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Putting Sales on the HBS Agenda

How do you “cold-email” someone to get an interview? When reaching out to any executive, the best path is to obtain an internal referral. Statistics shows that a person is much more likely to reply to a “cold email” if the inquirer was referred by an internal co-worker.

How do I get a CEO to read AND reply to my email? The first step is getting the person to open the e-mail. Research and think about the subject line. Make it personal. One way to do this is by including a public quote from him in the email subject: (i.e., Subject: ‘Your quote at Phoenix Sun Times’). Done right, this method can be 70% effective at eliciting a response within 24 hours.” Regarding the content, make it short, but give the reader a personal obligation to reply to you; make it about him (why YOU, not why ME).

When learning these basic techniques, one is developing selling skills. Most people believe that these skills cannot be taught; either you are born with them or not. As it turns out, sales skills can be taught just like anything else. The tips above are from Jeff Hoffman, Founder of Basho Strategies, an internationally renowned sales force training and consulting firm that has introduced cutting-edge sales and leadership strategies throughout the world. Enlisted by the Sales Club, Jeff is bringing his practical techniques to HBS students in March in the WHY YOU workshop series.

Roughly speaking, Sales skills fall into two broad categories: Selling Skills and Sales Management.

For Professor Frank Cespedes, RC Strategy, Selling Skills are fundamental for any career. He describes them as: “the ability to listen, understand, analyze the situation, scope-out fears and motivations, and then persuade to a course of action. These skills are important personally and professionally in any career that goes beyond sheer number-crunching. Without these abilities, you just don’t become a partner in a consulting or private-equity firm, a successful entrepreneur, big-company P&L executive, or a brand or product manager with a future.” Professor Cespedes defines Sales Management skills as: “the ability to assess and recruit relevant talent, how to make strategic decisions about the allocation of available effort, when to organize and when not to, and (last but not least) how to motivate diverse people in a coherent manner.”

There is a lot of skepticism today among HBS students about jobs in sales management, but what most students are unaware of is that 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs today have sales management experience.

“A sales track is one of the best routes to becoming a general manager – over the years, a large number of successful CEOs have come through the sales track. They would all claim that their sales experience helped them gain a better sense of how to connect with the markets externally and sell their ideas internally to their organizations and close the deal. Talk to any entrepreneur and they would tell you that being good in sales is critical to success.” This is the suggestion of Professor Das Narayandas, who teaches the popular Entrepreneurial Finance course in the EC year.

He goes on to say: “The earlier you get some field sales experience the better. It gets harder to go out into the field as you move up in the organization – don’t wait.”

Professor Cespedes agrees: “I’m teaching RC Strategy and, quite rightly, we focus our limited number of class sessions primarily on the analytical skills relevant to strategy formulation. But in most companies, the sales force is the major vehicle for strategy implementation. Learn more about it.”

Sales skills are an absolute necessity in the business world, but this field is not yet a focus of the HBS curriculum. Professor Cespedes argues: “In recent years, some other business schools (e.g., Stanford and M.I.T.) may have surpassed us in this particular subject area, and that bugs me.”

The new Sales Club, founded by students in the Class of 2010, agrees. Its goal is to fill this gap at HBS, and during its first three months of existence it has already attracted 130+ members.

In addition to the WHY YOU workshops, the Sales Club is also planning a Sales Case Competition, in which students will practice pitching to Venture Capitalists and Sales VPs of Fortune 500 companies.

Also, the Sales Club will invite practitioners and alumni who will talk about how they use sales skills in jobs across every industry.

As Professor Narayandas says, “The Sales Club provides a platform for HBS MBA students to learn about selling and sales management through ‘how to do it’ seminars and listening to master salesmen.”

For more information about sales skills and the Sales Club, please contact Fereshteh Zeineddin, Sales Club EVP of Communication, at fzeineddin@mba2010.hbs.edu.

Author’s Biography
Fereshteh Zeineddin earned her undergraduate degree in marketing and worked at L’Oreal Canada in the consumer products division.

April 21, 2009
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