Learning through competition

10th January 2022 |   Journal Of Sales Transformation

Learning through competition

Three perspectives on enhancing sales skills through sales competitions.


The USA has led the way in developing and promoting sales competitions for university students. However, this dominance is quietly being challenged by the Europeans and universities across Southeast Asia. There are different factors at play around the world as well as alternative pedogeological approaches. This article discusses the challenges of organising a sales competition, recent research in the impact on students and observations about cultural differences.

Sales competitions are business-to-business role-play events, where an experienced industry buyer is matched up with a sales education student in a “live” interactive selling experience. Observing the interactions are judges from industry and academia. The “business case” may be imaginary or, more often, based on a real case developed from a sponsoring company. Students may be selling anything from software to recruitment services or even aeroplanes.

The success of the European Sales Competition (ESC) and South East Asian Sales competition (SEASAC) depends on cooperation between business and academia. This discussion is from just three seasoned stalwarts among the many hundreds involved in these events. They are: Dr Colin Mackenzie, previous head judge for the UK competition, a buyer and judge in the SEASAC and ESC; Johannes Reiterer, Competition Director for ESC 2020; and Dr Alexander Bauer, judge, buyer and co-researcher with Johannes Reiterer on the impact of sales competitions on sales students. All of these academic-practitioners have extensive sales backgrounds.

What are the challenges of being a sales competition director?

Johannes Reiterer: Directors of a sales competition are faced with various challenges. One of the biggest is to establish a realistic and challenging competition case study. The case requires development of a concrete and consistent storyline, generation of briefings for role-play participants, and the definition of clear rules for every competition round. Despite best intentions, and efforts, not everyone reads the rules!

However, an effective business case does have a huge impact on the students’ learning experience. Buyers in the case scenario should be consistent; they should be thoroughly briefed about their situation and challenges in the buying organisation. This sounds simple but has evolved from previous competitions when buyers (some from a sponsoring business) have forgotten they are in a role play with beginners and can get carried away.

With hundreds of people involved, timing is also critical for efficient running. In sales you have to be punctual and efficient, which turns out to be a novel experience for some students.

What has your research on students discover so far?

Alexander Bauer: Before the pandemic, we conducted face-to-face interviews with sales competition participants to find insights around two main questions: 1) which sales competences can be trained via a sales competition, and 2) how can we best prepare students for a sales competition that gives them preparation for a career in sales?

After 217 minutes of interviews and 141 pages of transcript, we had some expected insights, but also some surprises. On one hand, training and participation in a sales competition helps students sharpen their strategic understanding of sales. By this, we mean the ability to understand the customer, the business situation, the customer background and customers’ “pain”. Furthermore, students claimed increased confidence in their communication skills. These included: listening skills, asking the right questions, improvisation, adaptation of different negotiation styles and more. Students acknowledged learning about different cultural approaches, the use of language and how to present. In our research, we expected that strategic understanding and communication skills would be one of the outcomes.

On the other hand, what surprised us was the mention of their personal attitude towards sales. Prior to the competition, students had a somewhat negative feeling towards sales; however, after the competition, they had a more positive attitude and interest towards sales. During their courses and participation in the competition, they realised that sales is a highly professional learnable skill (and the negative image they held came from non-professional salespeople). Furthermore, students identified with a positive attitude towards embarking on a sales career. Students also professed an increase in self-confidence. They realised that a job in sales is something they might enjoy.

Johannes Reiterer: Our research has also shown that, to reach this positive attitude, training, education and preparation of the students is a key component. It was no surprise to have research confirm that, the higher the quality of the training and sales education prior the competition, the more likely it would be for students to have a positive experience during the event. Many planned to enter more competitions in the future.

About the participants

Dr Colin Mackenzie

Dr Colin Mackenzie, MSc, FHEA, is currently the press officer for the South East Asia Sales competition (SEASAC), an Erasmus + project, where he also has acted as buyer, trainer and judge. He has been a head judge in the UK Sales competition and has acted as a sales examiner. He has over 40 years’ sales experience, is a director of several companies and a high-growth business consultant. He has written the online dissertation research and college articulation materials for Edinburgh Napier University and the sales training and coaching materials for the universities involved in the SEASAC project. He has been a regular invited guest on BBC radio on business and invited lecturer to a number of top universities. Dr Mackenzie holds a Doctoral degree in Business Administration, a Master of Science degree in Quality and Business Excellence and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Authority. C.Mackenzie@napier.ac.uk

Dr Alexander C. Bauer

Dr Alexander C. Bauer is a Senior Lecturer at the Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences (with locations in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria) and a board member of the European Sales Competition Association. He has more than a decade of international sales and management experience. Before he joined academia in 2014, he worked as an international sales manager, leading global sales teams and daily negotiations with customers and suppliers on a global level with business partners in North and South America, Europe and Asia. He studied Business Management with a major in Marketing and Sales in Germany and Estonia and holds a PhD. degree in International Business Management. Besides being a lecturer, he is also a Trainer for Presentation Skills, Rhetoric and Sales. His current research focuses on the utilisation of sales competitions in sales training and the personal development of sales managers.

