If profitability is not where we want it to be and cost cutting is the order of the day, then often employee training is an easy target. This is usually due to a poor track record of demonstrating a proven return on investment from past capability development attempts. In contrast, sales training is often seen as that gold jackpot at the end of a rainbow – the allure of ‘increased sales productivity’, is often the only incentive needed to encourage some further investment in sales training. The business case is pretty simple really: Customer satisfaction not where you want it? Sales per sales full time equivalent down? Total sales returns not meeting expectations? More often than not, new and improved sales training is the trusty tool that is called on to fix these sorts of problems.
What’s the reality though?
“87% of training content is forgotten within 30 days or people attending training course.”
(Sales Executive Council – ‘Boosting Sales Training Stickiness’ – 2011, see upcoming conference details at end of post).
Note, that says ‘forgotten’. Let us not assume ‘remembered’ equals ‘successfully applied’ either. A lot of attention is focussed on delivering better and more engaging sales training (which is great) but the most powerful catalysts of making the training stick, are factors occurring outside of the sales training room.
Within the last seven years I’ve been involved in six sales training related interventions, at two companies, including both complete new processes and refreshers to current processes, in a large scale retail and wholesale banking environments. Following are five of my key learning’s from this journey, with some ideas on what I see to be crucial elements to achieving returns from sales training interventions.
Drawing conclusions from facts about your revenue and customer satisfaction being not where you want them to be, then linking those facts to the conclusion ‘we need our people to connect better to our customers’, often result in one of the next two statements; ‘we need a better sales process’ and or ‘we need new/improved sales training’.
Often the response to this is to start shopping externally for sales training vendors, looking for solutions to solve your problems. Of course, every vendor has a unique sales proposition and can wheel out a long list of successful clients, but the one commonality with most vendors is that they will not be there when the you require long term application of your new sales processes.
Some questions that may help you to better understand what you actually need, include the following:
- Are my sales leaders role modelling and coaching the sales practices we have asked them to?
- What systems / processes do we have in place today to reinforce good sales conversations / practices?
- Do our people have role clarity in what is expected of them?
- Do they have capacity to execute on what we require them to do?
- Do our reward structures reinforce the sales behaviours we are trying to achieve?
These thought starters may provide you some guidance as to whether you have an execution issue (i.e. lack of guidance, coaching and reinforcement) or there is legitimately a behavioural issue (i.e. lack of ability to effectively execute on what is required). You may find you have both. An important point to remember here, is that introducing a new sales process may temporarily give you some uplift in sales performance from the flow on energy generated by the new sales training, but if you are not also addressing the systemic reinforcers of effective sales behaviours (leadership, coaching, role clarity, rewards etc), then you are likely to get back to your original starting position pretty soon after you have implemented your new process.
Key Insight 1 – Focus efforts on ways to support consistent execution
Recently, I was involved in a capability systems mapping exercise to understand the systemic issues surrounding what it was about the ‘way we develop our people that hinders us in meeting our business goals’. This sort of systems thinking diagnosis was a good way in understanding what other reinforcers need to be considered in order to deliver more consistent execution of the capabilities we are trying to instil in our people. Key levers identified in the capability systems map we built included:
- Clarity of strategy and purpose – of both the organisational strategy and the capability strategy to support that
- Coaching and embedding – of leaders supporting their people ensuring they have the chance to practice and reflect on what they learn
- Right people participating – in the training, to ensure that it is best placed for their needs
- Range and quality of training – of available training to address identified gaps
- Workforce planning – to ensure people have capacity to attend training and follow up learning
- Collaboration – within the organisation to support effective learning (both for those facilitating learning and for leaners)
Tweaking a sales process or implementing new sales leadership routines will not stick if you don’t have the systemic reinforcement to make them happen consistently. If you are going to go down the path of a new sales process, you need to consider some of the broader system issues at play and ensure the levers available are set to reinforce what you are trying to achieve.
What is initiating your sales training intervention? An incumbent vendor’s contract expiring? A new leadership perspective? A revised strategy? Some poor customer satisfaction or sales results?
