Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning in to The Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for The Education Partner program. Today we'll be talking to Jim Pouliopoulos, aka [Pouli 00:00:13], founding director of Bentley's Professional Sales Program. Welcome, Pouli.
Thank you, Isaac. Great to be here.
Yeah, happy to be talking with you. You have a really unique perspective on teaching sales. We've worked together for a while, so I'm looking forward to having you share your perspective on teaching with our listeners.
Yeah, that'd be great. I've been at this for a while, and working with HubSpot has been a lot of fun as well. It's really been helpful to my students in the courses that we deliver, and you and I have joked and talked a lot about how things can be and should be in sales, so it'll be an interesting conversation.
Definitely. Tell our listeners a little bit more about what you do at Bentley.
Okay, great. I'm a senior lecturer at Bentley. I've been full time at Bentley for about six years, and prior to Bentley, I tell people I'm a recovering engineer. I have two engineering degrees, went to WPI and RPI early in my life, decided that I wanted to go into sales instead of being an engineer. I did that for a good chunk of my career, came to Bentley, got my MBA, and then many years later I had the opportunity to come and teach here full time. When I did, I came in in the marketing department. Within that first year that I was here, I was teaching all the different marketing courses from the introductory courses to the senior capstone course, but the marketing and the management department came to me and said, "Hey, you've been in sales. You've done this for a living. We are thinking about putting together a professional sales major, and we would like you to kind of pull it all together for us."
So I did that. I spent some time figuring out what other schools were doing, what employers wanted, and what would fit well with the curriculum at Bentley. So we created a professional sales major. Students can graduate with a Bachelor of Science in professional sales. In creating that major, we created some new courses and put together a whole curriculum around sales, and so now, I split my time pretty evenly between teaching marketing courses and professional sales courses. I also do some executive ed and some consulting in that space as well.
Are you aware of how many other majors there are in the country for sales?
When we put the sales program together, there were about 12 different schools that had professional sales majors of some kind, and about 30 or 40 schools that had a minor in professional sales, plus 30 to 50 that had a concentration in professional sales. We decided to create the major first, to go there directly. We're the first and only school in the northeast that has a professional sales major. I think as of this year, there are probably between 15 and 20 schools with a Bachelor of Science degree in professional sales like we have.
I think we're sort of at the beginning of this campaign, if you will, to make professional sales something that's a little bit more honorable than maybe it has been in the past, and I think we're making some great strides in that area.
Do you feel that part of it is the nature of sales changing?
Yes. I absolutely do. One of the core courses that we currently have is one that I created for the program. It's called sales strategy and technology. I've broken that course into three basic phases, but the very first part of it is almost like a historical review of: This is what sales was 30 years ago or more, where salespeople had all the information, where consumers and customers and prospects were at the mercy of salespeople who had all the information, and where the flow of the sales conversation was really much more one-way, very unilateral, "I'm going to present to you everything I have, and hopefully one of those 12 bullet points I bring up is something that'll resonate with you." It worked because people didn't have alternatives.
As you get closer to the current date, you find that the explosion of information through the Internet and the increase in the difficulty to get through to a prospect, whether it be by phone or email or whatever method you're trying to use, has made it that the sales process now has been tilted in the favor of the prospect. Because of that, the sales processes really become more than ever a relationship-building process, and a process where the salesperson has to not just solve problems, but they have to go find problems that a prospect might have. I think that's really changing the nature of the whole sales process for just about every industry that I deal with.
Do you find that hard to make that narrative shift resonate for students that have only grown up in a world with the Internet?
Yes. Sometimes when we go through some of that, and very early in the class usually we'll talk about legacy salespeople, people that their parents bought automobiles from or ... That's always ... Unfortunately, automobile salespeople are the ones that get the stereotype most often, right? But I have them tell me about bad sales encounters that they either observed or had been through, and it always comes down to those things where the salesperson was just pitching without purpose. Right? That's really what it comes down to.
