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At Some Business Schools, the Salesman's Not Dead

Companies are hiring MBAs with sales experience, according to an executive career coach.

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Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, famously said a businessman's personality trumps academic credentials. But some business schools are bucking the conventional wisdom that sales is the domain of undergraduate—rather than MBA-level—study, and are heeding Loman's wife's admonition that "attention must be paid" to salesmen. 

There are MBA student-run sales clubs at several business schools, including Harvard Business School, the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, and the School of Management at Yale University. Many business schools offer graduate coursework in sales management or leadership, and nearly 96,000 of the LinkedIn users who identify sales as their job function also mention an MBA in their profiles. 

Students who plan to work in sales may need to weed through some misconceptions about the field, warns Chris Kondo, director of the Sales Leadership Center at California State University—Fullerton's Mihaylo College of Business and Economics

"If you ask an average person on the street, they might say something like, 'Oh, salespeople. All they want to do is close a sale. They don't care about what I really want,'" Kondo says. In reality, sales is a "very professional career" that requires establishing long-term relationships with clients, he adds. 

[Check out a video with tips for choosing an MBA program.] 

MBA students at the Acton School of Business in Austin, Texas, learn just how professional a salesman has to be by selling children's dictionaries to strangers as part of a course requirement. Cory Older, an Acton student who knocked on 250 doors and sold four books, admits he isn't a born salesman. "These are the people I slam the door on. I didn't want to be them," he says. 

Older's classmate Brad Holden, 42, decided to hawk his wares to parents of small children at the local mall after he found homeowners less likely to open their doors for him than for his 20-something classmates. His strategy helped him sell five or six books. 

Both Older and Holden say the challenge gave them real world, practical experience that they'll utilize in their future careers. 

"Let's face it. Everything, I mean everything—getting a job, who you marry, being an effective manager, even what you are going to have for dinner—depends on influencing someone else," explains John Paul Engel, chief operating officer of Knowledge Capital Consulting in Sioux City, Iowa. "What could be more valuable than learning to do that as effectively as possible?" 

[Check out the 10 MBAs with the most financial value at graduation.] 

Not everyone believes sales belongs in an MBA curriculum, however. A cofounder of Acton recently told Inc. magazine that sales is seen as "the ugly stepchild of business." And though business schools may offer functional specializations, such as finance, management, information systems, and marketing, MBA programs rarely focus on sales, according to George Belch, chair of the department of marketing at San Diego State University

"MBA students generally do not seek out entry-level positions in sales," Belch says. 

But students with that attitude may be overlooking opportunities, says Jane Trnka, executive director of the Career Development Center at Rollins College's Crummer Graduate School of Business in Winter Park, Fla. "We work with some larger organizations, and the caliber of their clients would expect the MBA-level or seasoned person," she says. 

Companies that are desperate for strategies to navigate "this very challenging" economy are also seeking MBAs with sales training, according to Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide

"In a world where all of the rules have been turned upside down, even traditional companies need bold, creative, entrepreneur-minded soldiers. Sales and selling drive every business, even white shoe law firms," says Cohen, who compares the Acton challenge to NBC's The Apprentice for its use of "hustle, insights, and chutzpah" to measure business success.