Prior to competing in the 11th annual National Sales Challenge hosted by the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales, Illinois State University seniors Mackenzie Riechers and Olivia Parker joked, “Let’s go in there and win this thing.”  And that’s just what they did.  Not only did the College of Business students earn strong individual scores during the event at New Jersey’s William Paterson University November 15-17, but they launched their alma mater to the front of the pack of 34 universities and came home with a first for the Redbirds.

“Since it’s the first time Illinois State University has ever won a national sales competition, it put us more on the map,” observed Olivia, who was the challenge’s overall top ranked student. Upon learning of her success, she took the opportunity to contact her past managers and mentors to say, “This is what I did, and you were a huge part of that.”

“It feels awesome for the preparation to have paid off,” observed Mackenzie, who was the third runner-up overall in the contest. She also noted the competition helps to open doors for career opportunities for participants.

Selling and Sales Management Assistant Professor Duleep Delpechitre recalled his students invested a “significant amount of time and energy” to prepare for the competition. He estimated they spent at least 100 hours over a two month period–much of it in the mornings before classes–meeting as a team and developing strategies for excelling in the two-part competition.  The professor described his students’ performance at the event as “truly amazing.”

“It’s a great achievement,” he continued as he congratulated them on striving for strong results. “They push themselves to 120 percent.”

The first stage of the contest was a 15-minute role play scenario in which each of the 68 student competitors acted in a sales situation that involved resolving a customer problem, recommending a new product and asking for a referral. They were challenged by a wide range of variables, including the characteristics of the buyer and possible objections to the product they were selling.

“It’s like playing chess. You see what the buyer is going to say and then make your move accordingly. A lot of strategy goes into it,” observed Delpechitre.  Half of the participants advanced to the next round of role playing, and from their numbers, the final four were selected. Once the judges’ marks were tallied, Mackenzie was the fourth ranked student in the role play competition, and Olivia ranked seventh.

The second part of the competition was a speed selling round in which students gave a pitch for why a recruiter should hire them. They made a series of two-minute sales pitches–one in front of each of five judges.  “You have two minutes to wow them,” recalled Olivia, who placed fourth in this portion of the sales challenge.

Delpechitre spoke highly of both students’ success in standing out to the judges during this phase of the contest, saying, “The hard thing is all 68 kids go through the same college experience. The differentiation might be just a fact of the GPA or a job or experience, so to wow someone you really have to be extraordinary, and that’s not easy. For both of them to do so well in that arena, it speaks volumes of their own personal achievements as well.”

For both of the winning Illinois State students, competing in the contest helped them to hone their sales skills, gain a better understanding of the industry and demonstrate their professionalism and knowledge.  “This has definitely been the most beneficial thing that we could have done in our college career to prepare us for the next step in our career,” Mackenzie said.

Olivia agreed, adding, “You definitely really see the sales process. We do role plays a lot here, but this was actually in-depth what a real sales process looks like. It gives you that leverage. A lot of people graduate from college and they go into entry level sales positions because they still need to be trained. I and Mackenzie now are kind of entering the workforce not at an entry level. We’ve had so much experience, and that’s what this competition really prepared us for–to not be entry level salespeople. We have real experience.”