Romeo Vallias, who placed in the top 25 of the 2011 challenge, helped this year's students prepare.
Romeo Vallias, who placed in the top 25 of the 2011 challenge, helped this year's students prepare.
Image: Penn State

Students learn to pitch perfect(ly)

College students have the opportunity to absorb a wealth of information during their undergraduate years, but the ability to sell themselves to prospective employers continues to be a vital checkmark on a collegiate bucket list.

Networking with, and learning from, the people who run companies large and small is experience you can't typically gather in a classroom.

Add a pressure-packed sales competition and that's the experience two Penn State Harrisburg School of Business Administration students earned at the National Sales Challenge this past fall at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Amber Levan, of Hershey, and Tim Carson, of Hummelstown, joined about 70 students from around the country who participated in the challenge that included a 15-minute sales call role-play with a business executive and a two-minute speed selling pitch about themselves, in succession, for six other execs.

Although the competition weekend may have flown quickly, getting ready for the experience spanned weeks.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Dr. Zinaida Taran was the catalyst behind getting Penn State Harrisburg students to compete. She recognized the value to students and the college, and became a driving force, serving as coach, mentor, and coordinator of the students’ entire experience.

Their preparation also included sessions with Patrick Mazzolla, an alumnus of Penn State Harrisburg's graduate program in business administration, who donated his time and substantial sales expertise for the students’ enrichment. Managing director and CEO of Remuda Management Consulting, LLC (Harrisburg), Mazzolla served as an executive coach and mentor. "He taught us rules for sales to follow, and he gave us a lot of different concepts with sales,'' said Carson, a management and marketing major.

Mazzolla broke the preparation into two parts. "First, I talked about the psycho-social aspects of corporate marketing and selling,'' he said. “Second, I talked about the selling process and my experiences in corporate sales.”

Selling products

"The sales call role-play required much more preparation than the self-pitch,'' said Levan, a marketing major.  "We were given several paragraphs of a scenario that we were role-playing. However, when we competed, our job was to ask the right questions and have relevant discussion so the potential buyer would tell us the [scenario] information. We couldn't use that information unless the buyer actually told us about it.

"A lot of research was required because our job in the role-play was to sell a specific product. In our case, it was about ADP Payroll Services. We had to educate ourselves on the product and also how ADP presents its product in the marketplace. One of the training tools we used was a live webinar training session provided by ADP just for participants in the sales challenge,'' she said.

Carson explained that their approach included multiple strategies, all presented in a low-pressure manner. The goal was to get a follow-up meeting with the firm.

Selling yourself

The role-playing gauges a student's communication effectiveness and problem-solving abilities but the speed selling – often their first exposure to the pressure of an interview – was all about the student. 

“For most any student, that would be the first opportunity to create a purposefully, thoughtfully crafted self-presentation that is both accurate and impressive,’’ said the students’ faculty advisor Dr. Zinaida Taran. “The students had to find what their unique strengths were because they don’t want to sound like everybody else.

“When you first ask them to do this, sometimes they’ll just hash over their résumé. Somebody else could come and say, ‘I’m a great leader, I’m a great problem solver, but with no support. So you have to work to make sure there are strong claims and strong support and a good story to tell. That actually takes a long time, really a long time,’’ Taran said.

“Students and coaches spent many, many hours preparing these self-pitches. For a student who might not understand what his or her real strengths are, it’s a bit of a challenge. To sit down and come up with a different approach and be asked, ‘What have you done with your life?’ They didn’t do much work yet; but they showed some of their qualities of being able to solve problems or being able to lead, and it undoubtedly will help them in the future.’’

Levan said, "You really have to think about what information will be the best representation of you and create interest in just two minutes. The goal is for an interviewer to say, 'I need to hire him/her now.'

"It went by very quickly when we were competing. The speed selling was really fun for me. We got to meet six different corporate representatives who were our judges and get their feedback.''

Romeo Vallias, of Philadelphia, competed last year to help him prepare for his future. He had earned a degree in marketing from Penn State Harrisburg and in December 2012 received a second degree, this one in management. "I competed last year, and I was placed in the top 25,'' said Vallias who interned with ADP while completing his second degree. "I was interviewed by [two] companies, and of all the people I know who participated last year, almost everyone was placed in an internship or has a job,''

Vallias said the challenge provided a means for him to evaluate himself, allowing him to see “where I needed more help.” Using his experience, Vallias assisted Mazzolla and Taran in helping this year’s competitors prepare.

“The idea is, you [practice] to the point that it stops being a lot of pressure,’’ Taran said. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes. It actually becomes fun.

“It is extremely important to be able to articulate quickly and convincingly what your main ‘selling points’ are. You never know when you get an opportunity to talk to an important person, and when you know what to say about yourself, you have a great advantage.’’

Carson's sales pitch – which took 20 hours of preparation – focused on his studies, activities, and hobbies, which he used to support his work ethic and leadership abilities.

Meeting the challenge

"It was an excellent experience, and I'm really glad I did it,'' Carson said.  "When we're in class, we don't see what the rest of the world is doing. At the competition, the best salesmen in the country were there. They worked hard, and they were very good.''

"The most incredible part of this experience for me was meeting so many brilliant students from all over the country,'' Levan said. "The skills they have developed as sales professionals, the innovation in presentations, and just knowing the hours of hard work they put into preparing is so impressive.

"When I finish my college career and enter into the work force, I am going to be competing not for a sales challenge but for a job against these students, and it was extremely motivating to see how accomplished and prepared they are for that bigger challenge.''

Penn State Harrisburg graduate Alan Saw, of Harrisburg, met that challenge in 2011.  He used the experience to land a job with Apple. "Having the experience on my résumé helped me stand out from the others,'' Saw said.

"When I talked to a few of the company representatives, I was able to talk to them not just about jobs, but about how to make myself stand out …. They gave me a lot of pointers on what I should look for in a job and how a person should be passionate about what he or she is doing,” he said.

That the students volunteer for the challenge in itself impresses Mazzolla. "Just voluntarily agreeing to participate in the sales competition tells me a lot about the students' work ethic, motivation, and drive, as it would prospective employers,'' Mazzolla said. "It is another positive, differentiating experience on their résumés.''

Taran agreed, noting that the students’ willingness to “put in all those hours of training … to go through the pressure and stress of the competition … sets them apart from their peers.

“This is why I’m in this profession helping somebody actually blossom and succeed,” Taran said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”