How sales’ is lagging behind marketing when it comes to sales education.

Written by: Genevieve Blanch





Despite significant changes to the way we go about buying and selling with the rise of the internet; sales and marketing are separated in their responsiveness to the change, and sales is getting left behind. 

Just as the internet and digital marketing have seen a remarkable shift in relationship from the company to the consumer, so too has sales. New channels and technologies are transforming the consumer into a “cocreator” and it’s the consumer in both realms who are empowered and more and more in control (Wind, 2008, 22). However, sales it seems is lagging behind marketing in its responsiveness to the shift in relationship. Some businesses have begun to make noise about the struggle to find a sales person with the right capabilities to meet the demands of todays digitalised buying and selling arena. Sales method and sales education appears to be stunted in conventional conservative tradition while marketing method and marketing education though not perfect, is adapting and progressing. 

<img src="sales-v-marketing.jpg" alt="marketingvssales" />

One of the biggest factors that places marketing ahead of sales in terms of progress is education of sales personnel. Sales is taught in sales training centres and in the workplace while marketing has become a prestigious and globally sought after discipline of study at university institutions. Business schools rarely offer sales programs while marketing programs are accessible all over the globe. Sales as a study discipline is overwhelmed with negative stereotypes unlike marketing which is now lined with prestige and respect. But there must be good reasons for this right? Sales persons aren’t academics, and academics certainly aren’t sales persons right? And sales are something best learnt on the job right? This may have been true 10 years ago, but in todays fast changing digitalized market, buying and selling is no longer what it used to be and sales learning and the demand for quality sales personnel are growing.

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How exactly sales and marketing evolved with the internet? 

In traditional marketing consumers were guided and persuaded by marketers (Hennig-Thurau, Hofacker and Bloching, 2013). In today’s marketing landscape the consumer is active and interconnected with the market place leading to a social structure whereby the consumer has influence and power (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2013; Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak, and Hofacker, 2013). Some examples of the behavioural drivers of the power shift to consumers include internet user’s ability to leave reviews and share brands, products and product experiences within their networks. The power itself comes from the potential reach of each post, the publicity of each post and the immediacy of each post (Labrecque et al, 2013). The skills to cope with these changes are taught in many universities around the globe, with 41 academic journals supporting their research. It has been suggested that the learning isn’t occurring at a fast enough pace to match the change but nowhere is this more evident than in sales (Ockerbloom, 2015). Marketing in terms of learning has established institutions growing in popularity and filled with eager and ambitious students.  Sales on the other hand is stinted in its learning and development potential. 

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The internet has given rise to a new game of selling. 

Sales traditionally were accomplished through sales personnel personality, charm and a thorough and well executed explanation of how the product or service provides a solution to the problem or needs of the client (Adamson, Dixon, Toman, 2012; Fogel, Hoffmeister, Rocco, and Strunk, 2012). Sales personnel were (and still are) experts in addressing the consumer needs by aligning it with a solution that is better than competitors. Traditionally, sales were simple transactions. The sales person learned a script, prepared for predictable objections and with a tough enough skin to handle some rejection, and based on the law of averages, enough sales would go through to gain your commission and please most parties (Pink, 2012). Traditionally personal would have been the information providers who match the needs of a business with solutions (Adamson et al, 2012). These skills were effectively taught in the workplace with additional support through short sales training courses. 

The internet has given rise to a new game of buying

Customers don’t need sales personnel like they used to (Adamson et al, 2012). On a B2C level, consumers want customization, omnichannels, value for money and choice to name a few (Wind, 2008). On a B2B level, consumers want results, identification of problems and ways of navigating a solution (Adamson et al, 2012). Customers now use information publically and readily available to identify their needs (Tarnovskava, 2016). Customers often have as much data and information as the salesperson themselves (Pink, 2012). In today’s digital landscape, the consumer has rapidly departed from the old ways of buying and consumers want more than just a solution. 

<img src="buyingandsellingtoday.jpg" alt="digitalization">

To be successful in a fast changing buying and selling landscape sales representatives must be prepared to venture from the conventional and highly traditional learned ways. 

To sell a product or service is a lot more complex, demanding and competitive than it used to be. To be competitive in today’s “rigorous field”, sales persons need to outsmart the customers (Wind, 2008, 2). The best sales people focus on a customer’s potential to change, rather than their potential to buy (Adamson et al, 2012). Being able to provide solutions to the business needs remains core, but identifying needs the business aren’t aware of themselves is the way forward (Adamson et al, 2012). Transactional sales are disappearing and the importance of establishing trust and a practiced understanding of the customer’s way of thinking and decision making is growing (Pink, 2012). 

“The skills that matter most are heuristic: Curating and interpreting information instead of merely dispensing it. Identifying new problems along with solving established ones. Selling insights rather than items.” – Pink, 2012. 

A successful sales person is one step ahead, guiding and coaching the customer through the purchase process. However; this kind of sales knowledge and skill is challenging and cannot simply be learnt on the job. 

