2020 was the third year of the synergistic partnership between the University of Pretoria’s Department of Marketing Management and Italtile, where Italtile Marketing Manager, Nicole Russell, worked in tandem with Lecturer and Programme Manager Sotira Petrou to lead third year students through a retail sales module with ‘live’ immersions and applications. Since 2018, close to 300 students have completed this work-integrated learning module. This year, 105 students enrolled for the module.
The programme was designed to challenge the students’ accumulated years of theory, but in early 2020, no one could have foreseen just how challenging the year was going to be. As with all avenues of life during Lockdown, academic study was not without tears and frustration for students and module leaders alike. It is a tribute to all stakeholders that difficulties were checked, monitored and managed; relative calm was maintained. 2020 flung an added, bonus subject at all students: Crisis Management!
Ms Sotira Petrou frames the importance of the programme as follows:
“Working with Italtile on the third-year Personal Selling and Account Management module truly augments the learning experience for students as they are given the opportunity to learn about all things Sales through the lens of an industry client. This brings a dimension of reality and practicality to the theories and concepts learnt during lectures and from their textbooks.”
“Experiences with Italtile are manifold; students are taken on the sought-after factory tour to the sustainable, state-of-the-art Gryphon tile factory in Vereeniging, which is then followed by a tour of selected Italtile showrooms in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Students even receive specialised Italtile tile product training.”
Of course, Covid put a spoke in the normally well-oiled wheels. Ms Sotira Petrou notes that the students were very fortunate to have completed their factory and showroom excursions before Hard Lockdown hit: “Students were well equipped with knowledge of The Italtile Way, allowing them to get started on some practical challenges as we began to brave the unchartered waters of online teaching and learning”, she explained.
Flexibility and rapid adjustment were the order of the day in Covid times: “We had to adapt projects to accommodate this new 2020 mode of learning and working, while Italtile allowed for seamless adjustments to take place in our work programme. We rapidly adapted an innovative learning experience for students. This ensured that the students would be able complete this module successfully and still reap the full benefits of work-integrated learning.”
Ms Sotira Petrou unpacked the strategy behind the University’s joint venture with brands. “At the core, this module provides the theoretical foundations for students to acquire a sound knowledge and understanding of selling, sales management and account management.”
“However, it also requires a more hands-on approach, to provide students with the ability to practically apply different sales techniques, including the sales process, within a real sales context. Interestingly, Italtile presents both a retail and a commercial sales context in the tile industry.”
“So, the main objective of working with brands and companies in a work-integrated learning format is to give students the opportunity to apply theoretical teachings in a guided format so that once they step into the professional world, they are capable and confident to “hit the decks running”, and face sales challenges head on.”
Ms Sotira Petrou framed her impressions of the Italtile/UP joint venture:
“Working with a client of Italtile’s calibre has been a rewarding experience. Each year has brought new challenges and learning opportunities for the students. Partnering with Italtile is a pleasure; they are willing to dedicate time, effort and resources to this module and invest in our students. We value the positive impact that this has on learning experience of our students. At the end of the year, students are able to draw parallels between Theoretical Sales and Real World Sales. This inspires them to explore the possibility of a career in retail, which goes far beyond the walls of a lecture hall.”
Building on this positive, she added: “Once students have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills from the module, they are offered the opportunity to apply for the Italtile Student Internship Programme. This has resulted in promising career paths for several ‘sales-students-turned-working-professionals’ from our department.”
We asked Sotira Petrou to give us a summary of the 2020 year in particular:
“From the beginning to the end stage of this module, it has been truly rewarding to see the growth of students as they are pushed out of their individual comfort zones and are required to take a more hands-on approach to learning by solving real world challenges. This year students were faced with solving the real-time challenge of conducting successful business-to-business (B2B) sales for Italtile Commercial in the midst of Covid-19, since face-to-face interactions had been restricted for an extended period during the national lockdown. From this, students produced a written assignment and elevator pitch video where they had to sell their innovative ideas on how to solve this challenge.”
2020 recipients of Italtile awards and internships:
-The Leonardo Award:
First Prize in the University of Pretoria/Italtile Commercial Sales Programme was awarded to Dylan Murray who is currently working at Italtile Clearwater.
Awarded to Maximillian Silber who is currently working at Italtile The Glen.
Awarded to Tamika Naidoo who is currently working at Italtile Bryanston.
-Solomon Mashaba was selected to intern at Italtile Northriding.
-Anneke Pretorius is set to commence duties at Italtile Pretoria in January 2021.
