How sales experience can be applied to teaching


As the last semester ended for the holidays, I had some time to reflect on what I want to improve upon as a Teaching Assistant (TA). As a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, being a TA is part of my regular responsibilities. I worked in various sales-oriented roles before becoming a TA, and I have realized recently that my obligations and methods really haven’t changed.

There are lessons that I feel overlap my experiences in sales and education. These lessons have all been inspired by a set of questions that I have heard repeatedly in both disciplines.

“Is that the best you can do?”

“Let me ask my manager.” If you are in sales and this is your gut response, you’ve allowed yourself to become the client.

Prospective customers frequently asked this and I don’t blame them. Most people instinctively think this question means they haven’t offered enough, but this question is fundamentally meant to challenge authority.

Caving tells the client that they hold the reins on the business transaction. As a TA, this question holds the same weight. Students are always asking their TAs if their grades can be improved. I have literally been asked this by students who aced their tests, without any reason.

The knee-jerk reaction could also come from the implication that the customer has received a better offer, and is trying to bargain.

Assuming the worst leads to sacrificing potential profits. Arguing that no one could do better shifts the attention from the quality of your offer, weakening the sale. The academic equivalent, a student might claim that their friend was marked differently, or that they themselves would have received a better grade from another TA. Not everyone will mark the same, but consistency across students marked by the same individual is a must.

Giving away grades without justification is a trap. It leads to a feedback loop where students feel entitled to free marks. The TA is there to fulfill the student’s need to learn, not their need for grades, even if they argue otherwise for concerns of scholarships or other pressures.

Whether they want a better deal or a better grade, I remind them why the offer is in their best interest.

I’ve found it helpful to review the scope of the client’s request: “in order to tailor our product to your needs, we recommend these add-ons and packages to enhance the impact of the deliverable. Let’s review your requirements and how this package will meet them.”

Answering in this way may lead to them reconsidering their requirements.

Typically, they come full circle and realize that each cent has value. That’s the key.

Dwelling on outbidding a competitor for the same project is not beneficial because, if they are convinced of the evaluation, they won’t look back. They are interested enough to ask if that’s, “the best you can do.” Let them know that it is the right thing to do.

Convincing them that their needs align perfectly with the offer, like Orion’s Belt with Sirius, dodges the negativity of criticizing other offers. The client will not see the need to compare to competition because they are convinced that the needs they can fulfill with the current option are the only ones that matter.

For the student, the answer doesn’t really change. “Let’s review your report and discuss why you got the grade you received. These few mistakes you made led to these deductions because your explanations of A, B, and C did not demonstrate your understanding. Here are some things I recommend you try to remember for the next report.” In either case, the goal is to communicate the reasons for the price or grade in a fashion that prioritizes the student’s interests.

Especially in an educational environment, honesty and compassion are needed to “transfer the feeling” that the final grade is in favour of the student.

I’ve seen firsthand that by helping a client understand the magnitude of what they are receiving, or helping a student to understand their mistakes for future improvement, you significantly improve the odds of them trusting you.

No reasonable person will buy or learn from you if they do not trust you first.