For too long, training and development has suffered from being seen as a ‘nice to have’. In many cases, it is the first budget to get cut when the purse strings are being tightened. Now I know, given what I do for a living, I might be slightly biased but I don’t get it! Firstly, organisations are made up of people. Secondly, most of these people are constantly being asked to do what they do better, cheaper and faster and finally, no-one is the finished article (or at least no-one has admitted it to me!). If this is the case, surely boosting the motivation, skill and confidence of an organisation’s people – which is what development is all about - is pretty fundamental.
So how come this ‘anomaly’ exists? How come training and development has never quite been the strategic imperative it could be? Clearly it must be linked to the perceived value it provides. If this value was clear, tangible and obvious, then the case for action would be stronger.
Take sales training for example. This is often the time of year when organisations look to boost the effectiveness of their sales teams in meeting the challenges of the year ahead so it’s an opportune time to highlight it.
Typically, sales training programmes are built around one of the many sales methodologies on the market today. Companies such as Huthwaite, Miller Heiman and the TAS Group for example, have built entire businesses off the back of their methodologies. Now, the Challenger Sale is all the rave. The more sophisticated sales programmes also include an element of sales manager coaching to ensure the sales methodology is effectively put into action. However rarely do salespeople bang down their manager’s door to request more coaching. Rarely are they chomping at the bit to change their behaviour with customers. As a result, any initial momentum usually fizzles out. Worse still in some cases, this whole cycle is repeated a few years later with a new methodology!
Surely we can’t entirely point the finger at the salespeople, I’m sure they would love something that could help them sell more. Same with sales managers, I’m equally sure they would love nothing better than to see their salespeople selling more. Perhaps therefore, it’s time to evaluate the way in which we go about building their skills.
I think there are two paths of action that would contribute to salespeople more willingly embracing the development opportunities they are given:
- Focus less on methodology and more on conversations – This is not being anti-methodology. All the methodologies I have come across do a decent job of articulating the sales process. However, most salespeople who have been in sales for any length of time already know the process of selling. They don’t need a methodology to tell them. Selling is actually a pretty straightforward process – 1) create a need that compels action, 2) differentiate yourself from your competitors and 3) secure a decision in your favour. At the heart of being able to do this well is the art of good conversations - talking to the right people at the right time about the right things. That’s it! Depending on the complexity of the sale, there may be many different types of conversations to have with different people at varying levels of seniority but in essence, salespeople need to be masters at having high quality conversations. It is in these conversations that the top salespeople do the work that makes the difference between success and failure. It is in these conversations that they show their proficiency in among other things; showing genuine curiosity, uncovering needs, finding out critical information for a business case, engendering trust, willingness to challenge, the ability to hold one’s ground, commercial acumen etc. So rather than being fixated about which methodology to pick (often with their expensive IP costs), pick an approach that focuses on what matters most - making sure salespeople are having the right conversations and doing them supremely well.
- Increase the rigour of the coaching salespeople receive – The rigour is what provides the value. Yes, it might involve challenging the salesperson and holding their feet to the fire at times. However if done with tact, high skill and genuine intent to help, it can provide enormous value. If the salesperson perceives they are getting enormous value from their coaching, of course they will want more. If the manager can see that their coaching is providing great value, they will coach more. Engagement problem over! However, a 1 or 2 day programme on how to coach is probably not going to do the trick. Once again, standard coaching processes and coaching models are useful but not where the real value lies. The devil is in the detail. Sales managers need to be immersed in the conversational arts and techniques their salespeople need to master. They need to be able to probe deeply into the conversations being had (or not had) with customers. They need to know all the potential traps and likely gaps. They need to know which answers are most likely to reveal the critical holes in the conversations that can unpick even the best laid sales plans.
In our experience of running sales programmes, these two factors make such a difference – not only to the actual success of the deals being worked on at the time but to the sustainability of the behavioural change that inspired the need for the programme in the first place.
So, if you are planning on doing any salesforce development work, lets have a chat...