For 20 years, Kim Anderson has taught Oklahoma State University agriculture students the ins and out of sales strategy. He typically lectures in-person to 110 to 115 mostly junior ag majors a semester.
Until last spring.
The course, like sales, depends on personal interaction among students, faculty, and outside business representatives.
When Covid-19 forced the university to shut down last March, Anderson had to scramble to create a curriculum that would come as close as possible to a classroom experience — without the classroom.
“After spring break, students did not come back to the campus,” Anderson explains. Shutting down the course, Agricultural Product Marketing and Sales, one of OSU's Department of Agricultural Economics’ most popular offerings, was not an option.
Virtual sales class
“We had a week and a half to create a virtual course,” Anderson says.
For years, a fundamental aspect of the “Sales Class” has included two projects that depend on personal interaction. Students are required to spend one day shadowing a salesperson, observing sales calls, Anderson explains.
They write reports on what they learn from the sales professionals.
An end-of-semester highlight, the “Ready, Set, Sell” project and banquet, brings in 40 company representatives, each of whom donates $100 to fund the banquet. Those representatives also serve as potential buyers to whom students make 15- to 20-minute sales pitches.
Neither of those options was possible either last spring or this semester.
“We had students make a video of sales calls,” Anderson says. Some worked with salespersons they knew well enough to trust to be socially distant for interviews. Others got their parents or close friends to roleplay the buyer. Student safety remains paramount.
“About half the class was able to find a salesperson,” he says. “This is the capstone of the course—time in the real world. Out of 4,400 or so students over the 20 years I’ve taught the course, maybe 10 at most didn’t think it was one of the best experiences they had at OSU.”
In-Person for fall
The Sales Class is in-person this semester, but with some modifications from last spring. Students may choose in-person or virtual classes. Ready, Set, Sell and in-person shadowing sales calls are not possible. Sales call videos and essays remain in place for this semester.
The classroom is larger than usual to accommodate 94 students with appropriate social distancing. “We are holding class in a gymnasium,” Anderson says.
Students wear masks. “On the first day of class, three or four students did not wear masks,” Anderson says. “I explained that the virus probably would not pose a serious threat to them but added that I am 73 years old and that it was their responsibility to protect me. From then on, everyone has worn a mask.”
He says of the 94 students, 70 or more regularly attend in-class lectures. “Virtual participation rotates. Sometimes a student or his roommate tests positive for Covid and goes into quarantine. After 14 days, they come back to class. Quarantine numbers are down from where they were three weeks ago”
He’s altered the class in other ways.
“Most professors zoom their lectures. We also zoom guest speakers. I’m making videos of lectures rather than have students watch via zoom. Students can choose the classroom or online or a combination. Most, about 85 of 94, prefer the classroom. They want to be in class.”
He’s added other wrinkles to the curriculum. “Now, after every class they take a quiz.”
He loads all the lectures and quizzes, into a software program, “Canvas,” where students access it. “Everything goes on this program, not on paper. Students take the quiz after every class. If they are not in class, they still have to take the quiz that day.”
Quizzes make a difference, Anderson says.
“Each class is worth 8 points, so figure 40 classes times 8 equals 320 points out of an 800-point class.”
He says students like it. “They listen to the lecture and note key points for the quiz. I’m planning to continue this after Covid.”
Classroom is best
He says virtual learning has been necessary because of the pandemic but it can’t replace the classroom experience.
“In-class is significantly better than virtual for 90% of students,” he says. “The beauty of this class is that they want to be here. Usually, out of 110 or 115, a few are in class because they didn’t have anything else to do, have a job, or just didn’t want to be here. Every kid here now wants to be here. That makes the class better. Today, we had a guest speaker and a full classroom.”
He says the class is mostly juniors with a few seniors and sophomores.
It’s an important class for any ag major, Anderson says.
“Everyone is in sales. Everyone sells something every day. Every time someone sees you, they have an experience. I tell my students that halfway through the course I will give them the perfect pick-up line. The line is: anything you say if the person wants you to talk to them. That’s the foundation of the course.
“It teaches farm kids how to communicate and build relationships. That’s what sales is.”
The original curriculum came from a professor at Purdue University, Dave Downing. “I started it here 20 years ago,” Anderson says. “Professor Downing developed the course over 25 years. He gave it to me. I have adapted it over the years.”
Anderson admits the pandemic has challenged faculty and students since last spring, but the essential task of educating future leaders continues.
“The students are making it work,” he says. “This is not as good as it was before Covid-19, but it is working.”
He says the experience will change the way he teaches. “I believe my presentations in the future will be better. In making the videos, in writing and editing the final draft, I’m looking at how the presentation flows and adjusting to make it flow better.
“Those videos forced me to change. When I review the video, I see the flow. I modify and tighten the overheads. I take a serious look at the flow and justify each topic.”
Covid-19 has been a challenge, Anderson admits. But the result is probably a good metaphor for the characteristics necessary for a good salesperson, persistence and adaptability during hard times.
“I think it will be a better course because we had to do the virtual class.”