Scarlett Elliott doesn’t see herself as much of an outgoing person, a daunting situation for someone who wants a career in sales.
“In the back of my head, I am extremely afraid,” she said with a laugh.
The new Sales Institute in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga helped her get over those back-of-head concerns, said Elliott, who doesn’t appear to make conversation easily and without fearfulness.
“I’m really so grateful for the Sales Institute, learning how to better talk with people who you had no idea who they were. It definitely got more comfortable over time,” said Elliott, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a concentration in professional sales. She is now an events and operations coordinator for the Mocs Club, part of the UTC Division of Advancement.
The Sales Institute was officially announced in November 2022, and its first students enrolled in January. Along with classroom courses, the Institute offers six “Business Skills Labs” where students can conduct mock interviews and practice sales calls on potential “buyers.”
Cameras in the labs record the exercise, and students learn from watching their performances afterward. Instructors give the students advice during and after the exercises.
“As we like to say: It’s to feel the pressure of being under the lights,” said Dr. Chris Plouffe, Gary W. Rollins Endowed Chair and professor of sales who led the creation of the Sales Institute and is its managing director.
“I had a kid last semester click his pen 171 times in 20 minutes. He didn’t even know he was doing it. The main reason we use the technology is because it helps identify those things.”
A major in professional sales has not been created, but students in any major at UTC can enroll in the Sales Institute to earn a minor in the subject. Marketing majors will earn their degree with a “concentration” in sales, Plouffe said.
While some students hear the word “salesperson” and think “hustler,” it’s “a noble profession,” he said.
“They just need to be brought along and to be made aware that this is a viable career choice with almost unlimited earning potential, career advancement potential to get into the executive suite eventually,” said Plouffe, who worked in sales for years at information technology company Hewlett-Packard before moving to university-level teaching roles starting in 2001 at the University of Georgia.
“I always say to the students, ‘When I was at Hewlett-Packard, I was in the office maybe two days a month. That was one of the huge advantages of the job.’”
Six companies have partnered with and made donations to the Sales Institute—Insurance Group of America, Axle Logistics, Unum, Orkin, Preventia and Local 3 News. Plouffe said his eventual goal is to have 18 company partners.
Funds from the partner companies built the Business Skills Labs. As students use them to improve their sales skills, the available talent pool for those companies grows, Plouffe said.
“They’re comfortable donating money to an entity like the Institute to help us grow, to help us mentor the students, to help us give resources, to take students to fake sales-call competitions, to offer scholarships, to run this laboratory, to put in the equipment,” he said.
“Our faculty do most of the training, but the companies will come to campus and help out with all kinds of different things in the different classes. Sometimes they’ll play the role of the buyer, and that scares the heck out of the kids when there’s a 50-year-old with lots of experience sitting across the desk versus me or a fellow student.”
The Insurance Group of America is the institute’s lead sponsor, and CEO Jamie Noe said he has confidence in its future.
“My goal of this is that 10, 15 years down the road, sitting under a tree, there’s hundreds of kids in sales organizations and getting opportunities across the country and that this is the No. 1 sales institution in the United States,” he said.
That level of success is one of Plouffe’s goals, and he understands how students’ goals fit into that vision.
“Even more so than their brothers and sisters and their parents, kids today want work-life balance, especially coming out of the pandemic,” he said. “They’re not going to want to work someplace and get bombarded by fluorescent light 60, 70 hours a week like their grandparents or their parents.”