This professor brings a touch of the real world to his marketing course by having students try their sales pitches on sales professionals.
Assistant Professor of Marketing, California State University, Los Angeles
PhD and MA in Marketing, BS in Management
Carlin Nguyen got his first sales job at age 16, when he was hired to telemarket vacation packages. If the prospect paid a deposit and attended a time-share presentation, they would earn a free cruise and free night or two in a hotel.
“My biggest challenge was selling prospects on the fact that they had to pay to fly wherever the cruise port was located,” says Nguyen, who is now the H. Jean Waldrop Assistant Professor of Marketing in California State University Los Angeles’ College of Business and Economics. “The offer, as the company had worded the script, was a little deceptive. It wasn’t just a free trip with no strings.”
But in a world where “coffee is for closers” might sometimes seem to ring a little too true, Nguyen did not settle for deception. And as it turns out, he had a talent for talking with people and conveying value. He was good at educating people on how to understand all aspects of the offer and purchase so they were excited by it and did not feel duped.
“I quickly learned how to connect the dots between passion for engaging with people and finding integrity in the selling process,” he says. Today, he works hard at conveying the importance of integrity to students and imparting a sales philosophy of his own: It’s all about building relationships and serving others.
Challenge: Change students’ mindsets about real-world selling
In his time as an instructor, Nguyen has pinpointed two main challenges he faces with his students:
- Many marketing students have not had in-class opportunities that will prepare them for the real world. “The students need more exposure to the real world so that they can be ready for the jobs they will eventually be hired to do,” Nguyen says. “How can I help give students the requisite skills to become employable?”
- Many students come to his class because they have to—this is a required course for all marketing majors—but many feel that they are not interested in learning about sales. “A number of them walk in with preconceived notions about selling,” he says. “For example, they think that sales people are sleazy, they just show products, it’s a commission-only job, not a good lifestyle for most people, and requires too much travel. How can I change their mindset?”
So Nguyen set out to uncover an in-class activity that would provide real-world experience while also challenging their preconceived notions about sales.
Innovation: Partner with salespeople to make learning real
Role-play is one of the standard methods for teaching sales. Typically, educators have students role-play, either with them or with each other. For example, a teacher might pretend to be a customer and have a student pitch him to make a purchase.
Nguyen felt that students who already had negative preconceived notions about sales likely would not do well in this scenario. But he also thought back to his own experiences in sales, and he knew that hands-on training was usually most effective for him.
“I thought of myself as a student. What kind of experience would I want out of the class if I was taking it?” he says. “If I show students videos of people swimming and say, ‘Look at this form and discuss the physics of it,’ that’s one kind of teaching. But at some point if I am to be effective, I have to get them in the pool so they’ll have to swim.”
His innovation? He gives students a taste of reality by throwing them in the deep end by role-playing with a currently active, professional salesperson, which he says takes practice to a whole new level.
“This class is mainly focused on one-on-one interaction when it comes to personal selling—building rapport and then communicating, presenting, and delivering value.””— Carlin Nguyen, PhD
Course: MKT 3210 Personal Selling
Frequency: One 3-hour class per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 45–90 students
Course description: Explores the sales cycle from prospect to close as well as its role in the marketing process overall. Examines the roles of persuasion, consultation, negotiation, and trust in selling.
MKT 3210 Personal SellingSee materials
Lesson: Set the stage for more meaningful role-playing
A Quantum View into Sales
The UPS sales call focuses on Quantum View, the UPS software that consolidates billing and allows customers to see where the package is en route. For the role-playing lesson, students must research UPS and study the information sheet about the company that Nguyen provides. Students then focus on their sales strategy, the key questions they plan to ask the “prospect,” how they plan to differentiate their services from others, and the benefits of their products and services. They must prepare to respond to tough questions or concerns from the prospect, including:
- I am happy with my current supplier.
- I am concerned with damages; our products are delicate.
- I have heard that your prices are high.
