College of Business

Seufferlein Sales Program becoming one of the country’s best

Closing the deal. Faculty and students compete in sales competition.

Closing the Deal

by Joe Wills | photography by Jason Halley

One job Chico State freshmen think they know something about is…

“Sales,” says College of Business professor Tim Heinze (BS, Business, ’94), with a smile and a shrug. “It’s the one thing they think they’re familiar with—as in, ‘You want fries with that?’ But they don’t see it as a career choice.”

What students didn’t learn working at Burger King, though, is that high-level sales professions are a world apart from super-sizing orders or slapping on a company name tag.

“There are two types of sales positions,” says College of Business lecturer Bill McGowan. “The one where you are dead tired at the end of the day, and another where you make a hundred thousand your first year.”

Creating a professional sales program

Chico State is in the vanguard of U.S. universities elevating sales as a subject of scholarship and applied learning, which has resulted in corporations vying for well-trained Chico grads and young alums making six-figure incomes.

Thanks to the efforts of Heinze, McGowan, and others in the College of Business, Chico State is one of only three schools west of the Rockies and 60 schools in the world with a sales program recognized by the University Sales Center Alliance, which initiated a certification process for the teaching of sales in 2008. That same year the college launched a professional sales certificate, a 21-unit sequence of courses open to all majors. Since 12 students signed up in 2008, the program has increased to 60 students this academic year, with more than 80 expressing interest for 2015–16.

“A lot of corporate recruiters looking for salespeople will now only recruit at a university that has a recognized sales program,” says McGowan. 

An April 2015 article in Comstock’s magazine, titled “Sales Pitch: Why More Universities Should Offer Sales Training,” lauded Chico State for producing well-prepared sales executives, comparing the value of sales recruits with pro sports draft picks. Research cited in the article found sales positions among the top 10 hardest to fill in U.S. industry, costing companies $100,000 in recruitment, training, and lost sales for each failed recruit.

Even prior to the success of the certificate program, Chico State was beginning to assert itself in sales competitions, where corporate experts judge the skills of students in role-playing business situations. Chico’s team came in second at the first California Collegiate Sales Competition in 2005 and won it all the following year.  

The event is now called the Western States Collegiate Sales Competition, attracts 16 universities from across the country, and is hosted at Chico State. The University has won first place the past five years over schools such as Arizona State; Baylor University; CSU, Fullerton; CSU, Fresno; CSU, Sacramento; Georgia State; Oregon State; San Diego State; University of San Diego; and the University of Texas, Dallas. 

Luke and Chuck Seufferlein pose for a photo together.
Luke (left) and Chuck Seufferlein are proud Chico State alumni and former business majors who are helping the sales program to national prominence

Alumni support signature program

Not surprisingly, Chico State students exiting the sales program do extremely well in the job market. Typically, 100 percent of alumni have secured positions within three months of graduation, and it’s not unusual for top students to have multiple offers prior to graduation.

Sales program enrollment, as well as success in competitions and job placement, will certainly increase thanks to a generous alumnus’s gift. In early 2015, Chuck Seufferlein (BS, Business, ’74), the 2004 Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Business, gave the college a major six-figure gift to revamp a portion of Glenn Hall to accommodate the growing interest in sales by students. 

The newly named Seufferlein Sales Program honors Chuck and his son, Luke (BS, Business, ’09), both of whom have been successful in commercial real estate and share an ardent desire to support their alma mater. The remodeled area in Glenn Hall will include offices, a conference space, and high-tech meeting rooms where sales trainings and competitions can be recorded and streamed live.

“The Seufferlein gift adds capacity to one of our signature programs that allows us to create a dedicated home base for sales students that is equipped with state-of-the-art training technologies,” says College of Business Dean Judy Hennessey. “We are extremely thankful for this important and generous gift.”

Real-world skills with a rigorous curriculum

Chico State’s leadership in teaching and learning about sales began as Heinze, McGowan, and other faculty realized the need in the marketplace, and the opportunity that presented. “Slightly more than 50 percent of college graduates enter a sales or sales-related job,” says Heinze, who is executive director of the Seufferlein Sales Program. “Corporate recruiters have found that collegiate sales training dramatically reduces ‘ramp-up time’ and job turnover.” 