As we start to talk about this world of information flow and how a salesperson role is really a lot more discreet and broken down into different functions, I really find that students that might have thought they were not a good fit for a sales career suddenly realize because it's a different world, that they're a perfect fit for a sales career. I've had students go off and take entry level sales jobs, especially in hi-tech sales where it is a much different beast than they anticipated it being, and they come back year after year to tell me that they're just truly enjoying it because it's not their father's or their mother's sales job. It is something completely different and very analytical, very interactive, very relationship-based.
It's interesting that you start with stories, their own stories, to get them to turn their heads a little bit. You're really passionate about stories.
I think, and I say this all the time and I write about it all the time, that life is about the stories you can tell. I say that because when you have a choice to make about Career A versus Career B or Path A versus Path B, I always tell my students, especially when they're seeking my advice, what do you think will make the most interesting story later when you look back on your life? Because you can always take that conservative route, you can always do the thing you're expected to do, but is that really gonna be the most interesting story? Are you gonna learn the most that way?
So I embrace that here in class. I don't like to lecture. I don't like to just talk about the things that I'm teaching. What I prefer to do is get up, tell some stories, and then get them to tell me stories that help them engage the information more deeply. One of the best ways to teach someone about the sales process, the buyer's journey, for example, for a college student, is to say to them, "When were you first aware that you were going to have to pick a college? During that process of awareness, what did you start to think about and what did you do in terms of the consideration phase, when you started to compare different types of schools and different types of career paths you might go down, and then finally when you made the decision, how did you make it?" That's the sales process, right?
They don't really think about picking their college as a sales process, but it is. It's a marketing and a sales process working together, and we can spend hours talking about that in class because they understand what they went through. Then you can take that as a template and put it onto any other sales task or persuasion test they have to do, and they really do begin to understand it from a real core point of view as opposed to something very theoretical that they've never done before.
What are some of those big challenges you have, this narrative arc of, here are some of these sales processes that you've gone through. Here's how sales has changed. Here's what it's about. It's about connecting, it's about all of this stuff. Then you've got the technology. What's the cognitive leap that's the hardest and how do you overcome that from, here's this abstract thing of getting someone to be interested, getting them to close, and then boom, you just have this technology that's underneath it? I imagine that's hard for students to go through. What's so challenging about that and how do you overcome those things?
I think the leap they have to make is ... It's kind of like training for any sort of a physical endeavor, right? It's all baby steps at first. That's why in the beginning of my sales strategy course, I don't really talk about technology at all. We just talk about the nature of sales. Then we introduce a little bit to get them to kind of whet their appetite around what some of the underlying sales tech could look like, but this is before they actually get to put fingers on keys and actually begin using it.
Then we sort of get them to walk through mentally and imagine what it would be like to move that information from here to there, and what kinds of electronic triggers are they looking for in the environment, right? So things ... I just had a class last night, we were talking about triggers. We were saying how ... what would be, and I was using the college selection as the key, and I think that actually helps the cognitive leap where you're doing something that they've actually gone through and using it as a sales process example. I said, "What triggers do you think you gave off as you were looking for a college?"
Certainly they were downloading information packs, they were visiting open houses, they were talking to guidance counselors, it was all these things that were going on. For some of them they were active buyers, and some were passive buyers. We put it all out on the blackboard, and they were like, "Oh my gosh. Look at the buyer's journey we just created in about a 20 minute conversation in class." The other point it makes them is a lot of companies don't do this. They don't go through this process. They kind of think sales is magical and they just throw some people at it and wait for it to happen, which is the worst thing you could do. Right? You've got to chart that out.
I really think drawing on their personal experiences in non-sales situations actually helps make that connection to the sales activity. I think the hardest part for a lot of students, and I think this is the hardest part for a lot of new salespeople in general, is doing it and focusing on small pieces of it to improve over time, so not trying to fix the entire sales call, but just maybe focusing in on a few open-ended questions you could ask a little bit more effectively, or how to handle a certain kind of an objection that maybe kind of you stumbled over, and do repetition on that and move on when you're comfortable with it, as opposed to saying, "Okay, we're gonna fix all 17 things that I noticed you did improperly on that call."
It's a very engineering approach to sales. One thing that occurs to me is, in the best sense of the word, you're kind of a cheater when it comes to this, because you have an engineering background, you have a marketing background, and you have a sales background. I think with a lot of educators, they have one track backgrounds. To even hear you talking about triggers in a sales class, I mean that's really sales enablement stuff, which is, what's marketing gonna be paying attention to to send the best quality [inaudible 00:11:39] over.
