Sixteen salespeople were competing for the same piece of business - a shipping contract for an importer looking to expand operations - and they all represented the same company. What buyer would put up with that many salespeople, one after the other, from the same company?

Actually, that buyer was playing a role in the Strome Sales Slam, an intercollegiate sales competition sponsored by Norfolk-based shipping company Givens. The Slam is held annually at the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University. Students representing ODU, Virginia Commonwealth University, West Virginia University, the University of Kansas, the University of Northern Iowa and Wisconsin Eau Claire competed as part of a growing trend in higher education, sales competitions that highlight the best students from universities' professional sales programs.

"Twenty years ago, there were a handful of universities that offered more than one class in sales; now there are over a hundred with sales degree programs," said Jeff Tanner, dean of the Strome College of Business and co-author of the leading sales textbook, "Selling: Building Partnerships." "The primary reason for such growth is demand for graduates."

He pointed out that, according to the employment company Manpower, professional sales positions have been the hardest to fill for more than a decade.

"A university sales program like ours can cut time-to-value from 18 months to under six," according to Tanner, "and turnover among salespeople is significantly reduced." The result is stronger sales performance for the firm.

A big factor in those numbers is corporate participation, such as Givens' sponsorship of the competition. Gina French, lecturer in sales and marketing at ODU and the faculty leader of this year's competition, said that "students are prepared for the sales environment because our company partners speak in classes sharing real-world scenarios to assist in learning inside and outside the classroom, coach students for competitions, and provide internship opportunities. This is quite a win for both the companies and students who make informed decision about fit."

Givens President Trevor Dunlap and his team provided the scenario and served as judges for the competition.

"The scenarios were drawn from real customer experiences," Dunlap said. "It was amazing to see the different approaches students took, and it was great to teach them about the opportunities in our industry."

Industry businesspeople played the buyers. "Some were tougher than others," Dunlap noted, "but that's real life."

Will Fediw of the Virginia Maritime Association was one of the buyers.

"Some students were so well prepared, we threw additional elements at them to see how they would respond to pushback and changing details," he said. "I think they will be better equipped for focusing on buyer needs and solution-based sales in the future."

Manuel Vazquez Ederra, district manager for Federated, competed in several intercollegiate competitions while a student at the University of Toledo and now helps coach the ODU team. "Some of the toughest sales calls in my life were part of those competitions, but I was so much better prepared for my career," he said. "Helping these students and this program grow has been really rewarding."

ODU's Strome College of Business launched the Sales Slam four years ago in response to feedback from the business community that a sales program was needed. Alumni Dick Thurmond '76 and George Jensen '72 made substantial contributions to build out a sales lab and support sales faculty, while an anonymous donor provided cash for competition prizes.

WVU's Mitchell Sinicropi took first place, while ODU's Carrie Smith, who captained the Strome team, and Becca Mayo took second and third place, respectively. ODU's Strome team won the team competition.

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