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More and more discussions have begun to surface as to whether ‘learning on the job’ is enough to be a competent sales person today. CEO’s and business leaders are searching for sales staff with expertise that go beyond traditional sales. An academic from the School of Economics and Management at Lund University has worked extensively with global businesses in helping them learn and be responsive as an organization to the future in order to drive success for their companies. One of his reflections (personal communication, 11 Feb 2016) was that a number of CEO’s are on the search for experts in sales, not only on a practical level, but on a theoretical level. It is difficult enough for CEO’s to fill a sales position with a sales person who has learned his skills on the job. And yet it is near impossible to fill a sales position with a sales person capable of applying both theory and practice, with a broad understanding of sales techniques, that aren’t just based on conventional ‘old school’ techniques. According to recruiters’, sales positions are some of the most difficult for employers to fill with extremely low retention rates (Fogel et al, 2012). This indicates a clear gap in academic and institutional sales education. 

With a transforming and complex sales arena and demand for competent and responsive sales persons, there is reason to suggest that sales as an academic discipline is underestimated and widely underdeveloped.  To be good at sales is multifaceted, and thus warrants broad and grounded theory, better taught in a university institution. The good news is that some universities and businesses are realising the benefits of sales as a professional education and more and more are now offering sales dedicated programs. In the US the number of undergraduate and graduate sales programs available grew from 41 in 2007 to 101 in 2011 (Fogel et al, 2012). In Europe, there are now 18 post graduate programs offering sales related education (PostGrad, 2016). In 2015, 13 European Universities were counted as top universities for sales, an increase from 7 in 2013 (SEF, 2015). 

<img src="topsalesuniversities2015.jpg" alt="topsalesuniversitieseurope2015 ">

Additionally, there is evidence that some leading sales reps are altering conventional sales wisdom and opting for a more responsive approach (Adamson et al, 2012).

However relative to the demand for capable and educated sales person, the educational opportunities do not match up. 

So what’s holding the universities back?

There are three principle barriers identified that are holding back Universities from offering sales education programs. 

An institutional culture is the first barrier. There is an old candid perception that sales education isn’t fit for academia because after all, sales is something you learn on the job. Were you to run a test on the learning style of sales representatives and compare it to academics, the results are likely to be opposite. Take Kolb’s (1974) learning styles for example, Academics stereotypically would be categorised into a ‘watching’ and ‘thinking’ learning style while while sales representatives would be the ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’ (McLeod, 2013). Doing and feeling are styles regularly associated with learning on the job. However due to a number of reasons including the changing sales arena, the change in consumer behaviour and the need for sales learning and development it is no longer sufficient to only learn on the job in order to be a successful sales person. The different learning styles should be seen as an opportunity and a tool to teach sales in a way that suits the learning styles of the students participating.

Relatedly, sales’ has an image problem. A sales person, is stereotypically the guy at your grandma’s door tricking her into buying something she can’t afford and will never use. Sales can be associated with greed for commission, fake relationship and deception of honest people. Furthermore, pop culture, literature, and media bombard us with negative sales stereotypes. DePauls University in the US interviewed incoming students to their sales business programs to find out if they were considering sales careers and the answer was a definitive no (Fogul et al, 2012). Fortunately, they changed their perspective after some time within the course, but this finding demonstrates the negative perception that taints the educational sales opportunities.  Sales it seems has becoming the inferior, unconcerned, hungry little brother to marketing as the fashionable, glamorous and highly popular older sister. 

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The third barrier is the little research reward when it comes to sales academia. In the academic field of marketing there are almost no prestigious journals that focus on sales. According to faculty perceptions of the ranking of marketing journals, there are 41 listed journals covering topics including business ethics, consumer research, retailing market research. Only one of the 41 is related to sales, the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management (Hult, Neese, and Bashaw, 1997). There is very little support for PhD programs in sales and few are encouraged to study it through another business discipline. Marketing on the other hand receives much funding, and ample research opportunities.

Given the transformed function of sales in todays digital era it is time to move beyond these barriers and realize the potential of sales education in an institutional setting. Sales as in need of personnel with a broad and functional understanding of business, it is in need of personnel exposed to multiple techniques, not just the the one traditional technique taught by the sales training company. Sales is in need of academia and if it remains stunted in its traditional ways, the profession of sales will lose more respect than ever before. 













Adamson, B., Dixon, M. and Toman, N., 2012. The end of solution sales. Harvard Business Review, July-August, pp. 60-68. Available Online:


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Sales Education Foundation (SEF) (2015). View 2015 Annual Magazine. Available Online: [Accessed 17 Feb 2016]


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Tarnovskava, V (2016). Lecture 2.1: Consumer power and sharing economy, BUSN32, powerpoint presentation, LUSEM Lund, 28 January 2015. Available Online:$baseurl%7D/files/lectures/1454000684_160128-BASE-Lec2ConsumEvoPDF-VTsd%20(1).pdf


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