Looking back at a conversation they had at the beginning of spring semester, Associate Professor Duleep Delpechitre and student Andrew Grant cannot help but laugh.
They had just finished a role-play sales call for a class assignment when the associate professor of marketing and professional sales asked the graduating senior if he planned to pursue a career in sales.
The answer: “I don’t know if sales is right for me.”
Delpechitre, however, saw potential and encouraged Grant to keep honing his skills. The advice certainly paid off, and a few mere weeks later, the Illinois State University student rose to the top of more than 70 competing schools and was named overall champion at the 2019 National Collegiate Sales Competition in Atlanta.
Speaking of an educator’s role in seeing what students are capable of even when they cannot see it themselves, Delpechitre said, “You see something very precious. You can just do those little tweaks and make it shine and become a diamond. The level of satisfaction you get as a professor is unreal.”
Grant noted his confidence has grown tremendously from when he was doubting his career aspirations at the beginning of the semester.
“I became confident in my ability and that’s helped me in all different aspects in life,” he said. “I can tell you right now, that was the best experience I had in college. It was the most draining thing that I’ve ever done in college as well.”
Grant was one of four 2019 seniors on the Illinois State sales team. The other competitor was Alyssa Yurgil. Jack Cooke and Macy Orrick trained alongside of them and served as coaches during the competition.
The four students were in Delpechitre’s advanced sales class spring semester and earned a place on the competition team based on their success in an in-class version of the event, which served as their midterm exam. From there, they competed in the Redbird Regional Sales Competition hosted by Illinois State the first weekend in March.
The story of Illinois State’s eventual success at nationals is all the more impressive considering the defeat the team experienced at this regional event.
Yurgil recalled feeling “crushed” when the results were tallied.
“That competition they didn’t do well,” explained Delpechitre, “and I’m sure they wanted to do much better, and I know inside they were torn. They weren’t happy because they are all very competitive. They came back and had the hunger to do better. If I were to define them, it is all about their commitment and their desire. I will remember them with that. They fell, but they stood up and ran, and that’s pretty cool because if would have been very easy for them to say, “This is not for me” or “I’m not cut out for this” or get extremely frustrated, but they didn’t.”
Orrick agreed their poor performance at the regional competition gave the four team members a hunger to face the challenge head on and prove themselves. “We found out really quickly that we needed to practice more, for sure, so after that competition … we doubled down and practiced day in and day out for nationals,” she said.
Grant described preparing for the nationwide competition as “a mental test,” for which they spent “hours and hours, days and days” preparing.
Recalling many nights of practicing until the wee hours of the morning, Cooke shared he enjoyed those moments of working hard together because “everyone’s trying to do the best they can, and you bond over that.”
“There were days we were having mental breakdowns,” Orrick admitted, while Yurgil added with a laugh, “And then days we were having dance parties right in this very room.”
The latter continued, “We all drove the competition in each other. The constant pushing and practicing made a big difference.”
Yurgil then expressed appreciation for Delpechitre’s guidance and support during the preparation process. “He sacrificed a lot to help us,” she stated as she described the long practice hours. “We couldn’t have done it without him.”
The group attended the national sales event March 29 through April 1.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of all sales competitions, and you’re in the room with the best of the best from all over,” said Yurgil.
The competition utilized a tournament style in which individuals were divided into smaller groups of students who took turns working one-on-one with a buyer. To move on to the next round, contestants had to place in the top two in their group.
Orrick noted each round of of a sales competition offers unique challenges because the buyers receive different profiles about how to behave and what their needs are. The Illinois State students were well-prepared to face whatever might come their way, however, thanks to their rigorous preparation.
Cooke recalled how in his coaching role he was determined to throw his teammates as many curveballs as possible in practice so they would be more prepared for the actual competition. “I looked online a lot about sales horror stories and tried to see which ones would be horrible to encounter for me and then just tried to magnify that times ten. (I found) the worst of the worst, and I tried to put my own twist on it,” he said.
