CULLOWHEE – While helping a Hendersonville bakery generate business-to-business leads that could mean more “dough” for the company, students in a Western Carolina University business class also are learning that in the world of sales and marketing, a negative response to a sales call is sometimes just the way the cookie crumbles.
Working out of the recently opened professional sales and marketing facility in Western’s Center for Applied Technology, students are making sales calls on behalf of Immaculate Baking Company to new and inactive business customers, said Julie Johnson, associate professor of marketing at Western.
The project, part of a consultative selling class taught this semester by Johnson, is designed both to provide assistance to a small business and to provide relevant, real-world training. “We wanted to implement the university’s focus on engagement with the region by providing student assistance to a small business from Western North Carolina and, at the same time, giving our students a valuable learning experience,” she said.
Johnson learned of Immaculate Baking through the university’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, which provides assistance to small-business owners and those interested in starting a new venture. The company, which manufactures natural cookies and sells them primarily to health and natural food stores, is known for its “cookies with a cause,” donating a portion of its proceeds to the American Folk Artist Foundation.
The company was seeking a way to increase its sales in the independent health food store segment of the market, and, at the suggestion of small business consultants with the SBTDC, teamed up with Johnson and her students.
“It has been a phenomenal experience,” said A.J. Nidek, specialty sales manager for Immaculate Baking. “When we first got the phone call, we were thinking, ‘What’s the catch? You’ll have students making thousands of sales calls for us? There’s got to be a catch.’”
The project has proven to be a positive experience both for the students, who are learning business sales skills, and the company, which has seen a noticeable increase in the number of cookie orders and requests for catalogues, Nidek said. The students have made a total of 42 sales, moving 108 cases of cookies while making more than 2,500 business calls.
“I think it’s wonderful that the university is doing more to be an active part of the community of Western North Carolina,” Nidek said.
During the five-week project, students receive advance training in the classroom before moving to the calling center. There, they are using the newly installed Voice over Internet Protocol system, enabling them to make their calls over broadband Internet while Johnson monitors their calls using a system called “Bright Arrow,” providing constructive quality control and real-time training.
“One of the most difficult things to learn in sales is how to pick up on the customer’s ‘verbal nuances.’ This ability comes with experience and by having someone point out the missed verbal cues,” Johnson said. “I work to help students develop an understanding of what the client ‘means’ versus what the client ‘says.’ Students also learn from each other, and rapidly determine which approach will be more effective.”
Students are “learning by doing” by completing the initial client contact, identifying the decision maker, establishing rapport, identifying needs and closing the sale by obtaining an order, she said.
“This is the first time that students at Western have been able to complete the entire business-to-business sales process in the context of a class,” Johnson said. “One of the big benefits to the students is that this experience provides them with a decisive edge when they enter the job market over other traditional students.”
In addition to class credit, hands-on training, and an advantage over other graduates in the job markets, the students also are getting some “dough” for their efforts – cookie dough, that is. Immaculate Baking sent six cases of cookies for the student callers to enjoy.