Post-COVID Strategies for International Supply Chain Sales: Curriculum development for global industrial distribution at Purdue University

The pandemic’s effect on supply chain sales has prompted a shift to a more virtual process, which has effectively shut the door on traditional face-to-face fieldwork communications such as back-slapping industry insiders at trade shows and longshoremen conversing on the docks at global ports. 

To replace the old styles of communications, small manufacturing systems and job shops around the country are now investing in digital marketing to shore up and solidify their supply chains (Industrial Strength Marketing, 2022).  While industrial salestrends have prompted either lags or increases in the economic indicators driving the national and world economies (Tanoos, 2015), the coinciding 2020-2022 global supply chain crisis has proven that disruptions in supply chains were prompted and exacerbated by inefficiencies in the global industrial sales sector (Allen, 2021; Industrial Statistics; 2021; Raj, 2021; Supply House Times, 2021; Forbes, 2022).  Since the onset of the pandemic, innovative trends intended to offset these bottlenecks have accelerated, including B2B digital sales, e-commerce, and enhanced digital advertising techniques (Industrial Strength Marketing, 2022).  Jensen (2021) stated:

Digital sales and e-commerce top the list of industrial marketing trends for 2021. Manufacturing as a sector has been slower than its B2B peers in adopting digital approaches in many areas, and sales is no different. The legacy of developing sales leads through trade shows and personal sales networks undoubtedly plays a big role in that, as does the highly targeted nature of prospect audiences in the industrial landscape.

Purdue University has been at the forefront of this shift in pedagogical curriculum innovations in the Supply Chain Engineering Technology minor and Supply Chain and Sales Engineering Technology (SCSET) major, both of which are offered by the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.  This shift in curriculum has also been led by proactive early-adopters at other institutions of higher education across the country such as the University of Southern California, University of Illinois, Arizona State University, University of Alabama, and Indiana University.  These colleges and others have identified industrial distribution as a discipline worthy of a stand-alone degree and are proudly included in the Association for Manufacturing Technology’s Directory of Industrial Distribution Universities.  Purdue University has been recognized in the discipline of Professional Selling as a top North American Sales School of higher education in Professional Sales Education by the Sales Education Foundation, which measures the impacts of sales curricula in a variety of career-readiness areas.  Leading many of these curricular initiatives is the Purdue University Center for Professional Selling, the university-wide sales center located in the heart of campus, which has been at the forefront of these national distinctions.  Other ancillary selling curricular opportunities include the Selling and Sales Management major and the professional selling certificate offered by Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences. 

Students majoring in the Polytechnic’s SCSET have recently competed against fellow undergraduates from universities around the country in university-wide competitions on campus as well as national sales and engineering technology competitions.  Purdue students majoring in SCSET have earned awards in these competitions (such as the Rocky Mountain sales competition and the West Virginia University sales competition).  They have also competed in face-to-face, traditional regional competitions such as the Indiana University National Team Selling Competition, sponsored by the Center for Global Sales Leadership.  These opportunities give students all-important simulated experiential learning, credentials/resume boosters, and application-based preparations.

Purdue University is also at the forefront of innovative curricular shifts in the classroom that focus on post-pandemic changes in global industrial distribution methods including digital skillsets.  These pedagogical shifts have included additional focus on professional selling in global supply chains, enhanced by the use of curriculum from global textbooks such as Industrial Sales: A Roadmap to Increase Your Sales Globally, by Dutch industrialist Bram van Oirschot.  Students majoring in SCSET have benefited from studying the most current, innovative methods and applications in the field of international distribution and professional sales pedagogies in this text.  van Oirschot supported the curriculum in a Fall semester selling course by introducing material in his textbook while chatting with students directly via Zoom as well as by creating a regionalized case dilemma with the fictional organization Indiana Handling Tools, whose goal was to successfully sell to the Indiana- and Illinois-centric semiconductor industry that has re-shored domestically due to geopolitical concerns. 

A particular focus was the real-life organization SkyWater Technology, a semiconductor engineering and fabrication foundry, which announced a $1.8 billion investment in Purdue’s Discovery Park in July 2022.  This investment is part of a university-wide strategic initiative to continue to bring industry to campus, labeled a “town-gown collaboration”.  van Oirschot’s nuanced semester-long case study assignments and final project enabled students to apply innovative research methodologies within a current organizational framework.

Bram van Oirschot, Author of Industrial Sales: A Roadmap to Increase Your Sales Globally, delivering a lecture on global industrial sales to a class at Purdue University

During the four months comprising the Fall 2022 semester, students were provided lectures and curriculum designed around van Oirschot’s assignments and textbook that let them configure organizational strategies for Indiana Handling Tools related to successfully selling and servicing their sales.  During that time, students noticed even newer, more current regional developments around the increasingly-relevant semiconductor supply chain.

