The Brink of a Career

Edition: September 2007 - Vol 15 Number 09
Article#: 2760
Author: Repertoire

Some people need to feel the love. Others thrive on rejection. Twenty-three-year-old Nate Scholz does a bit of both. He learned as much selling cars during a one-year hiatus from college.

There’s a stigma associated with selling cars, says Scholz, a 2007 graduate of Washington State University in Vancouver and winner of this spring’s National Collegiate Sales Competition in Kennesaw, Ga. “I felt really good about meeting a customer who hated me from the start, then selling him a $50,000 asset, and having him walk away loving me.”

This is a kid who will go far in sales.

Although he is only 23, Scholz, who is from Vancouver, Wa., has been selling things since he was 15, working in stores, selling gym memberships, and cars. Selling may be in his blood, but it’s not necessarily inherited. His father is a commercial pilot for Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air and his mom trains horses. But the son is all about sales. “It was kind of a progressive thing,” he says. “As in most people’s lives, you realize what your God-given gifts are and what you excel at.”

Scholz started college with an interest in sports medicine, but found it wasn’t his forte. After a year, he decided to take some time off from school. That’s when he got the job selling cars. “I loved the interaction,” he says. “I love to read people, know what they’re thinking, change the way [I approach them]. It kind of became, ‘This is what I’m good at.’”

So good at selling was he that Scholz received several job offers from car-buying customers. He even got an informational interview at Nike headquarters in nearby Beaverton, Ore. “It’s one of the prize jobs around here,” he says. But he realized that in order to work for Nike, he’d need a degree; so he returned to school to pursue a marketing degree.

Certificate in sales

Soon after he started, he learned of a new program that Washington State University was offering — a certificate in professional sales. Similar to a minor, the program calls for students to take five courses — negotiations, sales management, professional selling, management operations and market research.

“I learned a lot of things,” says Scholz. “We debated the age-old question, ‘Are you born a salesman, or can you learn it?’ It was an eye-opening experience.” Students in the program learn about different types of sales as well as different industries. “We learned about the whole sales process, the things you have to do,” he says. He calls that the “science” of selling. But he also got training in the subtler aspects of the profession. “The ‘art’ comes in how you choose to paint the picture for your customer,” he says.

As part of the “professional selling” class in the sales certificate program, students must participate in a local collegiate sales competition. Several weeks before the event — which was held Dec. 1, 2006, at WSU Vancouver — students were informed of the scenario in which they would compete: They were to represent parcel-freight company UPS, and they would be given 20 minutes to sell their services to hypothetical customers. (The customers themselves came from companies that sponsored the event, including Aramark.) Scholz and his classmates spent weeks preparing for the event, with each other and their professor, Chris Plouffe, who was brought in by WSU in the fall of 2005 to start the sales program.

Scholz went the extra mile, and visited UPS’s Swan Island (Ore.) facility to learn as much as he could about the company. “I tried to get to the vice president of sales to find out how they sold their services,” he recalls. He did manage to get some good information, though it wasn’t easy. “They were worried I was from FedEx or something,” he says. Based on the information he gathered and his own research, he put together a PowerPoint presentation for the competition.

“There’s a whole checklist of things you have to do,” he says, including identifying the prospect’s needs and overcoming his objections. “There’s a three-step process for that,” he says. Scholz did so well that he — along with classmate Ashley Wayman — qualified for the national competition at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

Test of wits, skill

In addition to representing UPS, competitors at the national event also had to sell Act!, the contact and customer-relationship-management software from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Sage Software. Competitors were sent copies of the software in advance, so they could learn how to use and demonstrate it.

“Ashley [Wayman] and I made a pact in January,” recalls Scholz. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we didn’t want to look bad.” The sponsoring companies were not only going to act as customers and judges, but they would also be scrutinizing the young talent and looking for potential employees. So Wayman and Scholz — who have known each other since fifth grade — began an intense, months-long training process. They worked together at least 12 hours a week, creating PowerPoint presentations, databases and other materials. They met with Plouffe to deliver mock presentations, which they videotaped.

The two-day competition itself is a test of wits, skill and stamina. Students complete a round, then are given a new buyer profile for the next. “You had no idea what the scenario will be [until you get the new profile]; then you have to change all your slides and databases,” says Scholz. Judges themselves had their own script to follow. “They might be told, ‘Your wife recently died, you kicked your dog this morning, you crashed your car, you don’t want to see this guy,’” he says. Although the judges must allow the competitors to complete their presentations, they can — and do — throw up just about every roadblock they can devise.

