How does the Sales Challenge impact student learning by offering a ‘learn-by-rising-to-the-challenge’ opportunity?

How does the Sales Challenge impact student learning by offering a ‘learn-by-rising-to-the-challenge’ opportunity?

Interview with Peter Spier, Professor of Marketing at SKEMA Business School

Peter, can you please tell us about the Sales Challenge and the program it was developed in?

The Sales Challenge is organised in the spring semester of the MSc in International Marketing and Business Development – so most of the students are about to graduate and look for work.  This MSc is one of the few that balance marketing and business development/sales.  This makes sense in business terms because both should work hand in hand.  For students it makes sense to understand both activities, but also because it opens a wide range of opportunities in an area that is frequently undervalued and badly understood. 

How can learning about business development add value to marketing or vice versa?

In a sense, marketing provides the insight and business development gets things done.  In a B2B environment, marketing is often a support for key accounts and business development.  In the world of consumer goods, manufacturers will work with channel partners to reach the final consumer and companies will often expect recruits to spend time in the field where they may continue or move to positions such as category management, trade marketing or marketing.  In a start-up, the same person will often deal with both.  In international business development, students will be accepted more readily in business development roles.  Business development positions are invariably a good deal more interesting than students imagine.

One of the missions of this Master is to introduce students to the world of sales & business development as well as presenting the wide range of different types of selling in an array of sectors.  The Sales Challenge serves precisely this purpose and has become an iconic event: “If I had to sum up this challenge in a few words, I would say adaptability, stimulating environment, creativity and obviously… fun!” –Aline Blois, current SKEMA student.

Can you explain what the Sales Challenge is?

The Challenge brings together students who are learning about sales and business development with companies who are keen to promote sales as a career and recruit talented students.  Students discover different businesses and types of sales and test their selling skills with sales professionals through a sales simulation.  Our partner companies are keen to explore new ways of working with business schools.  The event provides a memorable shared moment for the MSc, creates contacts with companies and puts students into a challenging situation in which they learn by doing.

How has the challenge grown over the years?

It began in Sophia five years ago.  It was then organised in Paris.  This year would have included Lille and Suzhou had not the Covid19 shutdown prevented this.  In Paris it is offered as an elective.  On other campuses it concludes the Business Development and Sales core course and provides the evaluation for the selling skills component of this course.

How is the Challenge organised?

The Challenge is organised over two days. 

Day One:  Companies present themselves, the type of sales situations they encounter, their sales methods and the business case for the sales simulation.

Day Two: Students are assigned to a company and do an individual sales simulation with the company representatives. They receive immediate feedback and are graded by the company for their performance.  At the end of the day, during a final ceremony, each company names the top three performers.

How did COVID19 affect the Challenge this year?

This year made the Challenge particularly challenging.  We managed to complete it in Sophia, but by the time the Paris challenge was taking place, companies were withdrawing because of isolation policies.  The Challenge was cancelled in Lille and Suzhou.  In Paris, Akka Technologies fielded three teams and we managed to do simulations with half of the students.  For the remaining half, we have had to do simulations by internet.  A special mention here for Jacquet Brossard, a new partner, who very kindly accepted to take part in this novel event “This was a very original, challenging at times, but worthwhile experience. Original due to the format, completely digital. Challenging because of the extra barrier created by digital communication …. But worthwhile, since all these changes didn’t in any way affect the outcome of our exchanges. We were very pleasantly surprised by the ease of adaptation to a digital version and how despite its limitations, it still allowed us to have an enriching experience.” – Emily Endo, Jacquet Brossard HR

Everyone would agree that the internet version doesn’t match face-to-face sales, but it was proof of agility and inventiveness in the face of change!

How did this project impact student learning?

Students are unanimous in saying that this is probably on of the most memorable learning experiences they live through at the school ” The Sales Challenge was an incredible 2-day enriching experience, a great opportunity to apply concepts and selling techniques, as well as networking with companies … This competition was a fun learning experience” -Thomas Vandel current SKEMA student.

