The most important entrepreneurial skill: Why is it seldom taught?

Understanding why the most important entrepreneurial skill is seldom taught

Understanding why the most important entrepreneurial skill is seldom taught

Globally, little evidence exists that business start-up and survival rates are improving. Data released by Experian (November 2011) showed 70% of start-up businesses fail within 36 months of starting. So it’s a mystery why the most important entrepreneurial skill is seldom taught.

If entrepreneurs are to survive & thrive we need to provide the right training…

Experts cite many reasons for business failure. But for me, a key factor underpinning early closure is the business owners’ inability to sell themselves and their products/services effectively and ethically and thus bring sufficient cash into the business on a sustainable basis. Why does this happen and what needs to be done so the most important entrepreneurial skill is embedded early?

Salespeople give ‘Sales’ a bad name

Do you like people selling to you at your front door, over the phone or in the street? For that matter, do you enjoy being sold to in a retail store?

I sense most of us don’t like being sold to because many people in sales aren’t good at selling and/or appear untrustworthy. People aren’t proficient at selling because they have either never been trained, or the limited/unethical training they did receive was on the scale that starts with ‘Crap’ and ends at ‘Criminal’. For reference, between 1993 and 1997, I was part of a small team that retrained over 3,000 sales professionals. Over 80% of the people I worked with (over, 1,000) were poor at their job.

Selling has a bad name and its image is probably why the most important entrepreneurial skill is seldom taught. For me, this has led to the subject being shunned both by people who need to learn the real skills of how to build long-term business relationships (small business owners) as well as teaching/training institutions.

Teaching the most important entrepreneurial skill in Universities

In 2012 I was asked to speak at a HEEG Conference at Kingston University. Towards the end of the day one of the delegates asked an open question – “How much time was devoted to teaching entrepreneurial students how to sell?” Not one of the 25+ universities represented ran courses to teach sales.

Curious, but unsurprised by this finding, I went to the interweb to seek out any university sales course. Portsmouth University did run an MA in ‘Sales Management’ and the word ‘Sales’ does get the occasional mention in the glut of marketing studies available. That was it! Well almost.

Then I discovered the world famous and highly reputed department store ‘Harrods’ had teamed up with Anglia Ruskin University to provide an innovative training programme that leads to an Honours Degree in Sales. People who complete the course master the ‘Art of Selling’. This short video provides more detail about the potential of this powerful learning experience.

Is Anglia Ruskin on the right track?

Being a competent salesperson takes understanding, repeated practice as well as hard work. Just like any marketing degree, there is no quick fix or instant success. Best practice selling has moved a long way from ‘technique driven’ hard sell methods that have us all running for the hills. Best practice is much more about understanding human behaviour and working with customers to ensure they get what they want and need.

By providing opportunities for repeated practice (Harrods) and backing it up with sound theory, Anglia Ruskin is taking the appropriate steps to prepare students for employment. I don’t know the exact methods used for teaching and training, but I would be surprised if video role plays and behavioural science theory are not key components of the course.

For me, education and training institutions should follow Anglia Ruskin’s example. By recognising the depth and importance of the subject (and the fact that sales should not be marketing’s impoverished relation) people starting out in business will be provided with the most important entrepreneurial skill. As a result cash has a much better chance of flowing into the business. And if this happens more students will be attracted to pay to learn about ‘how to sell’ because they will value the subject’s relevance in terms of future employment ambitions.

Entrepreneurs encounter sales situations daily. Most people are not prepared for the opportunities they face. However, if business owners have been trained to sell effectively (so problems can be solved) and know how to make the buying experience enjoyable for the customer, their business will bring in the cash and thus be more likely to survive and thrive. But if nothing changes, education institutions are set to miss out and the start-up failure rate is unlikely to change.

Your thoughts and feedback on this article are very welcome.

Key Learning Points: Running a successful business means knowing how to sell effectively. To equip budding entrepreneurs properly, educational institutions need to place much more emphasis on sales training and specifically the art of effective persuasion and influence. Meanwhile, it remains a mystery why the most important entrepreneurial skill is seldom taught.


  1. Kate Beresford says

    Peter – you have hit on something so crucially important here, interesting and inspiring read as ever and glad that you have found ONE university tackling this as I have yet to find any at all! I would add one further point on the ability to sell – that is that entrepreneurial young people (whether starting a business or not) need to be able to sell themselves effectively and few of them really know how to. Kate

  2. Col says

    right on the Money Peter

    thats why I have an entire chapter in my book devoted to selling

    looking forward to our next beer


  3. Mary Bradley says

    Thanks Peter, here in north wales we make a point of stressing the importance of personal branding and students being able to ‘sell’ themselves which I think is part and parcel of the process of successfull selling in graduate start up.