Prior to their academic positions, Heinze had worked in sales for Ford Motor Co., and McGowan, administrative director for the Seufferlein Sales Program, had worked for Atlantic Richfield, so both knew the exigencies of corporate life. They sought to marry real-world skills—“sales techniques and the street smarts to close the deal,” says McGowan—with a rigorous curriculum that includes the building blocks of sales: marketing theory, communication theory, psychology, negotiations theory, and decision analysis.

Not until the University Sales Center Alliance was established in 2002, says Heinze, was sales seen as a scholarly area of research for business schools. Now Chico State students in a variety of classes study research about sales, and some are participating in new research. Since 2011, students have assisted with research for six peer-reviewed journal articles on sales authored by Heinze and fellow finance and marketing department professor Casey Donoho. 

The famous line in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, that selling is about “a smile and a shoeshine,” is no longer true, if it ever was. Sad sacks hoisting sample cases into an old car, or smooth talkers with too little integrity and too much cologne, persist in people’s consciousness, but they aren’t relevant to the multifaceted sales work for which Chico State students are being prepared.

Professors Tim Heinze (left) and Bill McGowan combine scholarly research and real-world skills in Chico State’s sales certificate program.

Professors Tim Heinze (left) and Bill McGowan combine scholarly research and real-world skills in Chico State’s sales certificate program.

The serious business of role-playing

To provide the practical side of sales training, the faculty developed classes with extensive role-playing practice. In a recent upper-division sales class taught by McGowan, students had to perform as sellers and customers in a scenario fraught with plot twists: A homeowner remodeling a kitchen is meeting with an appliance company sales rep, but a) the homeowner has found cheaper prices elsewhere; b) the home owner’s spouse, who’s been involved in the process, is not home; c) the sales rep is pinch-hitting for the salesperson the homeowners know; and d) appliances must arrive before the home owner’s relatives visit in two weeks. From a faux knock on the front door through the happy denouement—customer signing on the dotted line—the mock meeting took about five frantic minutes. 

At first glance, the students’ role-playing appears fun, like practicing a skit for summer camp or trying out a corny joke as an icebreaker. But seeing the students study their notes going in, and take a deep breath afterward, you realize it is serious work. Not only are grades at stake—McGowan evaluates them on 20 criteria, including product knowledge, verbal communication skills, and needs identification—but a lucrative job offer could rest on such a performance in the not-too-distant future. 

The best students will compete in the Western States competition, using the same skill sets in even more challenging scenarios. And all these scenarios will relate to companies that are sponsors of the sales competitions and are hoping to hire the top performers. Corporations such as ADP, TEKsystems, Frito-Lay, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car pay sponsorships ranging from $3,000 to $12,000 for the opportunity to see students in action. 

Watching uber-ready students skillfully tout their products works a sales magic all its own on corporate executives. Frequently, once the role plays are over, the best student competitors have entreaties for job interviews. “Tim [Heinze] said companies would be watching us, but I didn’t necessarily expect anything,” says sales program graduate and 2013 alumnus Danny Van Attenhoven. “I was pretty nervous, but in my first competition I took second place—then 10–15 company reps walked up with business cards. It felt great that they wanted to sit down with me.” Based on an interview after the sales competition, Van Attenhoven was offered a position at TEKsystems, where he is now an account manager based in Sacramento. 

Jaypinderpal Virdee, a business major who graduated last spring after a year as AS president, found out the day before the Western States competition that he had landed a job at Hewlett-Packard. Virdee says a company representative had seen him role-play previously and told Heinze he was ready to make him an offer. “It’s incredible what the competition and my education at Chico State have done for me,” says Virdee.

Brittany Brennecke, a 2012 sales program alumna, says she couldn’t keep track of all the role plays and presentations she made in front of recruiters in business classes and competitions. But the recruiters were keeping track of her. “Walking around the Chico State career fair, it seemed like everyone knew who I was,” she says. “It really built my confidence.” 

Federated Insurance, a competition sponsor, first interviewed Brennecke as a junior. She joined the Minnesota-based company after graduation and made more than $100,000 her first year—at age 22. “I never expected that,” she says. “Paying off college loans, buying a car at my age—my mom can’t believe it. She tells me I should write a book about how to make money at a young age.”

Making a positive contribution  

But just as the old salesman stereotypes are out of date, so are aphorisms like “Show me the money” and “Always be closing” that purport to define a salesperson’s motivation. For all her early-career earnings, Brennecke is most proud of the way her clients trust and respect her. “The money sparked my interest, but the great part is the responsibility you get,” she says. “Last week, I’m sitting with the owner of a $15 million business, and he’s asking me for advice.” 