Any of these factors, or a combination of often leads to a fresh look at how as an organisation we connect and sell to customers. What is often over looked though, is ‘our our people ready for a new or revised approach?’ A key element of any behavioural change is understanding what the mindset of your target audience is. If you are changing your sales process, your customer value proposition or your sales leadership approach every other year, chances are your workforce may just be a little tired of the constant change and wait for the next best thing to come along and not bother with the current change you are trying to implement. Key questions to consider include:
- Do our people think the sales processes do not work or are too complicated?
- Have our people been subjected to a lot of other change? (change fatigued?)
- Are they ready to embrace a new sales approach? (time for change is now)
If you are going to invest the time and resources required to update a sales process, you need to ensure there is a legitimate desire of the target audience to actually accept or even embrace the change.
Key Insight 2 – Know your audience, understand their emotional triggers
Engaging your sales force to understand where they feel the gaps are and for the developers of the sales training to observe how they the sales force are currently executing on their sales conversations, is paramount to helping you improve your sales uplift. This will not only build buy in and credibility for the change, but it will provide a chance to tap into ‘the energy’ of the sales force and understand what emotional triggers could work in having them adopt a future change.
Understanding the current mindset of your sales force about their existing sales processes and tools, will also assist you determine the ‘what’s in it for me?’ benefits to sell as a part of the change process. In 2008, I submitted two of the sales training programs I played a role in creating into a study run by the CLC Learning and Development, “Refocusing L&D on Business Results: Bridging the Gap Between Learning and Performance” (2008). One of the key findings in this study reinforced the need for learners to have a strong understanding of the payoff for applying what they have learnt back in the workplace. Ensuring what you are changing is somehow making the life of your sales people better and they are at a point they are more likely to embrace the change will ultimately enhance the application of the learning into behaviour that increases business performance.
It is very easy to get focussed on the key tasks that need to be performed by sales people / leaders, and forget about all the other things that may be distracting your sales force from having engaging customer conversations. Depending on what your sales force are trying to sell, they are likely to be engaged in a raft of other activities that may be related or unrelated as a part of that sales process; including order processing, customer servicing, problem resolution, administration, process improvement, order fulfilment, etc. Your sales leaders often are also similarly may be distracted from their sales leadership responsibilities with their own sales, operations and servicing tasks they are trying to perform concurrently to their sales leadership tasks. Key questions about your current context include:
- What barriers currently exist to your sales force consistently executing on having effective sales conversations?
- If you are asking your people to do something new or different, what are you going to ask them to stop doing that they are currently doing?
- How will you deal with the contextual challenges your sales people have when implementing new sales training?
Being able to apply a new skill in the context of the current working environment is key for achieving ongoing behavioural change. If the new way of working is not possible due to a significant amount of current world obstacles providing barriers, then ultimately the target behavioural change will be difficult to achieve.
Key Insight 3 – Help your people understand how they will apply the new within their existing context
One of the most satisfying projects I was involved in during 2010, was building a refresher sales leadership program. It was a simulation based workshop, simulating a day in the life of a Branch Manager for a retail bank, which required them to perform key sales leadership activities, but make critical decisions about other operational tasks that were often the reason that the sales leadership tasks were not performed. The simulation was structured within a competitive game context, which had pay-off’s and penalties for different choices made. By simulating decisions in a real world context, managers were able to gain an understanding of what the impact of their decision not to prepare for a key sales leadership task (eg. sales meeting) were and weigh up the ‘real life’ costs of not properly executing on sales leadership tasks.
By combining your target training within the contextual challenges, it provides a practice ground for helping learners to overcome the issues that will become the barriers for sustaining the change once people have completed the course and are back in their workplace.
I attended a great workshop in 2010, where Charles Jennings presented about “Workforce development: Moving from activity focus to tangible outputs” and one of the key facts that really resonated, was the reinforcement of the importance of the people leader in capability development. Charles referred to research (M L Broad & J W Newstrom (1992 & 1998)) highlighting the top three impacts on a learners experience are:
- The managers discussion with a learner prior to the workshop (establishing the learning need)
- Instructional designers and facilitators contextualising the learning within the role of the learner
- A managers discussion with the learner after the workshop (reinforcing what has been learnt through coaching and providing an opportunity to apply what is learnt)
A key challenge for any new sales process change is getting leaders on board with role modelling and coaching the new behaviours. A key stumbling point can be ensuring that your most senior leadership believe the change is important to the point that they adopt the tools or processes being implemented themselves and role model consistency to middle and front line management.