A lot of business that HubSpot works with that students get hired into, I would say the majority of small and medium businesses do not have technically integrated an effective marketing and sales enablement based on triggers and virtual hand raises by prospects. That in itself, it feels like, is a skill that students would be leaving with that they wouldn't normally get.
Excellent point, because one of the things that we always focus on in both my sales and my marketing courses, I tell people that it's all the same. Right? We might have separate sales and marketing courses, you might be a separate marketing degree, a sales degree, but really, it's all one thing. You know? The role of marketing is to figure out what to build and for whom, how much do you charge for it, how do you promote it, and how do you sell it? That's it.
Sales is part of marketing. Unfortunately, I see too many companies that have these silos between marketing and sales. Again, just in the class last night, we were talking about content creation and how marketing's role really is to create content that salespeople can use rather than to create content that is showing how proud you are of your product, right? So create the bite-sized pieces of content that a salesperson can use to feed a prospect during the awareness and the education phase, as opposed to creating content that is aesthetically beautiful and has every possible feature listed, but which a prospect would never read.
I tell people, if people in marketing understood what salespeople do day in and day out, and if salespeople understood what marketing people can do day in and day out, there would be a lot less of this marketing versus sales warfare that takes place in a lot of companies. So yeah, we definitely talked about that very overtly in class, and I also tell them when they are going in for job interviews and they're talking to a sales leader who's looking to hire them into their sales team as an entry level seller of some sort, to ask them very specifically, "Can I take a look at some of the marketing content that your folks have created for the salespeople?" and judge for yourself whether they have a good, integrated approach to selling their products.
That is something that I feel like would knock an interviewer on their ass. I bet-
They don't know what to say.
-very few students are graduating and going into those entry level sales positions and asking operational, strategic questions about their pipeline. Have you found that students feel more comfortable selling themselves after they've been through this? I'd imagine that is a natural byproduct of your teaching them stories, of your teaching them selling, that they go into the world much more confident in their own abilities.
I think that's very true. One of the things that we do, we have a sales team at Bentley, and we compete in a couple of different sales competitions. We're gonna be competing in the upcoming HubSpot sales competition as well. We're looking forward to that. I've got a couple of alumni that are helping coach the 12 or 14 students we have in the sales team. One of the first things that they do is, when we first get together, we just ask them all to give us your elevator pitch. Right? Give us the reason why I would be interested in talking to you about a potential job opportunity.
That's one of the things we drill with them over and over again. It's not necessarily related to the sales competition we're going to, but we're trying to teach them skills of confidence in what they say, brevity in how they present it, and being able to talk about the impact they have had in a previous role that's relevant to the type of role that they might be interviewing for. I tell them they need to have a toolbox full of these little boxes that basically are elevator pitches for different situations. They're just little ... and we practice those. We rep those things just like we have repetitive sales practice. But they definitely feel ... To me, they seem a lot more comfortable in their own skin when they're done, and they often come back from job interviews and they say, "Oh my gosh, they asked me the one question that I had really wanted them to ask, and I had just the perfect response."
I just think any ... The other thing that's occurring here at Bentley is that we've got people that are majoring in professional sales, but we're also now seeing the number of students taking sales courses who are not majoring in sales has increased dramatically. On a semester by semester basis, we're averaging about 100 students taking a sales course every semester, and that number has gone up quite a bit just because we have the program. Through that, I think, people are getting sales skills who might be majoring in marketing, management, finance, what have you.
Can you walk us through, in a little bit more detail, the evolution of the sales program at Bentley? What did it start with? You went right for the major, but how has it grown and expanded and shape-shifted over time?
Yeah. We started with the major. We had some large employers that came to us and said they were already hiring Bentley students into their sales roles, and they wanted to hire more. They said, "We'd love for you to even put a little bit more emphasis on sales." That was where the genesis of creating a sales program came. We decided we would put together the major. The major itself has six core courses that you have to take, six required courses. There's a course in negotiating, there's a course in communication, there's a sales internship, so every student has to do an internship during the course of their four years at Bentley in sales. There is effective selling, which is a face-to-face selling course, sales management, which is how do you create, manage, train, and retain a sales force, and then sales strategy and technology, which we talked a little bit about here. That's the course that we use the HubSpot inbound selling certification as part of that course.
