National contest tries to convince students that lucrative sales jobs are 'sexy'

The Great Canadian Sales Competition was designed to encourage more young people to pursue a career in sales. There are plenty of junior positions available, but companies can't find enough candidates, despite a youth unemployment rate of 12.4 per cent.

Many students are ignoring what can be a high-paying profession

Ryerson University student Carter Grant beat out close to 400 other competitors to become one of the top five finalists in the Great Canadian Sales Competition. (CBC )

Sonya Meloff wants everyone to know that a career in sales is sexy. Not sleazy.

"I think that sales is a really sexy job," says the founder of the Toronto's Sales Talent Agency. "You get to be at the forefront of representing a company, you're the one that gets to talk to the customers."

Not to mention the money. Meloff adds that in their first year junior corporate sales reps can expect to make $60,000 a year with commission, and that three or four years in, they have a good chance of clearing $100,000.

But that pitch has been a hard sell to young people, who may picture a smarmy, polyester-clad huckster, pushing them to buy something they don't want. Meloff and her Vancouver-based partner Jamie Scarborough believe too many university-aged Canadians take a dim view of sales, or haven't even considered it as a career.

Statistics Canada says that in 2016, 1,407,000 Canadians were employed in sales occupations.

A 'negative' view of sales

"Those students that do have an opinion about sales, often have a very negative one," says Meloff, noting that companies of all sizes and in all industries struggle to recruit applicants for junior roles.

Scarborough agrees. "We've even heard sales leaders say that when they started out, they thought sales was a bad word that wouldn't make their parents proud."

Sheila Cassidy and Sonya Meloff of the Great Canadian Sales Competition screen audition videos from university students who were recruited on campus. (CBC)

But with youth unemployment running at 12.4 per cent, almost double the national average, the agency partners decided they needed to take a bold approach to alert students to the opportunities that exist.

Three years ago, Meloff and Scarborough launched the Great Canadian Sales Competition, aimed at university students. Contestants are enticed with a $7,500 first prize, and asked to shoot a 30- to 90-second audition video. "Pick something you are passionate about, and tell us what makes it better than the alternatives," advises the competition website.

Air Canada, Google, UPS among sponsors

For this year's contest, the Sales Talent Agency hired 150 student ambassadors to help with promotion on 80 campuses from coast to coast. By February, over 2,000 applicants had sent auditions, pitching everything from meditation and ethical food to the value of regular exercise and applying for scholarships.

Meanwhile, 25 corporate sponsors signed on, including Air Canada, UPS, Corus, Shopify and Google. Each company gets to review the best audition videos, choose a semi-finalist of its own, and then work with the student to prepare for the competition.

Jenny Kim of Queens University takes notes as Charles Warren of Acklands Grainger coaches her on her sales pitch for the competition. (CBC)

A key point: the competition focuses on corporate selling, which refers to companies' sales to other companies, not to consumers. And not all the sales pitches would likely be described as "sexy": bookkeeping software and inventory systems are among the products the competitors need to work up some enthusiasm for.

The event took place earlier this month, at the Toronto headquarters of Google. Contestants faced off in a series of rounds, playing the part of the salesperson, with their corporate coaches in the role of customers. From 22 semi-finalists, five finalists were chosen.

Acting chops required

Here's a sample of how it went.

"Nice to finally meet you," says Carter Grant, a student at Ryerson University in Toronto, embracing the storyline that he's meeting his customer, Rich Dang of accounting software provider FreshBooks, for the first time.

The competition takes the form of role playing, with the finalists in the role of salesperson, and their corporate coaches playing the customer. (CBC)

Dini Stamatopulos of Capilano University in B.C. tells her supposed client, "I understand you work with spices. I'm obsessed with spices — my mom has a famous baked chickpea dish that's filled with spice." She's looking to build rapport, a word that's mentioned many times during the judging. Her corporate coach from UPS has been cast as the owner of a food company.   

All five finalists role-play their way through their pitches, each receiving both praise and constructive criticism from the judging panel, made up of well-established business people.

Once the competition is finished, the contestants have to wait in suspense for several hours. The winner won't be announced until later in the evening, at a gala attended by sponsors, family members and other semi-finalists.

The real prize: a job

As guests enjoy alcoholic beverages and snacks at a downtown Toronto event venue, the volume is high. Everyone seems to be talking at once — contestants comparing notes, organizers chatting up sponsors, well-dressed professionals as far as the eye can see, networking animatedly.

Finally Meloff and Scarborough take the stage, ready to announce this year's winner. It's Carter Grant, from Ryerson University, who was a finalist last year as well, taking the crown on his second attempt.

But even Grant once had a low opinion of a career in sales.

"I was one of those students, I did a door-to-door sales job before and I thought that's all the sales industry was, selling to consumers, going door to door, selling products you don't really care about," says the 23-year-old. He's clearly changed his mind, as he starts a sales job at Shopify in May. "I just don't think students know the opportunity that's available to them."

Meloff believes most of the participants could attract job offers. The name of every student who entered the competition has been entered into a database that participating companies can search.

"If every one of those students was contacted, that would be 2,200 students that landed jobs with companies they never previously knew about in a career they never previously considered," she says. "There's a lot of students that have opportunity."

About the Author

Dianne Buckner

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.