“They test you on everything – your people skills, your selling ability, whether you represent your product well,” says Scholz. “The biggest distinguishing factor between those who did well and those who didn’t was how they handled objections.”

The hard work paid off. Scholz finished first out of 88 contestants, and Wayman was one of 12 semi-finalists. What’s more, he received a number of job offers from the companies that sponsored the competition. As Scholz prepared to make his decision, he continued to hone his selling and customer service skills by serving at a popular local restaurant in Vancouver called Beaches Restaurant and Bar. “It’s a very unique atmosphere. Obviously, the location [on the Columbia River] is huge, but the guy who owns it is truly a marketing master.”

At press time, Scholz was in the process of moving to Los Angeles to begin a job with the Tom James Company, a provider of high-end custom clothing, primarily for executives — and a sponsor of the national competition. “Here’s my rationale,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a small fish in a big corporate pond, and I don’t like the anal-retentive corporate life. The reason Tom James is appealing is that it’s a way for me to make a name for myself.”

While selling mainframe computers and technical computing solutions for Hewlett Packard in Canada in the mid-90s, Chris Plouffe noticed something of interest. “The really high performers were not only good at selling, but they had wired their own organization to be firing on their behalf,” says Plouffe, who is director of the sales certificate program at Washington State University in Vancouver. “They used influence and persuasion inside to get things done.” The lesson would shape his future.

A native of Ottawa, Ont., Plouffe received a master’s in business administration from Queens University, Kingston, Ont., in 1994, then sold enterprise-class computers and technical computing solutions for Hewlett Packard, first in Toronto, then in Calgary. While selling for HP, he worked on developing good relationships with others in the company, such as the service and financing people. “There are two ways to approach people in your company,” he says. “You can say, ‘These are my co-workers and I have to work with them,’ or you can navigate the organization a little more thoughtfully, which leads to better results over the medium and long term.”

While enjoying some successful years at Hewlett Packard, Plouffe made a big decision — to pursue his Ph.D. in marketing, specifically, business-to-business sales, at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario. What he found surprised him. “People in marketing had been studying sales topics for 20, 30, 40 years. But I was blown away reading these scholarly articles, with how out of touch they were with the key things I had learned at Hewlett Packard.”

So serious was he about what he had observed at Hewlett Packard that Plouffe pursued it for his Ph.D. dissertation. He calls it salesperson navigation, or the ability of a sales rep to get what he needs within the organization to achieve success. “Most of the research in marketing has historically focused on the salesperson’s externally directed dealings — ‘How do I interact with a prospect?’ ‘How do I handle objections?’ he says. He had learned that what happens inside the organization is just as important.

His Ph.D. work wrapped up, Plouffe decided to pursue a career in academia. “When I was working on my MBA, one of the professors hired me one summer as a research assistant. I got to see the life of a business school professor up close, and I thought, ‘This is kind of a dream career. You get to change people’s lives; tackle interesting research topics with companies, firms and salespeople; do ample consulting work to augment your income; get time off.’ I compared that to [working] a sales territory that extended several thousand kilometers — I was covering Alberta and Saskatchewan — and being on the road 20 days a month.” Academia won.

In 2001, Plouffe took a job at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia in Athens. It was there that he first got involved with the National Collegiate Sales Competition in Kennesaw, Ga. In fact, he took teams there three years. In 2005, he seized the opportunity to head up a newly created sales certificate program at Washington State University in Vancouver. As he had at UGA, he got his students involved in the national sales competition.

“[The competition] gives the kids a set of skills,” he says. “Even though they are mock sales calls, they offer invaluable experience. The kids learn how to sell themselves. They see the interest that corporations have in hiring them, and that gets them excited. The competition can be interesting in itself. But when they see they can take a college degree and become professional salespeople, and everyone — including employers —get excited about that, then they get turned on.”

In just its second year fielding a team at the national competition, WSU brought home the first-place trophy, won by Nate Scholz. His teammate, Ashley Wayman, was one of 12 semi-finalists.

Plouffe wasn’t altogether surprised. “In the basic marketing class I teach, which is a prerequisite for all the other sales courses in the [sales certificate] sequence, Nate walked up at the end of the semester and said, ‘I’m going to win.’ He has no problem with self-confidence.”