Selling their way to success
Lindner students use collegiate sales competitions to propel their career goals
While some students start the semester with goals of making the dean’s list, finally walking across the stage at graduation or landing their dream co-op, one group of Carl H. Lindner College of Business students has another vision: securing a coveted slot on the Lindner Varsity Sales Team.
Housed in Lindner’s Center for Professional Selling, the Varsity Sales Team (VST) offers students the unique opportunity to embrace experiential learning through highly competitive case competitions that connect them with students and employers from across the country and challenge them to refine their skills and knowledge of the sales process.
“These incredible students are extremely committed to improving their skills and helping their teammates at competitions and the weekly VST practices,” said Jennifer Barlow, executive director of external relations for the Center for Professional Selling. “I’m continuously impressed with their drive and dedication to their craft. They are a great group of students who support each other, have fun and promote sales as a noble career path.”
Each semester students compete in four sales events: one regional, one national, one international and one internal to UC. The 2023 fall semester included travel to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up, Cleveland State University for the Ohio Collegiate Sales Competition and Orlando, Florida, for the International Collegiate Sales Competition (ICSC).
The students have support from head coach John Cox. A finance and accounting PMO manager with Total Quality Logistics and a former collegiate sales competitor, Cox has advised the team for more than 12 years. Student coaches Chace Miller, BBA ’24, and Kendall Kelly, BBA ’24, who have recently stood in the students’ shoes, are prepared to pass along their wisdom, too.
“Our goal is to teach them in the best way possible, and it's by doing it, which is why we train for these competitions,” said Cox. “Ultimately, from that, students are learning if they want to go into sales, what kind of sales they want go into, and learning interviewing and interpersonal skills.”
This year’s roster spanned experience levels from first-time competitors to seasoned veterans ready to tackle new challenges.
In the lead-up
“After you get the tryout results, we pretty much hit the ground running with our practices,” said Kyle Kramer, BBA ’25, one of the teams’ competitors for the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up. “For this specific competition, we’ve had about four to five weeks to prepare. That first practice is just trying to understand the case. Then from there, the next practice we prepare our fact finding sheets. Then we start roleplay scenarios and breaking out into practice calls with our team.”
Students have to be dynamic in their knowledge. Cases have multiple layers of complexity and can span industries representing a wide array of products.
This season, students competing in the ICSC were tasked with selling financial services to a company to help fund a large technology purchase while those competing in the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up found themselves selling a food product to both a chain of grocery stores and a distributor.
Students dedicate a large portion of their time to refining their personal sales style, folding in their own backgrounds, experiences and attitudes.
“What I try to do is make myself as personable as possible, bringing out my charisma and making myself feel like a human rather than a roleplay scenario, and more like a real conversation that you're having with somebody about a business decision,” described Kramer.
Morgan Guyler, BBA ’24, was formerly a nursing major before finding her passion for sales, which gives her a unique approach as she views her role as akin to a nurse helping diagnose a patient.
“I want to help you in whatever way I can. Tell me what's wrong, what hurts, where's your pain point so that I can help you,” said Guyler.
Although this was not her first time competing, Savana Berhane, BBA ’24, a marketing and international business major with an emphasis on sales, still felt the adrenaline, anxiety and excitement that precedes the competition.
“I really make sure to be myself. I get nervous, but I tell myself, ‘At the end of the day, I don't lose anything if I don't do well,’” Berhane said of her mindset. “And if I do well it's a learning experience. So, I use those thoughts to push myself to do the best I can but not get in my head about having to do amazing.”
“What excites me is the feeling you get when you walk out of that room,” said Danny McDonough, BBA ’26, a Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up competitor. “Because it's either going to be good or bad. But if I keep practicing and reviewing my stuff or reviewing the slides that I have prepared, I know I can walk out of there feeling accomplished.”
Wrenches can be chucked in competitors' paths at seemingly any turn — an unexpected physical space not conducive to the sales conversation, a new "team member" stepping in for who the competitor was originally supposed to "meet" with, or a particularly stubborn buyer can present new hurdles for students.
It's taught me that the work that you put in really is reflective of what you get out of the experience. It might take a while, but if you really put the time and effort into understanding the product and the case and the sales methodology, it can go a long way, especially when you go into a full-time career after college.
Kyle Kramer, BBA '25
Judges observe the students’ interactions with their "buyers" and evaluate them against a robust set of criteria, including their ability to build rapport with their counterparts and assess the buyer’s needs.
Kramer placed 12th out of 69 competitors in the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up, and both Guyler and Berhane advanced to the wild card rounds of ICSC. Miller also placed in the top five in the speed selling competition at ICSC.
But, win, lose or draw, VST students harvest immense value each time they compete.
“It's taught me that the work that you put in really is reflective of what you get out of the experience,” echoed Kramer. “It might take a while, but if you really put the time and effort into understanding the product and the case and the sales methodology, it can go a long way, especially when you go into a full-time career after college.”
From competition to career
“We have a strong network of VST alumni across the country who return to UC to specifically recruit from our program,” said Barlow. “They know and remember what it takes to be a member of the VST and the commitment to this group.”
Employers know that competitors have what it takes to be rockstar salespeople and employees, which is why the career fair is often a key draw at these events for students looking to make career connections.
Kelly received her first co-op opportunity through a connection made at one of the first competitions she attended. And Guyler was able to meet with an employer and interviewed for a position while at ICSC.
“Doing the competitions and doing the preparation for it is about as close as you can get to actually being involved in a sale outside of either a co-op or actually working a sales job,” said Grant Holmes, BBA ’24, who competed in the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-up.
But it’s not just the hard skills students gain from these experiences, it’s the soft skills such as time management, interpersonal communication, grit and resilience that set students apart and propel them in their careers.
“I think it's given me a lot of confidence. I was very timid and very shy when I first joined the sales team. But I feel like it's made me come out of my shell a lot more, whether that's raising my hand and volunteering in class or just being more on top of my homework because I know I'm going to be traveling within the next few weeks,” reflected Guyler. “It also made me feel very confident going into my internship. I wasn't afraid to ask questions. I wasn't afraid to speak up. I felt like I was challenged to be bolder.”
Leaving Lindner and UC with these invaluable skills and experiences in hand, VST students find themselves on the fast track to success.
“I can proudly say if it wasn't for the sales team, I probably would not have a job lined up with Dell. I wouldn't have had the skills I needed. I wouldn't have networked the way I needed to,” attested Berhane. “I really can’t express how grateful and thankful I am for the Varsity Sales Team and how much impact it’s had on me these last two years of my college career.”
Featured image at top: Lindner students wait outside conference room doors before entering their roleplay scenarios in UC's internal sales competition. Photos by Suzanne Buzek.
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