We had one ... The first professional sales graduate graduated May of 2015. That was after a year of the professional sales program being available. A year later, May of 2016, we graduated 10 professional sales majors. We currently have just over 30 students in the major itself. As I said, we have over 100 students taking sales courses every semester. We've been really pleased with the growth of the program. I think it's actually growing a little faster than we had anticipated. This year coming up, the graduates that will be leaving in May of 2018, they actually include some students that came to Bentley as seniors in high school to the open house. I remember talking to them, telling them about the sales major, and they got all excited, came to Bentley because we had a professional sales major. So now we're seeing not just students that were here that switched into the major, but now we're seeing students that are coming to Bentley because of the sales major, which is really exciting to us. That's a fantastic outcome for us.
Yeah, it's tremendous growth, and it's cool to see that become something that pulls people in, that differentiated programming that you've built really seems to be having an impact. I'm curious, you've told us a lot about what's gone really well. What's one thing if you could go back that you would do differently?
I don't think we would do anything fundamentally differently. I think I would've fought for more resources to do more marketing of the program. I think that might've been helpful to us, especially in the beginning. Marketing in the sense that students have a lot on their plate, and sometimes momentum just kind of carries them through the four years. I think we could've had more students join the professional sales major if we had done a better job, even on campus, of advertising and highlighting and promoting it, but we were so busy putting it together, I don't think we really had the resources to do a lot of recruiting, if you will, of students into the major.
I think that would've helped us get more numbers in the program. Maybe we could've done a more concerted effort to create some corporate sponsorships, perhaps, in the beginning, to help pay for some things, like sales competitions and travel to those competitions. But we're doing those sorts of things now, so for me, it's not so much that we would do something different, I think we might've phased things a little differently or prioritized things a little differently in the beginning.
It's interesting, you mentioned those corporate sponsors a couple times. How do you maintain your independence and make sure that you don't tow the line too closely to building the type of students that your sponsors want? Obviously we work together, and I think it would be a terrible misfortune if you only taught students the type of things that HubSpot would hire them, or that Liberty or whoever those folks are that are invested in this and want to see sales succeed at Bentley. I think that's something that everyone, both industry and the professors, struggle with.
I'm curious what that's been like for you and if you think there are things that businesses could do better, or just kind of your general take on that, because sales is so different. It's not a mandate in the same way that marketing is, and a lot of times it gets bootstrapped by those corporate partnerships, but I think it's a potentially very dangerous road to go down. I know that HubSpot and myself are sensitive to it, so ... I'm curious what your perspective is on that.
We do talk about that a lot. When I talk to the folks in the development office where the corporate partnerships are created for all the different majors here at Bentley, we definitely as we go into any of those types of situations where there are corporations that are helping us fund different programs, we try to make it clear up front what you're getting in exchange for that investment. Right?
One of the things that I try to let employers know is, with these types of programs, you're not paying us for access to our students. Right? Anyone can come to the career fair, we have guest lectures in the classroom all the time, I'm happy to help students connect with any employer that's interested in talking to students about sales careers. For me, it's more a case of, here's where that funding will go. Right? It will go to programs where we go travel to do the sales competition, or we pay for travel to go visit employers, or ... We're actually in the process now of talking about how do we create a broader corporate partnership program here at Bentley where we might have a couple of annual meetings where we bring together corporate sponsors who want to just share best practices amongst themselves with the faculty member facilitating that conversation? So the value is not that you're going to have access to students. The value is gonna have access to information and some sharing of information, and then follow that with a networking event with students that are interested in sales careers. That's one element of it.
