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As many business sectors settle into a much more virtual work world, even as the pandemic subsides, a University of Iowa program seeks to capitalize on a particular industry’s dramatic rise in the past two years. The Tippie Inside Sales Lab gives students hands-on sales experience while providing startup businesses with a vital sales and marketing resource. The lab, located in the John Pappajohn Business Building on the UI campus, was developed by Charles Keene, associate dean of the undergraduate program at UI’s Tippie College of Business, who started the program at the University of Missouri before joining the UI faculty last summer. The UI program just started in February with three students, junior Gabi Allen and seniors Marcus Do and Matthew Rowland, making cold calls for the outside sales representatives at Ceras Health, a Boston-based health care management company. “I always wanted to work for a startup company, having that mentality of being able to fill yourself in whatever roles you see are needed in the company,” Mr. Do said. “To have that ability to do that while in school and not take the risks of starting with a startup company right after graduation is really attractive. We get a nice mix of a learning opportunity and working.” The students are not just making calls but are also writing scripts and analyzing and cleaning prospect data. “It’s not the old handshake and a grin model of sales,” Mr. Keene said. “It’s really that problem solving, consultative, critical thinking relationship. We need those critical thought processes – the problem-solving ability that a collegiate level of education adds. That’s why you’re seeing so many universities pivot toward sales as a major concentration.” He said this comes when sales jobs are multiplying across all markets, including logistics, finance, health care, food service, construction, and heavy equipment. “There are not enough salespeople out there, and this is a great way to test the market,” he said. Filling a need The idea for an academic sales lab came to Mr. Keene several years ago when a colleague at the University of Missouri mentioned that technology was revolutionizing the sales sector. “We started talking with UPS about inside sales. They were trying to recruit differently, and their entry point was an inside sales role,” he said. UPS hired two students as interns, and Mr. Keene repurposed technology to fit the needs of a call center. “They gave us a list of 17,000 dead accounts they couldn’t get to,” he said. “Over the course of two semesters, we found a million, million-and-a-half worth of potential business and helped them close about $100,000 worth of business out of that account.” The Missouri program was gaining traction when the pandemic abruptly sent students and businesses home in March 2020. But instead of impeding the program’s progress, the new virtual world had the opposite effect. “We had just switched over to a call center software system because we wanted to scale up. It was cloud-based that we could do online,” Mr. Keene recalls. “Two or three days into COVID, my phone is ringing off the hook because everybody’s in inside sales now. All of a sudden, we get six or seven more companies, and it just balloons from there.” Although the pandemic accelerated virtual work in many industries, Mr. Keene was already ahead of the curve. He started a hybrid classroom model about eight years ago, recording lectures for students to view on their own time and interacting with companies during regular class hours. “I was using Zoom before anybody knew it existed. When COVID hit, my classes didn’t skip a beat because the students were used to this model,” he said. ”I always joke that I thought this inside sales thing I was doing was getting ahead of accountants who wanted to kill travel and entertainment budgets. But what I was actually doing was getting out ahead of a worldwide pandemic.” Expanding to a new school Shortly after a career advancement brought him to the University of Iowa last summer, Mr. Keene received calls from several other businesses interested in the lab program. While one stayed at the University of Missouri, several others agreed to join UI’s new program. The program was attractive to Mr. Rowland, who plans to continue his sales career after graduating this May. “You can earn your own income and see a distinctive measurable result that you can contribute to a company,” he said of sales. “You control your own destiny with both income and hierarchy of where you’re going. It’s a very clear distinction if you’re doing well in sales.” As many as 25 interns will eventually work for the center, gaining hands-on experience in sales cycle processes, industries, markets, data analysis and prospecting. In some cases at Missouri, Keene said it led to the clients offering full-time jobs to interns. At the same time, it provides small companies, many of them start-ups, with a valuable marketing resource they could not otherwise afford. Interns are paid $15 an hour and receive academic credit. Clients pay $15,000 to help offset overhead, including salaries and computer software. Mr. Keene welcomes local businesses to partner with the UI in the sales lab. “If there are businesses that want to come together and do this, we can shake that tree and figure out a way because we want to help grow businesses throughout the Corridor,” he said. “It doesn’t just have to be big companies from the coasts. Our goal is to have this as a resource for local businesses.” Interested businesses can email firstname.lastname@example.org.