Sloan Sales Conference: Panels & Talks Mean Business

It was Friday, April 17, and by the time I left my final class of the day, Campus Preview Weekend was already in full swing.  Making my way down the prefrosh-packed Infinite, I had something far different planned for the afternoon than CPW.  I was headed down Memorial Drive to the Hyatt Regency, where the 3rd annual MIT Sloan Sales Conference was attracting a crowd of businessmen from prospective entrepreneurs to some of the top sales experts in the nation.

Arriving at the conference at 12:20 p.m., I missed the morning venues, including a keynote speech given by Bill McDermott, President of Global Field Operations at SAP, one of the world’s leading providers of business software. Picking up my media pass, I hurriedly made my way into the Hyatt ballroom, where I found myself amongst hundreds of Sloan students and businessmen.

Despite feeling completely out of place in my Tech t-shirt and sneakers, I took one of the few remaining empty seats and enjoyed a fine Italian-inspired lunch.

Psych. professor talks sales

In progress was the second keynote speech of the day, given by professor of psychology and best-selling author Robert Cialdini. Cialdini focused his talk on the principles of ethical influence that permeate advertisements and sales. One of his key principles was the concept of how people are drawn to scarce and exclusive products. “For every hour of delay after receiving exclusive information,” he said, “there is an hour of decay.”

As an example, Cialdini presented a mock situation where a salesperson was selling prime-quality beef from South America. In comparison to standard advertisement strategies, the salesperson could increase sales six-fold by telling the customer that he could get the beef anywhere else.

The salesperson could also reveal exclusive information to that customer, such as stating that a special panel of meteorologists expected a drought in the next month. The subsequent sharp decline in the supply of this specific beef could drive the customer to purchase more.

Cialdini emphasized the importance of conveying exclusive information to customers in order to increase sales, saying that “information is like bread: people rather take it fresh than when it’s stale.” According to Cialdini, customers tend to believe in information that is more scarce than that which is publicly distributed.

Web 2.0

Following the lunch and keynote addresses, three separate panel discussions were held, featuring topics ranging from team building to selling in global markets.

I attended the third, a panel addressing the Web 2.0 revolution, referring to the growing popularity of web social networking, and next generation sales models.

Moderated by MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Mike Grandinetti, the discussion panel included successful entrepreneurs and Chief Executive Officers Brian Halligan of Hubspot, Gail Goodman of Constant Contact, and Kevin Walker of Simple Tuition.

According to Halligan, consumers have discovered new and easier methods of acquiring information, resulting in the development of a more symmetric relationship between producers and sellers.

Sellers can no longer overprice a product because consumers now have more resources to compare and analyze the good before committing to the transaction.

Halligan also emphasized the importance for people and businesses to use social networking applications to reach out to others. “Selling is evolving,” said Halligan. “Start a blog about your thesis. Use Facebook. Use Twitter. Get LinkedIn. Start conversation about your research.”

Sales workshops

Next on my event agenda was the sales workshops. Designed to be more interactive and stimulating than the panel discussions, the workshops gave the audience more room to ask questions and the opportunity to partake in mock business situations. I opted to sit in on the one entitled “Tough Times Demand Smarter Sales Strategies,” though, admittedly, the workshop entaling the empowerment of pre-sales in the marketplace was tempting.

In the workshop, Mike Falkson, CEO, President, and founder of Eti Sales Support, presented advice and strategies to the audience on how to stay afloat in the current recession. “Invest in your strengths,” Falkson said, “not your deficits.”

Falkson added that businessmen should give more attention to those clients with the most value and potential. By narrowing the client base to only those customers with the greatest potential, Falkson said, companies are more likely to survive in today’s harsh economical environment.

Winding down

The conference finished up with two workshop sessions given by Director Dianne Ledingham of Bain & Company and MIT Sloan Sales Trainer Jeff Hoffman. By then, after being in classes all morning and conference activities all afternoon, I was just about ready to call it a day. Shortly after the conclusion of the conference, I met with Felipe Castro G, chief organizer of the conference and President of the MIT Sloan Sales Club. Castro and his team started organizing the event back in November 2008, just when the nation’s economic crisis was starting to turn some heads. “At that time,” Castro said, “we knew that we would want to incorporate the crisis as one of the main themes of the conference.”

Castro himself had to deal with the effects of the crisis in the planning of the event. Funding for this year’s conference totaled only $30,000, dropping significantly from last year’s $80,000, due mostly to a sharp decrease in sponsorship. Instead of sponsorship, this year’s primary source of revenue came from registration fees.

Castro was grateful the conference drew in as many people as it did. “We broke even and made a profit of $5,000,” said Castro. “Two weeks before the event took place, we were expecting a loss.”

According to Castro, the high level of attendance is a result of the economic crisis itself and how businessmen are in great need of advice and support.

Castro sees the MIT Sloan Sales Conference as a permanent event that will continue annually for many years to come. “This is the third time we have held this conference,” Castro said. “To me, the third time an event is held determines whether it will last forever.”