Key Insight 4 – Have your leaders actively involved role modelling the change and part of the learning process
If your leaders think they are above the change and not going to be hands on in coaching the new sales routines, your ’30 days’ of rememberance for a new sales routine, is looking optimistic at best.
In the sales leadership simulation training refresher aforementioned, senior sales leaders and sales coaches were a part of the training simulation, playing a key role in providing observation coaching feedback or simulating staff interactions. Senior sales leaders were also involved in a pre-workshop capability assessment against the Branch Manager success profile and part of a post workshop follow up ‘pledge’ conversation whereby development commitments were made based on the workshop and capability survey outputs. This ‘pledge’ (learning contract), combined with follow up scheduled observation coaching of key sales leadership tasks, reinforced the key skills and sales leadership routines the Branch Managers were required to perform.
Im a fan of the view put forward in the HBR article “How right should the customer be?” (July-August 2008) that describes:
“The culture and effectiveness of any sales force are products of its management system: the rules that govern the way a company trains, monitors, supervises, motivates, and evaluates salespeople.”
The article goes on to explain there are two extremes of how sales forces are typically managed. Outcome control systems, which typically sees sales people having a high percentage of their salary derived from key metrics shaped by customer results. Versus a behavioural control system, where the sales managers are typically directing, developing and evaluating their sales force on a number of different factors. The contrast being between a self directed more autonomous salesforce (outcome control), versus a directed ‘command and control’ type of sales force.
Key Insight 5 – Understand what your current state culture and determine the impact on new/updated sales processes
In 2007, I was working on a project to implement a new sales leadership program into a retail bank. At the time the culture was heavily a compliance / risk driven culture (pretty typical of banking), however the business strategy at the time was promoting a one of empowerment for the people. The reality at the time though was that people were still very much living in a compliance culture, to keep them from getting penalised for non-compliance. The vendor partnering with us at the time made a strong recommendation to make the new sales leadership routines mandatory, as they had seen good results from this type of approach in other banks. But the team felt, a view I supported at the time, that if our people were to be empowered, we needed to implement the new sales leadership routines in a way embrace the change . Therefore we attempted to compel our people into action by showing the benefits, hope they would adopt was our rationale and take the risk of moving from what was a very reactive to a very proactive sales leadership approach. Hindsight shows us, the sales leaders were still too busy doing all the other things that stopped them from getting penalised, hence the uptake of the new sales leadership routines were not what we had hoped, but clearly beneficial where they were adopted.
On reflection and with my learning’s since this project, I think the easier road would of been to make the sales leadership routines mandatory (given that culture) and just apply the appropriate compliance levers to ensure they were executed upon. However easy to implement, doesn’t necessarily mean there will be any longevity or quality in the execution of the sales leadership activities (including coaching, team meetings etc).
The key here is to really be deliberate about what your culture is currently and whether you want to use it to reinforce the new sales process you are implementing. Or whether the change you are implementing, will be partly a catalyst towards shaping a new culture. The former is relatively straightforward and has a lot less risk than the later. If taking the second approach, you will need to take a much broader view on the organisational system that is influencing how your sales force behave and look to leverage more cultural levers other than a new capability program, in order to reinforce the behaviours you will require to achieve the new culture.
The way forward
I see these learning’s as a step change from a training mindset to a more wholistic change mindset, but there is still a way to go. As I continue to explore newer concepts on motivation (Daniel Pink’s – Drive) and implement further experiments around how to move from a ‘push training’ world to a ‘pull learning’ world, I will continue to post these insights here.
Please leave your comments / insights here so I can expand my learning and please follow my blog to see what happens next in my journey.
Written by Geoff Rose, January 2011.
(Sales Executive Council – ‘Boosting Sales Training Stickiness’ – 2011)