- We need to be able to count on the representative from your company to take care of us—quickly and reliably—in the long term.
- I am concerned with your ability to pick my packages up daily.
Students must have responses ready for these difficult questions, and others. Nguyen emphasizes that handling customer objections effectively is critical to gaining and maintaining trust and cooperation.
Nguyen’s industry experience in sales, management, and recruiting, along with his connection to industry professionals, helps him bridge the gap between theory and practice so that students gain relevant, real-world experience in the classroom. With his Real-World Sales Role-Play lesson, Nguyen has students demonstrate their knowledge of the sales process by role-playing with a sales professional.
Along with opening students’ eyes to what sales is really like, Nguyen uses this lesson to help develop the next generation of “work-ready” business professionals that operate with the utmost moral and ethical standards.
Here are the steps he uses to pull it all together.
Help them master the process before the role-play
Starting from the first week of his course—and well before the actual role-play happens—Nguyen works to make sure students understand each step in the sales process, from researching what the prospect needs and how the products or services being sold might help to smart techniques for closing the sale. Along with that, he focuses on the importance of forming authentic connections with potential customers as you convey the value you and your products bring.
Form partnerships with industry professionals
Nguyen has formed partnerships with various businesses (across several industries) that participate in the role-playing lessons. These partners help develop specific projects for the class, which Nguyen says helps to get the partners more involved in the students’ success.
Most recently, he worked with UPS and, together, they developed the product the students will be selling (see more in the sidebar “A Quantum View into Sales”). And what is in it for UPS? “They get to interact with talent,” says Nguyen. “It’s de facto job recruiting. From my end, it’s an opportunity for students to get access to future jobs—and students know that, so the stakes are higher.”
Be an early adopter
The size of the class can make role playing a bit chaotic, especially as Nguyen needs to focus on one student–professional role-play at a time. He breaks the class into small groups to make it easier for everyone to focus, and he is also exploring technology that can help. For example, sometimes he stages the role-playing exercises on Zoom, a video teleconferencing tool that can also record the sessons. He creates “breakout rooms” in Zoom for each group, so that he and the attending sales professionals can join individual rooms to observe and provide more personal attention.
Nguyen likes the videoconferencing tool for another reason as well: “I then have a record of the interaction with the professional,” he says. “So if a student disagrees with the scoring, then I can review and reevaluate his or her performance.”
Be a role model throughout the experience
Nguyen is a big believer in a holistic approach to teaching. Because he wants students to see the importance of building relationships and helping others, that is the approach he tries to take throughout his instruction. He makes time for students, whether their time together is focused on work or personal life. “I’ll stay for an hour after class ends and we can talk about classwork, or sometimes I’ll mentor them about life decisions,” he says. “Changing students’ lives is the reason I do this.”
Nguyen has seen that the students place great value on the feedback from the sales professional.
“When I did role-plays with students, they didn’t always accept my comments or suggestions,” he says. “When a real salesperson gave them the same feedback, they paid much closer attention. They not only love the feedback more from a sales professional but they accept that feedback at face value. They say to me, ‘I trust it.’”
In addition to providing students with practice, the lesson also helps the students expand their networks before they join the workforce. Nguyen says the exposure also helps students make informed decisions about whether they want to pursue a career in sales (which a number of his former students have successfully done).
“I’ve considered working in sales after this class. The things I learned will help me [in] my career and my life.”
“This class was one I didn’t have any interest in before taking with Professor Nguyen. He is very knowledgeable in this area and it is my belief he can turn anyone into a pro with the right coaching. I gained a better understanding of how to interact with clients and sell successfully.”
“I feel the presentations by the various company sales representatives made the course more engaging and provided real-world examples of a career in sales. This allowed me to see the connection between learning the sales process in class and how it is actually applies in business.”
“He debunked many concerns that I have with selling as a career. Overall, he is an amazing professor that cares about his students and will be there to make sure we are successful in his class and the commercial world.”