I think the other element of it is, when we have sort of an advisory board of corporate sponsors, I genuinely want to hear what people think they need in terms of the type of student that they want to see graduating from Bentley, but I want to hear it from a variety of sources. Right? We're lucky to live in the Metro Boston area here where there are so many tech companies. I think I kind of understand what they want, right? But you mentioned Liberty Mutual. They're another large employer here at Bentley, and they hire into a very different sales program, and they have a phenomenal training program, and they give us feedback too in terms of the kinds of students they want and the kinds of skills they want, which is why we have more than one sales course, as well. Right? The effective selling course tends to be more of a face-to-face, long-term relationship building course. The sales strategy and technology course tends to be a lot more oriented around that inbound selling process, very different. Very different set of skills, very different course.
We try to keep it ... We try to be up front with the corporate sponsors, but we also ... We definitely want their feedback, but their feedback isn't a mandate. I guess that's the best way to put it.
My question for you is that that's potentially really scary to say, "Oh, I'm gonna put these students into a real business." So my question to you here is: How do you overcome that fear of knowing that these students are 20 and this might not go great? How do you handle that fear as a professor in knowing that you are giving up a little bit of control on the outcome, and then also how do you set expectations with the businesses? I think that's something that professors struggle with a lot, too.
The expectation of the businesses ... They often realize that these are 20 year olds, right? But I make sure that they spend some time with the students before we get rolling. Right? So any time we have this type of a project, I have folks from the company in class with students basically to tell them about the company that they're gonna be working on, but also give them enough time to kind of build some relationship with each other and talk.
I've been fortunate, I think, in being able to have students at Bentley that are genuinely ... most are genuinely interested in business, so you bring in someone who's launching a startup. You bring in someone who's got a larger company with a challenge that they're presenting to the class. They have a genuine curiosity about how they got there and what kind of challenges lie ahead. So usually there's a great kind ... It's like that whole forming, storming, norming process that teams go through. It's kind of like students and their corporate partnerships. It's a lot of craziness in the beginning, a lot of open-ended questions, and then we start to get rolling.
I think that's when my role as a facilitator really kicks in, which is to make sure that I spend time with each of the student teams appropriately to just coach them. Right? To just kind of coach them through the process. If I didn't spend time with students in that setting, coaching them and helping facilitate their discussions a little bit, I think I'd be a lot more nervous about what their end result was going to be. But I'm part of the process with them, and so I can help kind of see where they're going well and where they might be going a little bit off track, and try to get them to come back around. So I think for me, that's how I mitigate some of the risk, is staying involved with the individual teams, making sure I spend enough time with them either in class or in my office, and getting to know their personalities as well so I can kind of help them identify who's stronger in different areas to divvy up the work properly.
Then ultimately, it's ... We try to keep ... As much as we try to solve a specific problem, I try to keep it open-ended with the corporate project partner to say, "The students have come up with a variety of things and I would like you to kind of be open-minded to hear all the things that they've come up with, so don't pre-slot what your end result should look like. It could be something vastly different than what we end up with, and you've gotta be open to that opportunity."
Yeah. I think those are all great tips. Unfortunately, we're out of time, but it does make me think we might have to have you back on here to talk about that topic specifically, which is, how do you bring a pliable ending into the classroom and do it in a way that's beneficial for the folks that they're doing the work for, but also the students, and then growing something from that and learning?
Great insight. Again, Pouli, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your experience. It was great to have you on here.
Thank you, Isaac. It was my pleasure. We'll do it again anytime.
Great. Folks, this has been The Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for The Education Partner Program. The Education Partner Program provides colleges and university professors with everything they need to teach lead-in courses in marking, sales, entrepreneurship, and communications. That's software resources and a community of professors all for free. Until next time, folks.
Isaac: Great. Folks, this has been The Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for The Education Partner Program. The Education Partner Program provides colleges and university professors with everything they need to teach lead-in courses in marking, sales, entrepreneurship, and communications. That's software resources and a community of professors all for free. Until next time, folks.
Jim Pouliopoulos aka "Pouli" is a Marketing and Sales expert and educator with extensive experience in a wide variety of industries including high-tech, medical, government, and services. Experienced in analyzing market opportunities, developing strategies, and implementing marketing mix tactics. A skilled public speaker, spokesperson, instructor and facilitator effective in developing and delivering training programs, conference sessions, and multimedia presentations. An active mentor assisting students and colleagues in career planning. A creative individual with recognized communications skills and a high level of resourcefulness.