-Alessandra Gain and Benita Loedolff both received the award for top academic performance in the Personal Selling and Account Management module 2020.
-Bennett Terblanche received the Zig Ziglar Sales Spot Prize for the best B2B Italtile Elevator Pitch video in the Personal Selling and Account Management module.
Italtile spoke to some of the award winners to get brief snapshots of their experiences:
On the field trips: “My visit to the Gryphon factory was extremely humbling. I have admiration and respect for those involved in the production process. It helped me appreciate the quality of the tiles produced at the factory. The work dynamics of factory workers was a standout for me. All employees at every level know what is expected of them within their own job description, yet work as a collective to produce high levels of output.”
On 2020’s challenges: “For me, the biggest challenge was making the best of a bad situation… developing healthy habits to focus on achieving the goals I set for myself, regardless of the circumstances. The pandemic gave me time to “go inside” and think about what I want to achieve in the coming few years. It also helped me appreciate the small things in life that I took for granted in the past.”
On the Italtile module: “I enjoyed unpacking and exploring Italtile’s brand exclusivity… understanding what ‘high quality’ really entails. I am learning about the uncompromising journey of The Italtile Way; I now appreciate just how key it is to the customer experience. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be part of the Italtile team and help promote Italtile’s unique brand of ‘beautiful living.”
On the field trips: “The trip to the Gryphon factory was an eye-opener… seeing what intense processes go into the making of just one tile. And watching the testing that keeps the production processes smooth and seamless. Everything runs in perfect harmony to produce amazing quality rapidly!”
On 2020’s challenges: “The pandemic greatly affected our learning experience for the year. The online learning system was one that all of us were unfamiliar with. I personally found it difficult to adjust initially. However, I was able to discipline myself to get into a routine that helped me focus on my studies”.
On the Italtile module: “Italtile is an industry-leading organisation with a strong brand reputation and loyal customer following. They quite rightly pride themselves on the delivery of top quality products with a customer experience to match. I have been knocked out by how they are able to swiftly adapt to fast-changing market conditions to meet customer needs. I now understand why Italtile is consistently ranked at the top of industry.”
On the field trips: “The Italtile factory visit was a unique experience for me, to see the processes behind the finished products, they all come together… and also to learn about the different types of tiles and their different applications. Also, to appreciate the importance of the differing roles of factory staff. There are no menial roles. The practical side of things has given the theory context.”
On 2020’s challenges: “The pandemic was a shock. No time to adapt. We had to dive in and trust. I found it extremely difficult not attend physical lectures. Also I learnt how it important it is to have good internet connection for that online lecture life! My lecturers were great, always responding to emails and helping me with the difficulties I would not have faced had we been face-to-face. But… no travel meant there was more time to study… and do a job at the same time.”
On the Italtile module: “I love the fact that Italtile is not just about amazing products, but about amazing people too. They all make me feel important and necessary to the process. Their level of knowledge and training is incredible.”
On the field visits: “The factory visit was an absolutely amazing experience for me. I’d rank it as one of the top 5 most impressive things I have ever physically seen and experienced. The precision and the quality of each tile, the focused staff, the whole process as well as the cleanliness of the whole factory blew my mind.”
On the 2020’s challenges: “Adapting to online learning with all the technical requirements and the stress of accidently missing something because you did not see it and to be stuck in one place for so long… no interaction with lecturers and classmates or friends… really challenged me. The most important thing to me this year was to stay focused in spite of my feelings. Other priorities? To stay fit and healthy, mind, body and soul.”
On the Italtile module:” What a great brand… high quality and high levels of service keeping it at the top of the market. I was amazed by the amount of effort that goes into producing top quality tiles, the amount of knowledge each salesperson has, and also the way they treat their clients and us students. I am very impressed with the way the brand engages with customers.”
To achieve success at university is admirable. To do so in a year of uncertainty and fear, faced with challenges and difficulties, is outstanding. We applaud the perseverance and dedication of the 2020 class who mastered the art of “head-down-and-do-it” with full body dedication. All are winners, not just those who received awards.
Sotira Petrou: brief academic bio.
Sotira Petrou is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria in the Department of Marketing Management. Her current responsibilities include third-year Personal Selling and Account Management modules, as well as second-year Integrated Marketing Communications. In addition to lecturing, Ms Sotira Petrou’s passion for research is exemplified in her role as the Programme Manager of the Market Decision Lab, in cooperation with international partners in Nuremburg, Germany. Together, they conduct joint research projects in the fields of behavioural and decision-making science.