Comedian Rodney Dangerfield's lament "I don't get no respect" might just as well be the cry of sales professionals everywhere.
In an increasingly sophisticated business environment, denizens of sales departments often have an image of being as outdated as white patent-leather belts, double-knit slacks and men with dinner-plate-sized gold medallions dangling from their necks.
"You never hear anyone say, `When I grow up, I want to be a salesman.' In fact, most people get into sales by mistake," said David A. DeCenzo, director of partnership development and professor of management at Towson University.
But with sales being the future of virtually every business enterprise, DeCenzo and others at the university are determined to improve the quality of training and the image of those who enter the field. Their vehicle: the Sales Institute of Towson University, a program that is to begin in January under the auspices of the College of Business and Economics.
Starting in a class of 12 to 24, students will participate in seminars and other training activities on Saturdays for a year to a year-and-a-half. They will study the fine points of sales, based on academic research and hands-on experience with sales problems brought to Towson by client companies.
"This work is above and beyond their normal course work, and they will receive a certificate in sales upon completion of the program," DeCenzo said. Participants will also have internships with participating companies, and those companies will get first rights to hire the graduates.
If the program is successful, its designers say, companies that hire institute graduates will save training time and money, and their clients and customers will be served better.
Although the institute will not prepare students for particular business sectors, Larry Laufer, director of the program, said the high-tech industry is an important influence.
"The computer industry has helped to elevate the perception [of sales]," he said. "It's a prestigious industry, and there's reflected glory for the sales people."
He also said that aspects of sales in the computer industry have broader applications. In that industry, he said, sales professionals are dealing with technical products that require great knowledge to sell.
Characteristic of the technology industry's need for sophisticated salespeople is Annapolis-based USinternetworking Inc. "Typically we look for five-plus years of experience," said technical recruiter Jen Miller, who specializes in recruiting sales professionals for USi. It also uses an Internet-based test provided by a company called Opus Marketing to screen out candidates who are unsuitable for USi.
That much experience is necessary, Miller said, because of the pace of the industry and the need for people who know the applications the company uses. While acknowledging the importance of a traditional attribute of salespeople - an amiable, outgoing personality - she emphasized that USi sales professionals also need to be "savvy about what's going on in the industry and well-read [in technical literature]."
USi has begun training its sales force with a six-week in-house program called USi University. It also maintains a year-round internship program for college students who appear headed for careers in technology.
Internal programs underscore the need for professional training like that being planned at Towson University.
Well into the 1960s, Laufer said, there was no formalized training at most companies. Consequently, "sales was not perceived as respectable."
In the 1970s, however, companies such as Xerox started formal training programs.
Laufer worked at Xerox for 12 years, following a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and a stint with Cognitive Systems Inc., an organization that researched how adults learn and how they use what they learn in the workplace.
He has also been president of Maryland-based Sales Process Consultants, whose clients have included Motorola, ADP, Lucent Technologies, Moen and others.
As part of the program at Towson, partner companies will have access to university faculty as consultants and students involved in the work.
They will also be able to send staff members to participate in seminars and other activities.
DeCenzo, who is author of many professional articles and several university-level textbooks on human-resource management topics, said the institute will be integrated with other university requirements.
"Everything we do is designed in such a way that it comes back into the classroom. Students will be involved at every level to make the consulting a learning experience," DeCenzo said.
Laufer said he expects the institute to be self-supporting through fees from corporate clients. He said he will not be paid by the university as the institute's director.
He and DeCenzo declined to name the companies that are expected to participate, citing the need for confidentiality as details of the relationships are confirmed.
For more information about the Sales Institute of Towson University, call David A. DeCenzo at 410-830-6023.