  4. Mike Chitty says

    I have to offer a dissenting voice!
    While I agree that we often make a poor fist of teaching marketing and sales, I think this is a mis-diagnosis.
    It is not in teaching ‘the entrepreneur’ to sell that we fail any more than we fail in teaching pigs to sing.
    The problem is that we rarely teach the entrepreneur their real job in the business, which is to put together a team that has skill and passion across all three critical business functions:
    1) operations (development and delivery of the product/service)
    2) marketing and sales and
    3) financial management, governance and strategy
    We too often insist that entrepreneur cover all three of these areas themselves. This inevitably leads to the development of a business that fails to thrive equally in all three domains.
    So for me the key learning point should be that running a business means that it has people that are passionate about marketing and sales and that they are given the resources that they need to do their job beautifully.

    • Peter Harrington says

      Hi Mike – thanks for the feedback and really appreciate the viewpoint and dissenting voice!
      I understand your point but most people I have met who are setting up a business cannot afford a team and must operate by themselves, often for months and perhaps years. Ability with operations, finance, strategy and governance only becomes relevant if cash is driven through the business – hence the huge dependency on the business owner’s ability to sell.

      • Mike Chitty says

        It is often possible to find people who will put in sweat equity, or who will work on a commission only basis if they understand sales and marketing and have confidence in the product. If the product is not sufficiently attractive to engage marketing and sales professional on this basis and is not attractive enough to find an investor who will provide cash for marketing and sales then we are beginning to understand something about the investment readiness of the business.
        The myth that says I am poor and therefore must do everything myself, even those things I have little passion or talent for needs busting. And if people do not have the disposition or personality required for marketing and sales then our efforts to train them are destined to produce, at best, mediocre results.
        A great businesses requires different personalities and talents to make it work. Teaching entrepreneurs to know what they can bring to the business, and to build teams that complement rather than replicate their own strengths will, in my experience produce much better returns.

  5. Jay Bal says

    That is what we thought also, and why I included a week long course on sales, with post course work on sales of another week, in our Entrepreneurship MSc at WMG, Warwick at its inception, and very little about Marketing. Students enjoy doing Marketing plans and analysis, they don’t like doing Sales!. So the discussion that says only Angela Ruskin is not quite correct.

  6. Paul Adkins says

    Agree we need to teach these skills but ‘Sales’? – for most people the word has connotations based on personally received experiences and again on observations of dramatic media and news reports that are for the most part very negative. Hence students and indeed the general public look askance at any suggestion that ‘Sales’ could be anything else but manipulative at best and unethical and even illegal at the other end of the spectrum. To counter this knee-jerk reaction I include some sales training within my Enterprise modules but I start with the philosophical understanding that everything we do and every interaction we have is an exercise in selling. We do it instinctively and automatically and modify our presentation for different audiences. When this is grasped it becomes apparent that we are not dissimulating or obfuscating but reading the needs and expectations of others and, if comfortable for us, we endeavour to satisfy. As the word ‘Sales’ evokes such negative emotional responses maybe it’s time for a change of nomenclature?

    • Peter Harrington says

      Hi Paul – thanks for the response – much appreciated! I completely agree that the word has negative connotations and that’s why I say ‘Salespeople give sales a bad name’. Delighted you are looking to teach a deeper meaning – there is so much more to effective selling than people think. Personally, I would like to see entire enterprise modules devoted to influence, persuasion and selling because these are precisely the enterprising skills today’s students must master (through theory-based and practical learning) to get jobs and prosper. As for a name change, I have to disagree. The brand ‘sales’ may have a poor image but like a dated seaside resort, changing the name is simply fussing with the wrapper.

      • Paul Adkins says

        Hi Peter – yep, agree with the re-wrapping analogy and that just changing the name is not enough. There’s a need to demolish, find new foundations and build anew before, or as we, re-brand/re-name ‘sales’ – I to have been on the receiving end of traditional ‘Sales Training’ and it usually started with the premise that customers were mugs if they fell for it and even bigger mugs if they walked away.

  7. Nigel Adams says

    You make a very good point, but I am sorry that I was not at the HEEG event, as there would have been one university that does teach sales. It’s the independent University of Buckingham and the sales course is one of the innovative courses that we teach on our unique BSc Business Enterprise (BBE) Programme. (See details on our website .

    The course is entitled “Selling yourself and your products” and is run by an an excellent Visiting Sales Educator (not just a trainer!). We also cover Kate Beresford’s point, as BBE students must be able to sell themselves and their ideas.

    Our BBE students start and run their own real businesses as an integral part of their honours degree, having pitched their business idea to “Buckingham Angels” VC panel. They therefore have to know how to sell themselves, their products and their services.

    Taking into account Mike Chitty’s point, our BBE students also learn how important it is to find and work with a good team, as the BBEs who work on their own, soon realise how difficult it is to work alone and always advise students who are following them to work in teams!

  8. Jeremy Blake says

    Hi Peter,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post. I have got a lot from reading it and seeing the responses of others.

    I would be interested to see the content of the Anglia Ruskin course and see how they help salespeople from Harrods become better salespeople.

    As per Nigel Adams and the University of Buckingham I am the guy who runs that Selling Yourself and Your Products programme there in the Summer. We have just tweaked the programme I ran last year with help from Simon Brown. More on the course spec shortly.