The Netherlands is home to the largest port in Europe (Port of Rotterdam), and when discussing the relevancy of his own culture on the global supply chain, van Oirschot pointed out:

Supply chains are micro cultures on their own.  Many cultures have influenced supply chains and are influencing the supply chains of today.  I am from the Netherlands myself, a land of limited natural resources.  We have been traveling the world for centuries to acquire all kinds of precious goods.  The Dutch have adapted a trade spirit, maneuvering between cultures to get the things they want to get.  If there is one thing to learn from the Dutch it is concerning their communication style and their cultural flexibility.  The Dutch have a tradition of being tolerant to people from other cultures. In international business, it helps the Dutch to today.

Bram van Oirschot, Author of Course Textbook: Industrial Sales: A Roadmap to Increase Your Sales Globally

By the end of the semester, students had developed and delivered comprehensive final consulting presentations, with the best three selected by the course instructor.  Those three students then presented virtually to van Oirschot, who selected the winner based on a series of assessment criteria.  Coincidentally, the final presentations (see screencaps below) were scheduled in advance but conflicted with the World Cup quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina.  Nevertheless, van Oirschot didn’t cancel!

The winning supply chain sales presentation was by Ethan Fitch, a Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET) major, who stated that his main takeaway from the curriculum and the competition was the “mixing of social, interpersonal, and technical skills” to achieve organizational success.  van Oirschot noted that “The motivation and dedication of students surprised me during the final presentations.  All students presented with energy, passion and professional attitude, which I was not expecting.”   van Oirschot concurred that a key theme of the presentations that students had successfully learned from the curriculum in the text “is that professional selling can improve the relationship with the client and increase the added value of your company.  Salespeople and their counterparts at their clients need to create an environment in which experts can excel”.

Students from a variety of different majors benefited from this immersive, applied project whose over-riding goal was to help ensure that students are career-ready upon completion of their degrees at Purdue University.  The students learned that in today’s complex global supply chains, industrial sales skillsets are more important than ever.  Fitch noted that “our text for the course focused greatly” on areas such as vendor relationship management and agreed that “this concept was crucial to our final projects”. 

Through this project, students learned how to locate new market segments, prospects, and potential clients and found what was required to conduct sales activities in industrial environments.  Sales and procurement practitioners need to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies and collectively define routes to smoothen them.  Fitch commented, “In order to develop deals that benefit both parties, it is important to have an understanding of the needs and resources of both parties”. By introducing the case as a method of application-based learning, the course encouraged students to really step into the shoes of a professional salesperson. 

It was a privilege to find out that students took the advice from my book, as well as that of Professor Tanoos to heart.  The step-by-step approach clearly expressed itself in the final presentations.  For anyone in a commercial role, or for people that want to make a difference in the supply chain, sales skills are essential.

Global industrial distribution is subject to continuous change.  However, in recent years supply chains are stretching the limits on resources as well as on complexity.  Technical advances require industries to dedicate substantial resources to answer the changed demands. International networks are required to look for global efficiencies.  There will always be bottlenecks in the supply chain.  Often, they are a result of the service-oriented mindsets of our colleagues.  However, the additional task they are performing might not be the best use of their times.  Salespeople can make a difference by identifying this form of inefficiency and address them in the supply chain.  Sales professionals act as grease in the supply chain and are needed to keep up with the fast-changing industrial environments.

Bram van Oirschot, Author of Course Textbook: Industrial Sales: A Roadmap to Increase Your Sales Globally

As students gained an applied-learning comprehension of an organization like Indiana Handling Tools, they truly gained an understanding of how modern-day sales jobs would feel and whether they wanted to get involved in sales, giving them a head-start over their organizational counterparts and graduates from other universities. van Oirschot gave the following summary:

In short, the global industrial distribution has never been important. It is our duty to use the resources effectively. Our companies have to focus on what value they really add.  Leave a lot of the activities that are not part of their core activity to other parties in the supply chain.  All elements, people and systems have to work together flawlessly to meet the requirements of the future … To further increase speed of technical development, we need to start fostering a collective brainpower, which means allowing for cooperation between human beings. There will be systems and processes (also invented by humans) that will act as a lever. But, to really make the progress we all envy, we need to work together.

Bram van Oirschot, Author of Course Textbook: Industrial Sales: A Roadmap to Increase Your Sales Globally

Author of Writeup: Jim Tanoos

About the Author of the Course Textbook:

Bram van Oirschot , the author of Industrial Sales: A Roadmap To Increase Your Sales Globally, is a true international sales professional. He has traveled the world to sell industrial services to the largest organizations in the world. He is currently Commercial Director (and co-owner) of a global lifting contractor, Conbit. Bram supported the course by talking directly to the students and providing the business case on Indiana Handling Tools, which is based on Conbit High Tech. His ambition is to educate students all over the world in the field of sales.

In addition, he is a proud father of three and enjoys an active life in the Netherlands.