Johannes Reiterer B.Ed. MA

Johannes Reiterer B.Ed. MA is the Head of the Master Programme Business Development & Sales Management at the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt. He teaches in the area of strategic marketing and sales management. He has experience in further developing study programmes with a focus on sales and marketing in the B2B area. Additionally, he is leading work packages of Erasmus+ projects and developed the first virtual ESC in 2020. Reiterer’s professional background is in product management, market management and account management within the medical device industry. In research, he has a focus on sales digitalisation, sales psychology and value selling.

What about the cultural differences between students?

Colin Mackenzie: The emphasis in the European and South East Asian competitions is on the overall personal development of students, rather than pure competition. When we had students over from the USA, you could see they were here to win: very polished. However, they often came across by British standards as “pushy” and in a real-life scenario would certainly turn off a number of British buyers. When you watch students from different nationalities in these competitions, not only do you have individual differences, but cultural differences at play. It’s fascinating, not only to see students perform, but to hear how the different judges from all over the world interpret these performances.

Alexander Bauer: As a buyer in sales competitions, you are challenged by different styles of negotiations. Students have different cultural backgrounds and different levels of support; this combines to present you with many different approaches. Some students manage their new skills effectively; others might use it in a more amateurish way. As a competition buyer, you must be adaptable.

Some students come straight to the point, especially German and Austrian students (sorry, my fellow citizens); they often see no reason for a “warm-up” with their client. On the other side, some students with an Italian or Spanish background (sorry, again!) have problems to move from their small talk to the business talk. I would not like to spark any prejudices we might have towards cultures; however, it is clear there are differences in communication styles and approaches.

The use of English as the language in international competitions offers ample opportunities for misunderstanding. When a Brit tells a German, “This is a very brave proposal” then many Germans might just understand, “good proposal, challenging but good”. However, the British might be trying to.

From the buyer, and, from the judge’s perspective, a closer look into cultural differences and overcoming potential language misunderstanding in sales training and education would be beneficial.

How did the pandemic affect competitions?

Colin Mackenzie: During the pandemic the competitions moved online, and a number of interesting observations can be made which are relevant to B2B sales in general. What I had not fully realised is that across Southeast Asia there is are huge differences in internet quality. This has consequences for video meetings when you are trying to build rapport. One of the big software meeting formats was abandoned as “too unreliable”, especially if it rained in some countries – and in certain Southeast Asian countries it can rain a lot!

Alexander Bauer: Moving sales competitions online was quite a challenge. On one side, sales competitions are not just the sales interactions, but a lot of meetings and socialising outside of the sales competition activity. In an online setting, this is more problematic. However, some students later connected with each other as well as with the buyers and judges via social media. On occasion students have also approached the judges and buyers for detailed feedback on their performance.

The online setting itself seemed to me, both from the perspectives of a judge and as a buyer, more distant. Students came to the point faster, which can be seen as positive and negative at the same time. The online setting showed us that an online sales talk is possible and certainly an important element for the future. However, from a personal perspective, we humans are “social animals” and therefore, we would like to socialise; a sales talk is much more than just a business talk.

Online sales talks are here to stay, but most likely as a blend between meetings in the real world (especially for new business development) and online settings (perhaps as follow-up meetings and discussion about existing business). I tend to consider an online setting as a substitute for the good old telephone sales call, but not as a substitute for the sales meeting itself.

What about the future?

Colin Mackenzie: The attributes of sales competitions are wide and varied. They offer academics, students and business participants opportunities to develop or even just mingle with like-minded people. Many businesses and not-for-profit organisations will admit to a dire need for professional business development people, and those that come through the university process will fit the need that some organisations have for a graduate sales force. Businesses looking to recruit potential sales student graduates should contact competitions directly and perhaps save some recruiting pain. Sales competitions are superb learning opportunities for everyone involved and great fun.