I believe every adjunct should be required to complete a research project under the supervision of an experienced academic. Understanding the effort, homework, and rigour required to approach teaching like a scientist (to prove what's true) versus a lawyer (arguing for a particular point), or a preacher ("sage from the stage") is critical.

We need to rely less on our own isolated experiences, and information from self-proclaimed "experts" that are great at search engine optimization (appearing on the first few pages of Google), and more on peer-reviewed research and real data. The combination of both lived, practical experience and research is the key to real, impactful student outcomes.

Band together

The sales community in higher education is small, but mighty.

With the formation of the University Sales Center Alliance (USCA) in 2002, and the Sales Education Foundation in 2007, there is evidence that sales education is moving in the direction of other traditional professions like law, medicine, and accounting.

I look up to academics like Karen Peesker at Ryerson who has grown the sales program into one of the finest in the country, recently being accepted as the first Canadian university accepted into the University Sales Center Alliance (USCA). These types of consortiums have helped advance sales education, encouraged outreach to industry, and deepened the impact of sales research.

Funding and Support

Entrepreneurship education began to take off in the late 1990s not only because it was a driver of employment and the economy, but also because these programs were competitive differentiators for colleges and universities, and became large sources of donors and funds.

Technology company CEOs list sales effectiveness and marketing demand generation as the most critical challenges to solve, yet have the least confidence in being able to solve them.

Source: Gartner, 2020

Private companies would clearly benefit from a deeper understanding of what drives real results in sales effectiveness and I predict that more companies will be interested in funding sales education, and participating in sales research to grow the talent pipeline, and develop useful research that can help companies address their growth challenges.


In the realm of entrepreneurship, Babson College hosts an annual symposium called Frontiers in Entrepreneurship Research. The conference is a venue for top scholars in the area of entrepreneurship to share their ideas, and teaching best practices. Colleagues can work together to share information, develop new projects, and help each other have real impact.

My colleague Karen Peesker at Ryerson along with collaborators at HEC and myself were recently awarded a Connections Grant for "Advancing Sales Education and Research in Canadian Universities."

We're excited to be organizing the first national conference in the country to advance sales education at universities. Our plan is to bring together the best sales educators, industry professionals and students from across the country help identify trends and best practices, build research collaborations and inform the design and delivery of sales curricula for Canadian universities.

We intend to use the information gathered to expedite new research projects and sales programs to help us better support students and provide sales talent to Canadian industry.

We have a long way to go, but we are making progress.

If you have ideas for how to better support the sales ecosystem, please reach out.


For decades, business schools have avoided teaching sales, despite the fact that it is one of the top in-demand jobs of the future, and consistently ranks as one of the top priorities of company executives.

There is a massive sales curriculum gap in business school programs around the world because sales is thought to be more art than science.

Over the last year, I've conducted interviews, reviewed academic research, and collected my own survey data from sales educators, trainers, managers, and front-line sales representatives to figure out what selling skills are most important and how they can be effectively taught.

If you're interested in my findings, please sign up for my newsletter.

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