Selling is one of the core functions of any business, and start-ups are no different. Sales skills are essential for young business owners to finance their business ideas, generate revenues by selling products and services, cover business costs and, ultimately, create profits.

But from a skills development point of view, there is still a question as to whether our young entrepreneurs are gaining the core sales skills they need from UK business degree courses.

At Young Enterprise Scotland, which offers enterprise and entrepreneurship opportunities for young people across Scotland, we conducted research to look at this very question.

Where are all the sales-focused courses?

What immediately grabbed our attention during this research was the real lack of practical selling, sales, trade and business development learning opportunities across the further education sector. While many essential entrepreneurial skills are covered in UK business degree courses (including business planning, idea generation, strategy and marketing) we found only one reference to ‘sales’ during online research on undergraduate business courses in West Scotland.

While we see evidence of some entrepreneurship programmes focusing on pitching skills and opportunities for students to engage in investment scenarios, there is little evidence of these courses providing opportunities for practical trading and selling. There seems to be a growing tendency for young business owners involved in enterprise programmes to lean towards start-up support in the form of grants, competitions and pitching for investment, as opposed to selling products and services.

This is surely symptomatic of an enterprise eco-system that emphasises positive encouragement, angel investment, and guidance from mentors, but that places little importance on selling to customers. Through our work at Young Enterprise Scotland, we’ve seen actual trading opportunities for young business owners being rejected in favour of re-branding, re-structuring and re-applying for grant funding to re-finance their business.

All of this seems to point to the reality that we are training our entrepreneurship students to be successful at pitching their business ideas, but not at selling to customers.

How important are sales skills to our economy?

Historic evidence suggests that the UK as a whole is average at generating sustainable start-ups in comparison to other OECD economies. Economic growth over the last ten years has been slow, and while there are positive signs of recovery, forecasts suggest our economy will need to rely on start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises in years to come. And that means developing entrepreneurs who can sell.

Dr Ben Spigel, from the University of Edinburgh Business School, talks about how by failing to focus on the importance of developing sales skills in budding business owners, we could be holding back Scotland’s entrepreneurial potential. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research also highlights sales as one of the key skills gaps amongst graduates in the UK (Scotland Skills 2030, 2017).

Can we sell our way out of low economic growth?

At Young Enterprise Scotland, we argue that, by improving the practical sales and business development skills of the labour supply that start-ups, micro and small and medium-sized enterprises, we can. Whether these skills are utilised to start a business, join a start-up, or play a part in a large corporate, the skills can be applied at all stages of a professionals’ career.

Enterprise courses and programmes should look to develop authentic teaching and learning approaches that expose young business owners to real life B2B or B2C trading opportunities. This is could be via engagement with existing micro and small businesses, or through their own start-ups.

If economic growth can be achieved through selling more products and services, it can be achieved more quickly and effectively by creating more sales conscious young business owners, graduates and alumni of enterprise programmes.

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