Van Attenhoven works with clients that include Apple, The Gap, Sutter Health, and Hewlett-Packard, and he finds a great reward in “building relationships, networking, truly listening to problems they are having, and coming up with solutions for them.” 

Virdee says he loves the challenge and competitiveness of sales, but what’s most important is “to go home at the end of the day and feel like I’ve made a positive contribution in my work.” McGowan agrees. “Research has shown that intrinsic rewards have significant meaning to salespeople,” he says. “They perform an activity for its own sake rather than always looking for an external reward of some type.”

Alumni helping alumni

One of the rewards for these Chico State alumni is seeing their fellow graduates also succeed in sales. The University has long had a stellar reputation among corporate recruiters, but alumni take particular pleasure in bringing more Chico State graduates into their firms. 

Van Attenhoven came back to Chico in February to recruit for TEKsystems at the Chico State Career Center’s Business and IT Fair, which has five alums in its Sacramento office and more in other locations. 

“My new manager wants to recruit from other schools, but the other students don’t compare,” says Brennecke. “We’re going back to recruiting at Chico, where the professionalism is so much higher.” 

Virdee says that, as a new Hewlett-Packard employee, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere at the company without running into a supportive Chico State alum. With 400-plus Chico State graduates on the payroll, HP is an alumni chapter unto itself.

Alumnus Art Cox (BS, Business, ’87) has helped other graduates achieve success in sales by wearing two hats: as a recruiter and a career advisor. When Heinze was a Chico State student, it was Cox who recruited him into his first sales job. In 2008, when Cox was a district manager at Federated Insurance and still recruiting Chico State students, he became a judge of the sales competitions and convinced Federated to be a sponsor. 

Three years later, Cox joined the Chico State Career Center as an advisor and became even more involved, encouraging more corporate sponsors for the Western States competition—there are 22 currently—and more students to consider a career in sales. He takes great pride as an alum at the success of Chico State students he has helped, like Brennecke, who was the highest-ranked graduate in her cohort during Federated Insurance’s nine-month training program in Minnesota.

“A lot of big-name Midwestern schools like Purdue send graduates there,” says Cox. “They all want to know where Chico State is, because our students are on top of them.” He says of the top 10 percent of Federated’s 520 sales reps nationwide, about half are Chico State alums. “How do they do it? There’s a certain essence to Chico State, the experience students have,” Cox says. “Our students come out ready to work.”

Sales alumnus Danny Van Attenhoven (right) recruiting at a spring 2015 Chico State career fair.
Sales alumnus Danny Van Attenhoven (right) recruiting at a spring 2015 Chico State career fair.

The Chico Experience - a strong foundation for business

Chuck Seufferlein fondly recalls how his Chico Experience as an undergraduate prepared him for a successful career. “You find yourself there in a college town, an extremely social experience—different groups, sports, intramurals, frats, dorms, lots of opportunities to be a part of something,” he says. “It puts you in a position where you are forced to relate, where you stretch yourself—like a business environment,” Seufferlein says he became comfortable talking in front of groups and gained other skills he later put to use in the business world. Chico State was also the place where he met his wife, Sylvia (BS, Social Welfare, ’75), and where their son, Luke, chose to go to school. “Now, like me, he looks back at Chico State and its role in his success,” says Seufferlein. “When I talked with him about the sales center, he wanted to be a part of it, to give back.”

The future for the Seufferlein Sales Program looks indelibly bright—it’s well on its way to being one of the premier programs of its kind in the country. The new Glenn Hall facilities should be ready for fall, and late this spring, Chico State was awarded an elite member status by the University Sales Center Alliance enjoyed by only 22 other universities in the United States. The program’s outstanding corporate connections and support from an ever-growing group of alumni in sales will only increase.

Even as the Seufferlein Sales Program’s prestige grows, Heinze and McGowan will still have to talk to those skeptical freshmen, year after year, and convince them to consider sales during their academic career and beyond. “It’s a constant reeducation process,” says Heinze. 

Fortunately, the Chico Experience—qualities that include a caring and committed faculty, lots of civic and social interaction, and almost endless opportunities to shine in and out of the classroom—provides a foundation for successful careers in business, available when students are ready to utilize it. No sales pitch needed.

Joe Wills (MS, Psychology, ’07) is director of Public Affairs and Publications at CSU, Chico.

Read the story via Chico Statements here.

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