    I feel that young people and entrepeneurs fall into two main categories when it comes to selling.

    Some are keen to sell what they have and believe that pitching and presenting is key. After all they pitch for funding and see other so called entrepeneurs pitching on tele, so for them the idea is all.

    Others want to do well and make a few quid and will network and work hard to get contacts and have conversations and explore all avenues in the search for sales and making the right connections.

    Many do not consider that as they grow their business they will not have an army of salespeople from day one and the key salesperson is going to be themselves or their business partner.
    They have to learn about distribution channels and confuse selecting the right channel as being part of the sales and marketing process. When it comes to actually getting an order they will struggle unless they have learnt core sales skills, and understand what makes people buy.

    So having spoken to the students about the sales training business I run, Nigel asked me if I’d like to run a course and now here is is.

    What do you teach on a course that has only 14 hours?!

    Here’s the top line of what they get:
    • To enable students to develop a holistic understanding of sales and selling, its evolution and relationship to marketing.
    • To give students the opportunity to develop skills in presenting persuasive arguments and business opportunities to a variety of audiences.
    • To provide insight into effective sales approaches and strategies, and how sales planning can be modelled.

    On successful completion of the course students should be able to:

    • Evaluate selling and marketing strategies and judge which methods will be most suitable in developing their business. (Assessment: written sales report).
    • Consider and support the core 10 Value Added Propositions (VAPs) of their product or service. (Assessment: written sales report)
    • Critically assess and then develop the sales structure that they would adopt to sell their offering. (Assessment: presentation, reflection & critique).
    • Offer a persuasive argument for their own sales strategy and process and compare and critique each other’s strategy. (Assessment: presentation, reflection & critique).


    • Team working skills (Gained through role playing)
    • Core sales communication language and skills (Gained though experiential selling exercise)
    • Presentational Skills for selling (Gained though experiential selling exercise)
    • Handling objections and developing negotiating skills (Gained though experiential selling exercise)


    • Understanding and appreciation of key theories and concepts will be acquired through interactive lectures and tutor-led workshops that will have the objective of supporting the achievement of the learning outcomes.
    • The course will be practical and interactive in nature and will involve the use of case studies, plus audio & video clips, in order to help the students understand entrepreneurship, innovation and market opportunities.
    • The lectures will be supplemented by workshop activities where students will be required to participate in discussions. Audio and video material will be used where appropriate to aid explanation, stimulate debate and provide practical examples. The practical workshops will facilitate the achievement of the learning outcomes, students will be learning by doing.
    • Students will be encouraged to question and challenge the ideas and concepts, then where appropriate, draw on their own experiences.

    and the key texts are:

    Key Texts:
    • Ziglar, Z. (2006), Selling 101, What Every Successful Salesperson Needs to Know, Thomas Nelson.
    • Gitomer, J. (2003), The Sales Bible, Wiley.
    • Wheeler, E (1937) ,Tested Sentences That Sell, Prentice Hall
    • Morrell, B. & Blake, J. (2010) The Death of Late Space, Your guide to Success in Media Sales, 2nd edition, Reality Publishing.

    • Jane Walton says

      Hi Peter

      I was going to commend Colin Jones book on Teaching Entrepereneurial Skills in Higher Education but he got in first. I deliver part of the Princes Trust Explore Enterprise course and cover selling both your products/services and yourself. The most revealing exercise tends to be to look at the differences between how participants perceive themselves and their honest opion when asked how prospective clients might perceive them. Confident v. cocky was a recent example. Self awareness is a lifeskill that should be on every syllabus starting in primary schools.


      • Peter Harrington says

        Hi Jane – many thanks for the feedback. There is a pattern of responses which is helping to build up a picture of what is and what is not happening in education with respect to sales and teaching people how to sell themselves. Please keep the thoughts coming!

  9. David Kellett says

    Hello Peter,
    Thank you for providing the link to your blog.

    I think the key to successful sales is encapsulated in your comment “Best practice is much more about understanding human behaviour and working with customers to ensure they get what they need”

    Perhaps Customer Service Manager is a better title than Sales Manager.

    In my experience of working in the oil industry service sector and dealing with the major oil companies, the secret to success was understanding how to resolve your customers problems. In many instances you could only understand these problems by developing a close working relationship with your key customer, and then demonstrating to them that you have the best ability to resolve that problem.

    When competition is strong people do business with people they like. I have seen many technically competent sales persons fail because they could not develop an amicable relationship.

    Finally, the most important aspect of dealing with customers is developing their trust that you will deliver on your promises.


  1. […] All businesses must sell to survive. This necessarily means spending time meeting new people and putting yourself in situations just like the hitchhiker who seeks a lift. Unfortunately, fear of rejection cripples many people because they find it difficult and/or sometimes impossible to put themselves on the line with others. The result of course is no chance of a sale or insufficient sales. Either way the business ultimately dies. […]

Leave a Reply