Being a technology salesperson isn’t easy. Not only does it require foundational selling skills, it also requires an understanding of the technology solutions you are trying to sell. However, with technical sales jobs in high demand, and often boasting competitive pay and upward mobility, it is an exciting field to be in.
Let’s explore how the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Training Centers and Virtanza Career Pathways (“Virtanza”) have joined forces to develop a 13-week technology sales program to bridge the technical sales skills gap.
The Perfect Pair
Bernice Burns, technology sales lead instructor at Virtanza, says that for many students a career in technical sales was previously inaccessible. “Students didn’t know what [sales] was; they had no exposure to it.” But in today’s market, “Sales is everything” and, often, working in sales is “more glamorous” than one might think, Burns says. Salespeople regularly connect with key stakeholders and C-suite executives, acting as a “solutions architect” or “sales engineer” to help solve pressing business needs.
By bringing together Virtanza’s high-quality sales program and UMBC Training Center’s high-quality technology training, students can “learn the very best, from the very best and get into the best jobs” in the field, says Debbie Holzkamp, founder and chief executive officer of Virtanza.
The program has recently expanded to include monthly starts of its live virtual, synchronous course, along with a technical sales scholarship program funded by both Virtanza and UMBC Training Centers. At the heart of its success, Holzkamp says, is the Virtanza and UMBC Training Centers’ teams, who have come together in pursuit of closing a key workforce talent gap.
Developing the Curriculum
Both sales and tech are fast-paced, constantly evolving fields. Just consider the rapid shift to virtual selling in light of COVID-19; or the many new technologies hitting the market seemingly overnight. Thus, technical salespeople need lifelong learning, says Natalie Peterson, vice president of marketing and sales at Virtanza. The digital credential that students receive after completing the program is likely one of many they will achieve throughout their career that will “live on as proof” that they are qualified to assume a technical sales role.
The program leverages competency-based learning to prepare students for technical sales roles in cloud computing, cybersecurity, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI), and in “anything that has to do with software and selling solutions in the technology space,” Holzkamp says.
The sales part of the program’s curriculum, which makes up the second half of the course, helps students develop in-demand selling skills. Coupled with the technology training, which composes the first half of the curriculum, students leave the course with fundamental technical sales skills that employers are looking for, Burns says.
While many students are “intimidated” by sales, they are really intimidated by technology, Burns says. However, to succeed as a technical salesperson, you don’t need extensive coding skills or even an intricate understanding of how modern technologies, like machine learning (ML) and AI work. In other words, “You don’t need to know all the bells and whistles [of] how the watch works. You need to be conversant enough to sell the watch,” Burns says. After all, technology salespeople often have a team of data scientists and engineers behind them who can answer any more technical, specific questions a customer might have. Dhruv Ratra, adjunct faculty instructor at UMBC Training Centers, echoes this idea, saying that the program’s objective is to get students well-versed in technology so they can help identify solutions to customers’ problems and “not be a deer in the headlights” during technical sales calls.
To get students up to speed, the program covers everything from the history of computing and networking to the evolution of the cloud and cloud storage. Understanding how modern technologies came into existence is “very, very important” for technical salespeople to be confident enough to sell, Ratra says. Students also receive instruction on big data, cybersecurity and modern IT and cloud computing technologies.
The sales portion of the program teaches students how to identify stakeholders and decision-makers; customer relationship management (CRM); how to identify and engage with prospects, and how to communicate clearly and effectively in both virtual and in-person environments. Peterson says that prospecting, especially, is a skill employers are looking for. “They want to know that sales reps can go and find their own prospects.” This is easier said than done, as Holzkamp explains that today’s prospecting process has come a long way from making a simple phone call. Now, chatbots, AI and even innovations in digital communication and email have transformed the prospecting process.
The program uses case studies and real-world scenarios to help students gain hands-on experience in these key sales competencies. Ultimately, sales is a very small part of what the program teaches, Holzkamp says. “Being a solutions architect, this is what we’re really teaching you. We’re teaching you to challenge, to bring new ideas, to push back, to pull, to develop, to create, to solve, to have ongoing relationships and continue to have continuous, lifelong learning.”
Empowering Future Technical Sales Leaders
Although the sales technology program is relatively new, its recent expansion into a full, open access program has demonstrated its success in meeting an important workforce development need. With the program’s “level, quality and rigor,” Peterson says she is excited to see the program eventually reach students worldwide, whether they are looking to break into the technology sales field, upskill themselves or reskill laterally.
Empowering people with both the hard and soft skills needed to succeed in the technology sales field, students leave the program in the “right frame of mind” to land a role and “be unstoppable,” Peterson says. “That’s really what’s driving us.”