Purdue’s professional selling certificate prepares students to thrive in a changing sales industry

Written By: Rachel Barton

Group of business people talking in the office.

When people hear the word “salesperson,” it doesn’t always elicit a positive reaction. Many people default to the image of the disreputable used car salesperson who is invested in selling a defective clunker. Others think of the persistent door-to-door salesperson who pushes you to buy something you don’t really want or need. But Jen Riley, assistant professor of sales in Purdue University’s Center for Professional Selling, noted the modern sales industry isn’t about selling people things they don’t want or need — it’s about problem-solving.

Jen Riley headshot

Jen Riley

“So much of the professional sales role is about consultative conversations — how do we fix problems our target customers are facing?” Riley said. “When you work in sales, you’re not there to convince people of something so you can reach your quota, and you’re not there to push a product or service; you’re there to provide a solution.”

Housed within the College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS), the Center for Professional Selling focuses on teaching students the diverse opportunities available to them in the professional sales industry, aligning with HHS’ on-campus undergraduate degree in selling and sales management and the online professional selling certificate. Through the center, HHS encourages future and current sales professionals to think outside the box about what a career in sales can mean.

“Sales skills are incredibly important,” Riley said. “There’s a pretty high percentage of people graduating college whose first job will involve working in sales, so these skills are relevant to all kinds of professions”

Purdue’s professional selling certificate focuses on giving sales professionals the highly transferable skills they need to succeed in many different industries. It also showcases how broad the sales industry is, which, as Riley sees it, is often overlooked.

“Sales is an incredibly diverse field,” Riley said. “You have people who travel to customer locations, client-facing sales roles where they correspond in-person or online, outbound sales calls, inside sales reps and account managers. But you also have people with roles like sales engineers, who manage the technical aspect of sales: connectivity and system implementation. People don’t always consider all the different applications within or outside of sales where you can use sales skills.”

Meeting demands of the modern sales industry

As the sales industry evolves to meet consumer demands, the skills required of salespeople — and the opportunities available to them — are also changing. The online professional selling certificate aims to prepare students for the complex environment that characterizes modern sales. Riley explained the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the adoption of technologies used throughout the sales process are some of the biggest changes influencing sales professionals today.

“During COVID, face-to-face sales, which is what a lot of people think of when they think of sales, became less common,” Riley said. “But now, sales professionals have access to technologies that can overcome those challenges. Almost all salespeople today are using phones and laptops as sales tools. It’s important that salespeople feel comfortable using technology as part of their daily role.”

Looking toward the future, Riley expects technology will continue to transform the sales industry. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already being used by some companies to predict the success of a sales scenario. AI algorithms may generate new leads, identify which clients are likely to buy a certain product and identify which salespeople are likely to hit their quotas. Considering AI’s relevancy in the sales industry, Riley thinks data literacy will become an increasingly important sales skill.

Riley also predicts the future sales industry will be characterized by global sales. As more companies expand into the global arena, salespeople will be asked to do sales across borders and interact with an international community. The online professional selling certificate can help prepare sales professionals for working on a global team.

The demographics of the sales industry are also changing. Though currently the majority of sales professionals are men, more and more women are entering the field. Riley said sales research shows women outperform men in sales, especially business-to-business (B2B) sales. Women’s success in the sales industry has encouraged more women to seek out educational opportunities in sales.

“In my experience, many of the sales professionals who enroll in the professional selling certificate program are already in sales and want to upskill, or they want to break into a new industry,” Riley said. “The certificate program is great because it’s a lot of the same content our students get on campus at the Center for Professional Selling.”

Providing flexible professional development

Purdue’s 100% online professional selling certificate is a flexible, self-paced professional development opportunity for sales professionals. The first course, Introduction to Sales, can be completed in as little as two weeks. The second course, Advanced Sales Training, takes roughly 16 weeks to complete. The weekly time commitment per course is one to two hours, making the program a convenient investment for working professionals.

Scott Downey, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, has been a strong interdisciplinary collaborator in the Center for Professional Selling. His work in the College of Agriculture’s sales and marketing major often provides opportunities to interface with the White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s selling and sales management major.

“Purdue was one of the first universities to offer undergraduate education in sales,” Downey said. “The online, nondegree professional selling certificate provides students with an opportunity to achieve formal recognition of sales readiness at a time and location that work for them. It’s a great option for professional students.”

To learn more about the professional selling certificate courses, please visit the program’s webpage.