The Professional Sales Program equips students from the Foster School and around the UW to add value immediately
Shannon Connors was having a “major” crisis. After returning from an idyllique year in Paris pursuing her UW studies in French and history, she took a course in accounting—kind of her family business—at the Foster School out of curiosity. And she absolutely loved it.
“It was my senior year, too late to switch majors,” Connors says. “But I was really liking business.”
Her mother had heard of Foster’s Professional Sales Program, and suggested she check it out.
The one-year program is open to qualifying undergraduates from around the UW. So alongside the accounting, marketing, management, finance and IS students are many others studying communications, political science, psychology, international studies, public health, mathematics, to name just a few.
“Our students bring a diversity of interests,” says long-time Sales Program director Jack Rhodes (BA 1961). “This adds a real richness to the classroom.”
For Connors, the attraction only began with access to an array of business classes that she found fascinating and “relevant to so many careers.” She also valued the challenge of departing her comfort zone, the personalized attention of a niche program, and the exposure to Seattle’s amazing companies—large and small.
Shark tank tamer
One particular exposure turned into a promising job for Connors (BA 2016). After performing the program’s required practicum internship with Slalom Consulting in the spring of her senior year, she earned a rare straight-out-of-undergrad position with the Seattle-based firm, working with its lead generation team to create new sales opportunities in each of its markets.
Less than six months into her career, Connors won Slalom’s “Shark Tank” competition, by pitching the firm’s services most convincingly to a panel of general managers impersonating their most challenging customers.
Connors chalks up her Cinderella story to being the company’s newest and youngest employee. “My moment of fame,” she declares, laughing. “People wanted to know, who is this kid?”
If winning a fun, intramural competition made her a curiosity within the company, it’s an opening that a good salesperson can work with.
And, in fact, Connors has already earned a spot on the team launching an internal sales startup around one of Slalom’s marquee partners: Salesforce, the cloud-based customer relationship management platform.
Tim Lee (BA 2015) was something of an academic journeyman at the UW, wending his way from life sciences to economics to political science before finding the Professional Sales Program. Maybe it was destiny. He had shown early aptitude for sales while interning with Kimberly-Clark during his dabbling in biology.
With his graduation approaching, he was recruited via LinkedIn for a regional sales position with BSI (British Standards Institute), which provides certification and training to companies that are bound by all manner of standards, from quality to environmental to health and safety to IT security.
Lee is an account manager with the medical devices practice, serving clients such as Philips, Medtronic and Boston Scientific. He says it’s a great merging of his scientific background and acumen in sales. He works out of his Seattle home, which affords him enough flexibility to coach high school baseball.
BSI is likely to give him all the flexibility he needs if he continues performing as he did in his first year. Lee finished 2016 at 299 percent of his sales goal, winning both the Best Sales Award for BSI’s medical devices practice and the firm’s MVP Award for the Americas.
“It was a good year,” Lee understates. “I owe a lot of my success to the classes at Foster, sales club and the Sales Program—especially the support and guidance of Jack and the rest of the program faculty.”
Meredith Barrett (BA 2015) enrolled in the Professional Sales Program as she headed toward her degree in communications, focused on journalism. Her intent was to expand her potential career opportunities.
“Though I loved it, I didn’t want to be limited to journalism and public relations jobs,” she says. “I wanted to make sure I had options and I thought sales could only help me, whatever I ended up doing.”
Barrett excelled at sales, even contributing to the winning Foster entry at the 2014 National Team Selling Competition at Indiana University. At Foster’s Sales Career Fair, she connected with Softchoice, the Toronto-based IT consulting firm, and hit the ground running. In less than two years as a territory sales representative, Barrett has made a big impression.
At the company-wide sales kickoff meeting in 2017, she was shocked to receive the Softchoice “Golden Gloves” award (to the theme from “Rocky”), her division’s foremost recognition of exemplary performance and leadership.
“It was an incredible honor,” says Barrett. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, because I hadn’t even been there two years.”
How are these young Sales Program grads able to make such profound impacts on their companies so early in their careers?
It’s the quality of the people, for one. But Rhodes emphasizes that Foster’s program, launched in 1998, has transformed to address a revolution in modern sales. One of the earliest academic programs in the country, Foster’s continues at the vanguard of the profession.
“Before the rise of information technology, sales used to be the bearer of information,” he says. “Nobody needs salespeople for that anymore. Modern sales requires knowing as much about your clients’ business as you do about your own. It’s escalated the profession to the next level. To be a good salesperson today, you’ve got to be educated in business.”
So the program requires a fuller set of business coursework and a wide array of electives—along with a timeless sales rubric and essential skills of negotiation and communication. And it continues to expose students to professionals and employers at every turn, from guest speakers to the Sales Career Fair to the required sales practicum. Those employers, facing enormous upfront training costs for each fresh-out-of-school hire, like what they see.
“Our first hire from the UW Professional Sales Program was Shannon Connors,” says Todd Sink, Slalom’s managing director for sales. “She brought a skill set that you rarely see in a recent college grad and has already made an amazing impact at Slalom. I’m a huge fan of the Sales Program and look forward to our continued partnership.”
For their part, these young and accomplished sales professionals cite the Foster School program’s personal touch as that something extra. They are quick to recall a favorite kernel of wisdom they have carried into their careers. For Lee, it is Rhodes’ prohibition of “I” over “we.” Connors recalls the oft-repeated slogan: “marketing tells, sales sells.” And Barrett keeps in the back of her mind another of Rhodes’ favorite advices: “Keep it simple, stupid.”
“It’s about being concise, direct,” she explains.
This package of experiences has produced a sustained job placement rate in excess of 90 percent for graduating Professional Sales Program students.
“What’s the special sauce?” asks Rhodes. “We are providing students with a skill set that can add value to a company immediately. The proof, for us, is the Shannon Connors and the Meredith Barretts and the Tim Lees out there. Our students get great jobs and are successful right away.”