Students formulated solutions and strategies for challenges of real organizations.
After five months of work and preparation for their big moment, the pressure was on for students participating in the first annual Sales and Customer Relationship Strategy Competition held this month at the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business.
One by one, groups of four to six smartly dressed students stood before their client and a dozen other judges to explain within 50 minutes their proposed strategy and solutions to a major sales challenge faced by their client organization. Several students were operating on just a few hours of sleep after rehearsing well into the night with their teams.
"It was a lot of pressure, but it was a pretty exciting process," said James Cornell, a junior and finance major, moments after he and his team presented.
Most of the 30 participants were undergraduate and master's degree students of Rawls College, but some were from other colleges within Texas Tech University. The competition was solely an extracurricular activity for most of them but also counted as credit for one course for those working toward a Sales and Customer Relationship Management Undergraduate Certificate at Rawls College.
After signing up in May, the students were divided into six teams, each assigned to a project provided by one of the six participating organizations. Each team had to find time in their busy schedules over the past several months to research and solve sales-related challenges facing each group's client.
The students used proven frameworks, tools and strategies and received guidance along the way from faculty advisers assigned to each team. The competition culminated on the morning of October 3, when students, faculty members and leaders of companies and nonprofits convened at the college for final group presentations. Student teams presented their strategies and solutions before about 25 judges, divided between two rooms. Following each presentation, teams took questions from judges in the audience, who included Texas Tech faculty members, representatives from sponsoring client organizations, and senior business leaders from other organizations.
The top three winning teams were announced that evening at an awards dinner at The Texas Tech Club and received scholarships of $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000 for first, second and third prizes to share among team members. Additionally, each member of the non-placing teams received a $500 scholarship. The scholarships were generated from the sponsorship fees paid by the four participating companies and sponsors of the two nonprofits.
The competition is the creation of Atul Parvatiyar, director of the Center for Sales and Customer Relationship Excellence and a professor of practice in the Area of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Rawls College. He created a somewhat similar marketing competition when on the faculty of Emory University's Goizueta Business School in 1992 — a competition that has continued to be one of Emory's most successful business school events for 27 years, Parvatiyar said.
"My overall philosophy is to unlock the potential of students, and this whole exercise does that by providing them an opportunity to work on a real-life problem," Parvatiyar said. "Students get to apply their knowledge in a real-world, experiential setting to develop strategic solutions based on rigorous and creative thinking."
The competition also provides a hands-on opportunity for students to develop complex problem-solving skills, learn consulting and teamwork skills, conduct marketing research and analysis, create actionable plans, and practice presentation skills.
"Because these are real-life clients with whom participants are consulting, it exposes the students to the opportunities, challenges, ambiguities and adversities of life outside of the classroom," said Mark Fish, assistant director of the Center for Sales and Customer Relationship Excellence and an associate professor of practice in the Area of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Rawls College.
Parvatiyar added: "By undertaking these projects, students come out better prepared to take on bigger challenges and be hired by leading organizations in the world. For these organizations, onboarding our students for challenging career positions becomes easier and faster."
A Win-Win Partnership
Without the sponsoring organizations and their projects, the competition could not
have happened, Parvatiyar said. The six projects tackled by teams this year were for
the following companies and nonprofits:
• Crawford & Company/Broadspire – This project required evaluation of the company's sales lead generation strategy and process. Students examined various aspects of sales lead generation (including the company's digital marketing strategies, events and salesperson activities) to uncover their strengths and weaknesses and discover ways to resolve any issues by using marketing automation and techniques for sales lead generation.
Team members: Asia Clark, Malcolm Harlan, Melissa Duran-Palacios, Roy Strange, Youngmin Kim and Nicholas Rowell. Faculty adviser: Associate Professor of Practice Dino Villegas.
