Theory vs. Practice: Telling Someone How to Ride a Bike Doesn’t Actually Teach Them

Theory vs. Practice: Telling Someone How to Ride a Bike Doesn’t Actually Teach Them

Six years ago, I found myself standing on the floor of a sporting goods retailer; not in my familiar state as a customer, but instead as a neon green t-shirt wearing salesman.

It was my first day of my first job, thrown into a role I knew very little about. I stood there incredulously wondering how on earth I was supposed to convince strangers to buy anything. Heck, I didn’t even know how to properly greet a customer.


Being a perfectionist and harbouring an innate hatred for doing anything badly, I found the thought of offering below-average assistance excruciating. However, I fought my own inadequacy and did everything in my power to remove this stain on my competence. Every time I lost a sale, I decided I would pursue the skill and knowledge to ensure I never lost the same sale again. This became my mantra, and throughout my first year I had learnt enough to get through most days without letting a sale slip. The following fall I started studying marketing management, and only then did I truly understand the importance of sales.

At university, my lecturers would explain the huge overarching concepts and I would interpret them, making them small and apply them to each individual customer. My professors, however, made sure I understood that my own thoughts and ideas were irrelevant until I had proven a strong grasp of the rudimentary principles of marketing. In that world, students were trapped in a bubble of learning. A bubble that threatened to burst if you dared interfere with it. Without practical experience you were, ironically, forced to learn through imagination. At work it was the opposite- I was free to learn through doing.


With a willingness to challenge the theories my tutors taught me, I learnt that through observation and conversation I could, in fact, segment my customers into likely product pools. I could figure out if they individually perceived value in functional, experiential or expressional traits, and I found it possible to influence their perception of each product accordingly. I quickly had a conscious framework for approaching archetypical customers based on these big marketing concepts. It struck me then how strange it is that this sort of experimentation isn’t encouraged. What better place for a marketing student to truly test and observe the effects of marketing theory than in real life situations? And where are these the most real and applicable if not on the sales floor?


Just as marketing managers utilise an extensive repertoire of theories to maximize their earnings, so should a salesman use every trick available to maximize his. At university I was given ideas, and at work they came to life. A circle of learning and understanding was formed, and my experimentation at work often lead me to a greater understanding of the theories presented at university, which again improved my performances in sales. This circle of learning culminated in acing my bachelor’s thesis that suggested sales personnel are the most underutilized element in maximizing retail profit. I would never have been able to produce a thesis of the same quality had I followed their expected approach to learning. Only by finding ways to apply in real life what we learn in classes will we truly find value in education. Therefore I urge you all to supplement your education with relevant experience, especially in sales, if you are pursuing a career in marketing.

Not only will hands-on experience give you a much deeper understanding of the theories you study, but you will also develop an otherwise unobtainable intuitive understanding of consumers.

I will leave you with, what I think is, the most valuable lesson I have learnt through my six years as a sales person; the art of selling and marketing is one you never finish mastering. The circles of learning go on and on, for as your customers are ever changing, so must you be ever-observant and adaptable.


Written by Hans-Marius Holst-Hansen. 

Master of Management student at the University of Melbourne. 


All these beautiful images are by Andy Kehoe

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