The feedback from the company professionals is worth its weight in gold, and this degree of personal attention would be virtually impossible without their contribution “Our goal was to inspire students …. In Sophia Antipolis, we learned the uniqueness of this exercise. It was such a positive experience, the exchange, the approach to our case and the commitment of the students. It helped remind us to stay innovative as well” – Emily Endo, Jacquet Brossard HR.

How do you think the objectives of this program help students Learn Differently?

The challenge provides a powerful learning experience for students. This experience is individual (so much of what we do in ‘project-based learning’ is in groups) and real-world in the sense that students are confronted with realistic sales situations created by companies and are also judged by their professional standards.  This is ‘active learning’ taken to its highest level:  learning through challenge.  This is not just a matter of ‘application’, but a holistic approach that draws on a whole range of ‘soft skills’ – emotional and situational intelligence, negotiation, persuasiveness, the ability to ‘connect’, the ability to control and structure a professional exchange – and helps to develop those skills by challenging students to rise to the occasion.  It is a little like sporting achievement:  you learn the techniques, but can you bring it all together for the performance on the day?  It makes them stronger, more confident, more able to confront new and challenging situations.

This Challenge achieves a number of objectives:

  • Promote sales as an activity and a possible career and develop closer contacts with companiesWhat I remember from this experience is very simple: it convinced me to go into sales. I remember that day that gave me a real boost” – Alice Faure current SKEMAstudent)
  • Explore different ways of working with companies (project-based learning is key to the pedagogical approach used in the MSc, and we work with companies in many different ways)
  • Create ‘peak’ moments in the curriculum that will be challenging and memorable: “I admit it was a bit stressful as it was an unusual exam format, I thought it was one of the most professional ones I have ever had in my SKEMA classes.” -Marianne Labbé current SKEMAstudent
  • Combine a ‘learning-by-doing’ pedagogy, with a ‘learn-by-rising-to-the-challenge’ approach: “Managers tried to challenge us with questions we didn’t expect to answer. For example, one of the strategies I put forward to a manager did not have any concrete numbers to base it on, and the manager insisted on this part to see how I reacted.”Aline Blois, current SKEMA student
  • ‘Close the circle’ by bringing back former students – many of whom found their jobs through the sales challenge – to share their professional experience with the new cohort.  This is possibly one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole experience for a Programme Director!

What do you take away from this experience as a professor?

That teaching is often about creating ‘learning opportunities’ rather than imparting knowledge.  This is teacher-as-events-manager, teacher-as-juggler-of-last-minute-changes.  This is also a wonderful way for the programme to work with the Talent and career service and for them to work with us, creating new ways to work with companies (a resounding round of applause for our partner companies Hilti, Akka Technologies, Page Personnel, P&G, Auchan, Jacquet Brossard, Viibe, Frost & Sullivan). It is a virtuous circle of the very best kind. 

What do you wish you had known before you started this project?

That organising this kind of work is not easy!  Often, with the best intentions, companies discover that at the last moment they are unable to attend.  It is often a case of individuals within the company who make it work, and they are all juggling with multiple priorities.  Every year there comes a moment where I ask myself why I put myself through this.  When I hear the students’ comments and see them get jobs, I realize that it is worth the trouble.

Finally, what will the challenge look like in 2021?

Having been frustrated in our attempts to organize the event in Lille and Suzhou this year because of the COVID19 shutdown, we are determined to do so next year and will add Belo Horizonte so that every campus where we have IMBD will host the challenge. 

We have invited companies in Sophia to teach master classes during the Selling skills course that leads up to the event and would like to develop this further. 

There is always room for improvement in the way we teach students selling skills, and we are considering the possibility of creating some online material for selling techniques.

Peter SpierProfessor in Marketing, Sales and International Business, SKEMA Business School

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