• Clean Slate – For this nonprofit, which helps homeless people find a pathway to get out of homelessness, the project required development of a sales proposition to obtain sponsorships for litter abatement projects undertaken by homeless people. This team's project was sponsored by Rawls alumnus Hank Dorris, who has been funding litter abatement projects for Clean Slate as part of his charitable giving for the past several years. The students working on this project investigated the key motivations of several target organizations who have either established corporate social responsibility goals or undertaken cause-related marketing. They also examined the possibilities of crowdfunding in their proposed strategies.
Team members: Florencio Ortiz, Reynaldo Torres, Trysten Soderquist and Myisha Nawar. Faculty adviser: Instructor Alejandra Marin.
• Teleos Marketing – The project required developing a sales strategy for the company's new and patented disinfectant application system, EMist. The team focused on evaluating the strategic market opportunity of selling EMist to the food service and hospitality industry and developed a quick go-to-market and sales strategy for this target segment. Team members: James Cornell, Dawson Lahart, Christian Henslee and Davis Quisenberry. Faculty adviser: Professor of Practice Atul Parvatiyar.
• Reproductive Solutions, Inc. (RSI) – For this early stage company, the project involved developing a sales strategy for RSI's patented product, Protex. The team undertook market research to understand the concerns and motivations of fertility clinics, and to develop a sales value proposition and approach to get these clinics to adopt Protex.
Team members: Brittany Gaither, Blake Jetton, Brandon Wu, Julie Telles-Carrizales, Raymond Che and Shawn Deguire. Faculty adviser: Associate Professor of Practice Mark Fish.
• Reynolds Consumer Products – This project involved opportunity assessment and international go-to-market strategy for this company's presence in Brazil and Indonesia. Students working on this project not only did extensive secondary data and desk research, they also communicated with knowledgeable people in those countries who had knowledge about that market and could provide them with insight and information about local customer and consumer behavior.
Team members included: Danae Steiger, Kelsey Campbell, Manuel Garcia, Oscar Sarasty and Taryn Fremont. Faculty adviser: Assistant Professor of Practice Jeffrey Harper.
• Texas Tech Public Media – This project involved creating strategies to increase audience, sponsorships and program underwriting for the various TV, Radio and web assets of this nonprofit.
Team members: Patrick Herrera, Zach Sodolak, Dominic Schwartz and Quinn Miller. Faculty adviser: Instructor Jill Davis.
"Engaging with the students was great to get a fresh perspective on a problem we've been looking at for two years now, and we really enjoyed the recommendations and new ideas they brought to the table," said Kirsten Ham, director of Clean Slate, based in Fort Worth.
Rawls alumnus John Smothers, president and CEO of Reproductive Solutions, Inc., met weekly with his student team.
"For me, the experience was very engaged, collaborative and professional," he said.
The outcome of the work done by those students assigned to his company has changed his company's game plan, he said, noting, "We've totally pivoted from the way we were going to approach the sales process."
Bradley Karr, development officer for Texas Tech Public Media, noted how his student team did with their presentations: "What was most impressive was the professionalism they displayed. They all seemed to keep their cool and their confidence."
In addition to receiving custom innovative solutions formulated by students working under the guidance of knowledgeable faculty advisers, sponsoring entities benefit from publicity and exposure of their brand during the competition and the satisfaction that comes from supporting the academic growth of students.
"The biggest gain to the company is helping to develop the learning of future employees," Parvatiyar said. "They are helping in preparing the future generation, and that's a big contribution. Its corporate social responsibility."
A Rewarding Experience
One of the most rewarding aspects of the competition for Blake Jetton, a student in the STEM MBA program, was the showing of support for teams, he said. Though only 30 students participated, he estimated about five times that many people came to the awards dinner.
"The show of support around us was, I thought, the most amazing part," he said. "It really shows me that Rawls is more than just getting you in and then getting you out. They're there to support you through your degree."
