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What Teachers Might Learn From Sales People

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Since surveys in most of the Western world consistently rank used car salespeople as among the least trusted of all professions, it is little wonder some people extend that reputation to all salespeople. Teachers, on the other hand, are held in high esteem. So what could a teacher possibly learn from a profession so low in the public trust?

To answer that question we begin by looking at an age-old sales technique – stress the features of the product. As an example, in the 1950s when large mainframe computers were penetrating the business market, some salespeople entered a potential customer’s office armed with every tiny detail of what their systems could do. Product features are the technical details of what the product does and how it does it. With the exception of the company that was to dominate the market – IBM – computer salespeople rarely talked about what their product could do for the customer.

Benefits versus Features

Today, the sales playbook has changed, and now effective sellers stress not the features of a product, but its advantages and benefits to the customer. Effective salespeople see themselves as selling solutions to customer problems. They only talk about product features in terms of how those features will benefit the customer and work to their advantage.

In many ways, traditional lecture methods are similar to salespeople selling the features of their products. Indeed some teachers, experts in their field, relish the opportunity to dazzle their learners with every conceivable detail of their content expertise, without ever considering how learning the content might benefit the learner. There is no felt need to “sell” the students on the idea they would benefit in some way from learning whatever content the teacher happened to be presenting.

These teacher presentations lacked the same ingredient an old-time sales person’s pitch lacked – relevance. Educational theorists have long suspected people learn best those things that are directly relevant to their own life experience. Today, scientific research on how the brain learns appears to support that belief.

Search the Internet for information on effective selling techniques and it would be hard to find an article that does not mention the importance of stressing benefits, not just features. To get customers to make a purchase decision, salespeople know they need to demonstrate the relevance the product has to the customer, either now or in the near future.

Why can’t teachers do the same? This kind of thinking should permeate any instructional methodology. In an effective sales presentation, any mention of a product feature is accompanied by a corresponding benefit.

Some teachers recognize the importance of relevance and begin a class or seminar with statements of how learning the content of the class can help learners in their future lives. How can we build on this as teachers, and reinforce the learning benefits throughout the entire course, not just at the beginning?

In the end, stressing benefits is a way of thinking, not just a technique.