Sealing the Deal: Sales Competitions Help Launch Careers and ‘Chains of Hiring’

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Student holds out phone displaying RNMKRS sales competition logo
Marketing major Keith Cheek ’21 was the top Widener performer at the fall RNMKRS virtual sales competition. He finished in the top 10 percent overall among more than 2,100 competitors from 59 schools worldwide.

For nearly 15 years, Mary Shoemaker, Widener associate professor of marketing, has been prepping students in her Professional Personal Selling course to compete in collegiate sales competitions.

These sales role play simulations draw students from around the country as they vie to sell a product to a potential “buyer.”

It’s an opportunity for students to gain resume-building experience, to network with employers, and for some, to find their passion and launch their careers. Over the years, about 20 of Shoemaker’s students have been hired directly by companies involved with these events.

Among those students – and now alumni – is Bailey Heishman ’16.

Through a sales competition, Heishman landed a job with Laird Plastics. She still works for the firm today, having recently been promoted as an account manager in industrial sales.

“The sales competition was one of those experiences where I had to get out of my comfort zone,” said Heishman, a self-described introvert. “It was one of the first steps to put myself out there, to becoming the professional I hope I am today.”

Heishman is now paying her success forward. She is one of several university alumni and sales professionals from various industries who give their time and talent to coach the next generation of Widener students for the sales competitions.

Competitions look a bit different these days. COVID-19 cancelled the in-person events in the fall, and instead, Shoemaker’s students took part in the virtual RNMKRS College Sales Skills Competition.

Through RNMKRS, students used an app to try to sell Dell laptops to Alex Taylor, a representative of a Texas police department looking to outfit officers with new equipment. The only catch was their potential buyer was not real. Alex was an interactive, responsive artificial intelligence bot.

RNMKRS Sales Challenge's AI bot named Alex sitting at a desk behind a laptop
The "customer" in the RNMKRS virtual sales challenge - Alex Taylor, an artificial intelligence bot. (Image courtesy of RNMKRS)

Still, the students, as in any competition, were judged on how well they built a rapport with the client, understanding the problems they face, offering solutions, handling objections to offers, and sealing the deal – or in this case succeeding in landing a second meeting with a police department representative.

Marketing major Keith Cheek ’21 was the top Widener performer at the RNMKRS competition and finished in the top 10 percent overall among more than 2,100 competitors from 59 schools worldwide.

“The role playing with actual alumni and sales professionals really helped prepare me and helped me develop my closing remarks. I learned a lot. It was an amazing experience,” said Cheek, whose interest in sales as a possible career path has increased. 

Alumni and other industry professionals joined Shoemaker’s class via Zoom during the fall semester and used role playing and other techniques to help prepare the students for the competition, and the added challenge of selling to someone not physically in the same room, or even real.

Though selling to an AI bot was not ideal, the experience has already proven beneficial for senior marketing major Alaina Johnson in her job search. Johnson recently interviewed for a sales position with a company that used an AI platform in the first round of interviews, and the experience with RNMKRS helped her navigate it. And when Johnson progressed to a subsequent interview with a real person, she spoke about her RNMKRS experience. 

This definitely opened the doors with what I want to do after graduation. This has helped me grow as a young professional. It shows you to look at your Instagram, look at your LinkedIn, emails, the little things of how we market ourselves. — Alaina Johnson '21

Apart from serving as coaches for the sales competitions, the alumni guests in Shoemaker’s class also share their personal stories and advice, and network with the students.

“The sales challenges have created chains of hiring with alumni paying it forward,” said Shoemaker. “Our alumni are absolutely wonderful and have a substantial network.”

Each year, Kevin Klick ’08 donates his time to help coach Shoemaker’s students. He credits his former professor, and his participation in the sales competitions, with helping him realize his passion for the field and for setting him on a path to success.

“Dr. Shoemaker’s sales class really opened my eyes. I had that ‘aha’ moment,” said Klick, territory manager for Auris Health, the robotics division of Johnson & Johnson. 

Widener is a great institution to get personalized education and to work with phenomenal teachers. And Dr. Shoemaker is a transformative professional with a unique ability to reach students and inspire them. My life wouldn’t be where it is now without her. — Kevin Klick '08

Marketing major Camryn Castellini ’22, who also competed in the RNMKRS challenge, was inspired to hear from Klick and other alumni about their successes. 

“Hearing from alumni gives you perspective into what you can do as a Widener student after you graduate, how they went from being in my shoes in Professor Shoemaker’s class, to how accomplished they are now. There’s hope you can do it, too,” said Castellini, who is interested in medical device sales. 

Having alumni and other sales professionals speak to students also helps Shoemaker in her mission to counter the negative perception that sales can sometimes garner. Some students enter her class with the image of door-to-door salespeople, but soon learn the true nature of the profession, and how rewarding and lucrative it can be.

And, at the end of the day, nearly every business or professional role involves sales in some form or another. 
 
That’s the message Miguel Peña, a two-time Widener alumnus and member of the Widener Board of Trustees, shared with Shoemaker’s students when he helped coach them.
 
“No matter what career path you choose, life is a sales call,” said Peña, who started his career in sales and today serves as president and chief executive officer of TenEx Technologies, LLC. “It’s all about internal and external relationships. You are either selling or buying something, and you need to learn how to do both effectively. That’s what makes great teams.”
 
Added Peña: “Professor Shoemaker’s class is providing every student with a basic understanding of sales, which will pay dividends when they graduate, whether they pursue a career in sales or not. This experience is invaluable.”

The success enjoyed by Shoemaker and her students, as well as the changing nature of work, is leading Widener to explore ways to elevate personal sales in its academic offerings. 

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