Top winners and prizes announced that evening were:
1. First place: the Teleos Marketing/EMist team
2. Second place: the Clean Slate team
3. Third place: the Reynolds Consumer Products team
The EMist team came up with a sales strategy for the company's disinfecting device and solution, which leverages technology to help prevent the spread of disease and infection. EMist operating partner Joshua Robertson, who is a Rawls alumnus and member of the Rawls Advisory Council, was the first to lead out with comments, questions and a big smile following the group's presentation.
"I'm really proud of you. You 'killed it,' so thanks," he told them.
Afterward, team members said they appreciated Robertson, a graduate of both the bachelor's and MBA programs at Rawls College, for giving them the chance to prove themselves.
"It was really cool that Joshua opened up his trust in us to come up with a strategy for his new device," said Davis Quisenberry, a Rawls senior and marketing major.
Though big prize money was at stake and served as a major motivator, contestants were inspired to excel as much or more by their interest in providing true value to their clients, as expressed by Christian Henslee, a Rawls senior and marketing major on the EMist team.
"Later down the road, it would be really rewarding to see that something we came up with in college is actually being implemented," Henslee said shortly after their presentation, hours before they learned they won the $20,000 prize. "That would mean even more than any scholarship money."
Likewise, Reynaldo Torres, a student in the Rawls Master's in Finance Program and a member of the Clean Slate team that won $10,000 in scholarship funds, pointed to the professional benefits of participating. He listed the competition on his resume, which he shared at Rawls College's recent career fair.
"I handed my resume to recruiters, and when they saw this project listed, they said, 'Oh, you have some consulting experience,'" Torres recalled, noting he had no such prior experience. "Now I can show that."
Another member of that team, Rawls senior Trysten Soderquist, had a job interview minutes after his team's presentation, so when he accepted the second-place award for his team, Fish asked him, "Did you by any chance leverage this project in that interview?"
"Absolutely. She (the interviewer) was very impressed," Soderquist told Fish and the audience. "I didn't realize how impressive this was going to be to potential interviewers. ... I am very grateful to have so much to talk about in an interview now."
Leaders from each company spoke at the awards dinner. Marc Cunningham, senior vice president of disability and leave at Broadspire Services, Inc., told attendees his company's team "did a fantastic job."
"It was clear to me that the students found this practical business experience to be enriching," he said.
Likewise, Elek Schneider, global marketing manager of Reynolds Consumer Products, commended the students assigned to his company for being able to "push yourselves to not just think outside the box but work outside the box."
"I can't say this was entirely altruistic because you guys did a lot of the work I would otherwise have to do," he told them.
Hank Dorris, a Rawls alumnus and member of the Rawls Advisory Council, sponsored Clean Slate's participation in the competition. Students on that team put a lot of work into their presentation, he said.
"I was really proud of the job that they did, and I think we'll be able to implement some of their ideas into the Clean Slate fundraising efforts in the next year," said Dorris, president and CEO of Specialty Packaging, Inc. in Fort Worth. "If Trysten, Reynaldo, Florencio and Myisha work as hard in the real world as they did on this project, they'll be very successful."
Several students and organizational sponsors said they hope the Sales and Customer Relationship Strategy Competition continues at Rawls College for many years to come.
As Smothers said, "This could be a flagship program for Rawls, and I'm excited about that."
Though the inaugural event was held in the fall, the competition will be advanced to the spring semester in 2020, Parvatiyar said
"This competition will be an incredible program for the Rawls College of Business
and gives a real world experience our students can take with them into their careers,"
Robertson said. "Aligning marketing initiatives with quality sales strategies is key
to driving consistent growth for a company or even a nonprofit organization. This
competition provides that valuable experience and will only get better over time."
View pictures from the event by Rawls College photographer Michaela Gerik: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmHyD4h3
The Center for Sales and Customer Relationship Excellence in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University is designed to prepare and develop future sales and customer relationship management leaders through academic programming, research opportunities, and corporate partnerships. Its mission is to advance the knowledge and professional practice of sales and customer relationship management by providing educational and research opportunities to students, faculty, and corporate professionals.