NIU marketing professor Robert Peterson is a big believer in learning by doing – and he is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is.
“In the past, I have loaned each of my students $20 for 10 weeks and told them to create a product or service, sell it and make as much money as they could,” he says. One enterprising student turned that modest investment into a $1,400 profit.
Such innovative techniques recently helped Peterson win the 2011 Sales Teacher of the Year Award from the Sales Special Interest Group of the American Marketing Association.
The competition, which is sponsored in cooperation with textbook publisher McGraw Hill/Irwin, recognizes instructors for their innovative teaching techniques and the contributions they bring to marketing and sales education.
For him, the best classroom innovations are those that allow for hands-on learning.
“I’m a big advocate of experiential learning. I want to make sure my students receive a real-world education,” he says. “It’s one thing to sit in a class and answer the teacher’s questions and call that class participation, but it’s another thing to make sure students add value to the class.”
And some of the most valuable lessons don’t always come from those who show a profit on the ledger sheet. “People make mistakes; everyone does,” Peterson says. “I teach my students when they make mistakes, to pick themselves up and try again.”
While students leave the program ready to sell all types of things, perhaps the most important “product” they learn to sell is their own skills. To assist them in doing so, Peterson provides students with the opportunity throughout the semester to sit for two-minute mini-interviews with corporate executives.
“At first, many students learn that it is not so easy to articulate their abilities, but they are given second and third chances during the semester,” he says. “Eventually, they collect their thoughts and gain more confidence.”
Students in his Principles of Selling course (a cornerstone of NIU’s Professional Sales Program curriculum for decades) also get opportunities to interact with professional salespeople who act as buyers during role playing exercises.
“Students love it, sort of. They don’t know who is going to be on the other side of the door until it opens and then they have only 15 minutes to find solutions to client challenges,” he says. “For many it’s the spark needed to pursue a potentially successful sales career.”
One of the oldest programs of its kind, it has been recognized as one of the best, and most innovative sales programs in the country, and most recently was named to the Sales Education Foundation’s list of top professional sales programs for 2011.
NIU’s program was one of the first to record student role-plays for later analysis, and it offered one of the first business golf seminars.
It also recently played host to the World Collegiate Sales competition, which attracted teams from across the United States and from Scotland. Graduates of the program are highly sought after, and many go to work each year for companies such as Baxter Laboratories, Lilly USA and Phillip Morris.
Dan Weilbaker, director of the program, lauds Peterson as an excellent addition to the faculty. “Rob definitely brought a strong commitment and talent in teaching to NIU’s Professional Sales Program,” Weilbaker says.