The Sales Man

It’s something he can’t turn off—the effortless strut, the piercing eye contact, the perfectly placed hand gestures and the way conversation rolls off his tongue. For Michael Rodriguez, assistant professor of marketing at Elon University, selling is in his blood and charisma is his stock in trade.

For 14 years Rodriguez plied his trade on Wall Street.

On a good day, Rodriguez’s commute from Long Branch, a Jersey Shore town, to Manhattan was about an hour and a half. The grueling lifestyle and rigid structure of Wall Street became increasingly more frustrating in his last two years, “I was putting more hours in, but the fruits of the labor weren’t there,” he explained.

The tipping point came when Rodriguez, the former Vice President of a company that sells market data and trading platforms, was asked to share a confidential list of clients with the rest of the sales force. Over the years he had earned his client’s trust, and he was not willing to sacrifice his integrity or credibility, “I took a risk and I left not knowing what was going to happen,” he said.

With stack of degrees and a first-class resume, Rodriguez was confident about his future. He was eager to find a job that gave him more control over his success, “I knew that academia was the next best step for me…but I didn’t know that opportunity would be in North Carolina,” he explained.

A northerner at heart, Rodriguez attended The College of New Jersey and in 2002 he received an MBA from Fordham University. He decided to pursue a PhD in Technology Management, at Stevens Institute of Technology. Rodriguez was an “odd-ball” because he worked full-time during the day and took classes at night.

Despite his jam-packed schedule, Rodriguez won The Most Outstanding Dissertation of the Year in 2009. The honor was unexpected and it taught Rodriguez a lesson that would become the foundation of his teaching, “All I did was pick a topic that I was passionate about,” he said.

Rodriguez learned about an open position at Elon at the National Conference in Sales Management, a conference focused and committed to sales education and research.Elon’s Chandler Family Professional Sales Center was just a year old and only offered certificate in sales. The beautiful campus is what really won him over.

Rodriguez’s wife and college sweetheart, Jennifer, a licensed nurse, was “a little nervous” about moving to Burlington, N.C. As a nurse she helps people everyday, and she knew her husband wanted to do the same. “He might have made more money in New York, but it wasn’t about the material things for him. He wanted to make a difference,” she said.

Rodriguez began teaching in the fall of 2009, the same year that the sales program

Honeycutt (left) and Rodriguez presented together at the National Conference in Sales Management in April 2010. Photo courtesy of Elon University.

received official academic recognition–a sales track and a sales minor. Rodriguez’s enthusiasm and fresh perspective was exactly what Elon needed. “He knew what he was talking about. He was educated, he had experience and he had desire,” said Dr. Earl Honeycutt, director of the sales program. With competitive credentials and a dynamic personality to match, Rodriguez was dedicated to building the sales program.

Instead of trying to mirror the teaching technique of his colleagues, Rodriguez stuck to what he knew—the world of sales. He doesn’t teach from a textbook, he calls his students his colleagues, and his classroom is treated like a professional business environment.

“The first day of class he told us to be professional, be on time, look presentable and he would do the same,” said Ryann Leonard, a marketing major. “I didn’t even recognize him when I saw him in casual clothes because he is always dressed up.”

Standing in front of his class, Rodriguez is still the businessman he was on Wall Street. He
commands the room before he even opens his mouth and when he speaks he keeps you hanging on his every word. Jumping around the room, moving his arms theatrically, Rodriguez shares stories, emphasizes key points and drops witty one-liners.

Rodriguez prepares his students for the real world and makes no apologies for his high expectations, “The habits you create today stay with you the rest of your life,” he explained.

At the university level, sales education is still in its infancy. The Sales Education Foundation (SEF) reports that in 2006 there were only 24 schools with verified sales programs. Today that number has doubled, but stigmas about sales have made the development and growth of these programs difficult. Jeanne M. Frawley, editor of Sales Education Annual, wrote that sales has a “dubious reputation” and many fail to view it as a legitimate profession or a desirable career. “Many perceive sales jobs as something one takes until a better opportunity comes along.”

That is why Rodriguez’s first job is to sell students on the sales program itself. Just like he did with his clients on Wall Street, Rodriguez builds a level of trust, “I let them see that I learn from them too…I don’t know it all.” He is constantly talking to people in the field to learn more and bring fresh ideas to the classroom. His honesty earns their respect, and his passion keeps them engaged, “You’ve got to believe what you’re teaching…I believe in sales,” Rodriguez said.

Using his personal experience as a manual, Rodriguez’s class is like a training camp, not just for sales—but for life. His mantra, “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” says it all.

Rodriguez wastes no time putting kids on the spot in his Professional Selling class, “It was embarrassing but I left that day knowing that he was going to make a salesperson out of me by the end of the semester,” said Leonard

In his role-play exercises, Rodriguez gives each student a buyer profile to dissect. Students carry out a professional sales pitch with their buyer while the rest of the class watches on a live-video stream.

But ask any of his students about his class and they will tell you about the Elevator Pitch. The Elevator Pitch is a two-minute, verbal commercial for yourself. It is about being able to highlight your best qualities in just a few sentences. “You might never give a PowerPoint presentation after you graduate, but you will give an elevator pitch everyday of your life,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez (far left) was the faculty advisor and coach for the National Collegiate Sales Competition.
Photo courtesy of Elon University

Since Rodriguez got on board, Elon has thrived in nationwide sales competitions. As the faculty advisor and coach, it isn’t unusual for Rodriguez to work until 10 p.m. preparing with his team. Seniors, Lindsay Richardson and Allison Kutz won first place in 2011 at the Russ Berrie Institute National Sales Challenge. Richardson placed first in the role-play portion and Kutz beat out 54 students in an event where she had to give a two-minute pitch to an executive on why she should be hired. This is the second year in a row that Elon students have won these events.

“Dr. Rodriguez spent countless hours with me to continuously improve my sales skills and role play performance…He also brought in business executives to practice with me,” said Richardson. She explained that many companies recruit Elon students because of how well Elon performs at these competitions.

Rodriguez is determined to expose his students to employers as much as possible. “His main goal is to get his students quality careers,” said Richardson, who met her future employer through Rodriguez. He mentors his students through the job hunt by fine-tuning their resumes and helping them prepare for interviews.

He maintains relationships with alumni and many come back and speak to his classes. “I want my students to be able to count on me after they leave Elon,” said Rodriguez.

Five years ago Rodriguez would’ve called you crazy if you told him he would be working as a college professor in North Carolina.

Today, he is preparing to take on a new role as director of the sales center. “As I retire this year I am confident that Dr. Rodriguez will take the center to higher levels for our professional sales students and Elon University,” said Honeycutt.

Rodriguez plans to move forward with the same goals he started with three years ago, “I want [my students] to believe in sales, be professional and be confident.”

He points to the windowsill in his office, covered with cards from former students, “No one thanks you on Wall Street.”

Rodriguez is now a college professor, but he is, and always will be a sales man, “I’m selling a different product now, I’m selling Elon.”

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