Grant recalled of this training method, “In Jack’s role-plays, you quite literally had no idea (what to expect). He would scream at you. He would be sick.” By facing such worst case scenarios, however, the Illinois State team members learned to be adaptable and keep their calm in uncomfortable situations. Speaking of that element of unpredictability in sales, Grant noted, “That’s what you deal with in the real world. If we have the experience now, I think we’re ahead of the game.”
Cooke shared their focus on fostering friendships with one another and having a team approach instead of working as individuals constantly trying to best one another was a key to their success. “We pushed ourselves aside and it was a collective group,” he said. “It’s a great life lesson, you can’t always be self-centered. You have to be aware of your surroundings as well as other people around you because you’ll never individually get anywhere without the support of your peers.”
As he described his own progression to the final four as “nerve-wracking” but “very rewarding,” Grant credited the support he received from his teammates and faculty coach as what made if possible for him to rise to the top of the competition.
“Seeing our team go from being knocked out for the second round of our own competition to doing so well at nationals and ending up winning is such a proud moment. We’ve come so far, and our team is living proof of hard work and dedication,” said Orrick. She then admitted that before the competition, sales was an interest of hers but not a passion. Now, however, she is excited about pursuing a future in the field.
“I realized through this whole experience that sales can be fun. It’s something new every day. I’ve definitely gained some more confidence,” she said. “It’s really set me up for success and set me apart, especially in the interview process and talking with different companies. I think I have, because of this competition, more of the qualifications and qualities that they are looking for, so it’s an amazing opportunity. Professionally and academically you have a lot of opportunity to grow.”
When asked about the value of the experience, Cooke observed, “It teaches you real world skills…and it’s very interactive as well. You get that one-on-one time with real executives with their own products. I think it’s the best experience you can get if you’re going into a selling role.”
“I think it teaches you a lot about yourself and how to adapt,” added Yurgil, who noted the competition showed her the value of incorporating her personality and passion into her sales tactics. “You really learn how to prioritize and set goals for yourself.”
In addition to the competition component, the sales event included a large-scale career fair, which allowed participants to network with other students, faculty and potential employers.
“There was opportunity everywhere,” Grant observed, adding the Illinois State students came away from the fair with far more than they ever anticipated.
During the career fair, Qualtrics, a market research company, recruited Grant, Orrick and Yurgil, and they plan to move to Provo, Utah, in July.
Grant said he is still amazed by how dramatically their lives changed in such a short time as a result of the competition. “You never know what’s going to happen. Life comes at you fast,” he said. “We walked in not having a job and having absolutely no idea what we were going to be doing for a career and then literally two weeks after (that we have) full-time positions with a company we met there.”
After graduation, Cooke moved to Dallas to take a sales development role with Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
“I feel I’m a proud parent, like my children did really well. I’ll have lifelong friendships with them and that in itself is very rewarding,” shared Delpechitre.
He then described the team’s success as “another point of pride for the university.”
Department of Marketing Chair Horace Melton agreed, noting, “We are very proud of the unprecedented performance of our sales students.”
He went on to describe Illinois State’s first-place finish at the National Collegiate Sales Competition as something that “reflects the dedication and preparation of our students and faculty and the outstanding quality of our sales program.” Melton is looking forward to seeing how the “increased awareness of the high quality of our programs” will continue to have an impact for years to come.
“Winning one of the largest university sales role-play competitions in the nation strengthens our brand and offers convincing evidence to prospective students, recruiters and other stakeholders that Illinois State has one of the best collegiate Professional Sales education programs in the United States” he said.
As Delpechitre concluded, “Only a handful of universities have won a sales competition of this magnitude in the last 20 years and for us to be on that level, that is special … It will have a huge impact … Because of their performance and dedication, we have so many companies that are coming here to partner with us and the future of our sales program … We have multiple companies wanting to come in and recruit our students because of what they’ve done. I think, looking at their accomplishment, all the kids to follow will benefit from it too.”