It’s been a while since Pierre Gurdjian and Oliver Triebel pointed out in the McKinsey Quarterly that many training programmes don’t yield the desired results, yet how often do we hear this same complaint that sales training doesn’t work anymore? Increasingly frequently, I suspect.
There might be a number of reasons: training is being delivered in the wrong way; training content has not been updated to address the issues identified as relevant to today’s business environment; the sales team has heard it all before; the training is not followed up properly and so the benefit is lost.
Looking at the issue from another angle however, if you went to the health centre, would you expect the doctor to write a prescription without asking some relevant questions and making a considered diagnosis? Or, closer to home, how far would you expect to get with clients if you didn’t bother to take the time to understand their business, the context in which they operate and the ways your company could add value?
Gurdjian and Triebel were clear that a major reason many training programmes don’t yield the desired results is that they are usually launched without sufficient knowledge of where the gaps in employees’ skills exist. And this leads us to a further point that, in many cases, training on its own is never going to be able to address all the relevant issues.
Clearly, you need a comprehensive, objective, accurate understanding of a situation before you attempt to tackle the problems. This is where effective sales talent assessment and diagnostic tools come in, especially if they help you address all of the factors – behaviour, skills, critical reasoning, motivators and cultural fit – that affect performance in a sales role. And, by ‘sales role’, I mean the specific sales role your salespeople are expected to perform, not some one-size-fits-all generic role. Let’s take a look at a couple of case-studies….
In Latin America, a major division of a large multinational business – in fact, the brand leader – was used to engaging in a large number of bids, all of which involved a lengthy sales cycle. However, when the downturn kicked in and the sales environment began to change, the teams soon discovered they had a problem: the win ratio dropped and they began losing five out of seven deals, right at the end of the sale.
As well as losing business, this created a poor reputation for the division within the company. It was clear that something needed to be done! The organisation did some analysis and concluded its people were losing at the end of the sales cycle because of poor negotiating and closing skills. As a consequence, leadership asked the head of learning and development to put together a training programme to address the perceived issues.
However, the head of L&D recommended trying a different approach first, and deployed our Sales Talent Assessment tool across the various sales roles within the division: these comprised eight different roles covering a mix of new business and account management. The assessment phase was completed and the consolidated management information was back in front of the managing director of the division within 14 days.
The results told a very different story about the real nature of the issue: it wasn’t related to negotiation or closing skills at all. The diagnosis centred on the following key facts:
as a brand leader in the market, this organisation was often retained in deals right to the bitter end as an implied threat to other bidders;
the market had moved on and the buyers had changed – it was no longer just about brand and price;
the organisation was unable to position value in the sales cycle for the solutions being proposed, and the sales team struggled to articulate value, especially around the financial aspects of a bid; meanwhile,
the diagnostic identified that the salespeople had neither the skills nor the critical reasoning ability to position or articulate value in this context.
The data pointed towards a new solution and encouraged the organisation to take an innovative approach to fixing the problem, because it understood that a traditional approach wasn’t going to work. The division seconded a finance person into sales to work with the team on positioning value at an early stage with the prospects. It also did some skills training, but where it would have most benefit, around positioning value and political mapping in order to gain greater understanding of the buyers.
So what has happened since? The organisation is now perceived internally as a high-performing division. Its win ratios have increased and the division is now winning 75% more deals. With the help of an effective sales talent assessment process, the organisation was able to diagnose the real nature of its problem and turn the position around within eight months.
The right prescription
Of course, the right diagnosis is never enough to solve a problem on its own: you also have to prescribe the ‘right course of treatment’. Our second case-study further illustrates the point that, even when you recognise there is a problem within the sales operation, you may need to take a different approach from the one you had anticipated.
The particular client in question is a major industrial company with around 500 people in sales and customer-facings roles and part of a global business. Like many companies over recent years, it was facing a number of market challenges:
customers were changing how they want to buy;
key accounts were not delivering the same regular business;
there was increasing competition; and
the large sales operation had a mix of skills and experience.
All of this conspired to reduce revenues. What’s more, because the organisation had expanded considerably through acquisition, it found itself playing in a different league. As a consequence, the client recognised it needed to raise the entire game of its sales operation.
Some two years ago, the leadership initiated a project to look at a number of areas:
they invested heavily in a new CRM System;
they implemented new processes across the business;
they changed the structure in parts of the business to re-align with the market changes; and
like other companies, they tasked their customer services people with selling alongside their current roles.
The company decided the next stage was to take a close look at their sales talent – their people. The initial perception internally was that progress would mainly revolve around skills improvement. Indeed, the company had allocated a budget and were already in dialogue with a number of training providers to deliver the ‘necessary’ training.
In parallel, a number of changes were taking place at board level including the appointment of a new chief executive, who had challenged the business to reduce costs. He also had a perception that there was an underlying problem with sales skills and many individuals were not good enough to play the new game. He further believed that a ‘smaller’ squad could perhaps deliver the same or more with the right investment and was keen on a solution that would help him understand this.
We took a different view and instead persuaded leadership to run an assessment programme to test the company’s perceptions before continuing further: they deployed our Sales Talent Assessment across nearly 500 people, mainly covering the three roles of Sales Manager, Account Manager and Internal Account Manager. The programme was completed and the consolidated findings presented to the board within six weeks.
Easy-to-follow graphical representation of this data painted a very different picture of the Sales Manager population for the leadership team. The skills problem was not as big a challenge as first thought; although there were no top performers and there were some skills gaps, the overall skills base was solid. The profile for the Account Managers was very similar.
Where there were skills gaps, the diagnostics detailed what these where, and enabled the organisation to focus development in the relevant areas. However, the main challenges centred on behavioural issues, with a large proportion falling outside the optimal behaviour range. Thus, the solution immediately became one of focused coaching to change individuals’ behaviour, rather than a traditional training solution as at first thought.
For the Internal Account Managers, the picture was different again, apparently revealing a team very out of synch. However, it should be noted that this was originally a Customer Service Team with plenty of contact experience with the customer, but which had then been asked to take on an additional selling role. Unfortunately, although seemingly logical, this re-structuring exercise had not factored in whether the existing talent was right for this new role.
The assessment diagnostics indicated that many of the Internal Account Managers were very uncomfortable (in terms of their behaviour) in their role and many didn’t have the skills to do what the business wanted them to do. Regardless of any investment in skills training, many would have been unlikely to make the improvement required.
So where are they now? The next steps are still work-in-progress but the diagnostic data and analysis has enabled the organisation to prescribe a different solution from the one originally envisaged. This revised approach involved:
re-deploying the budget to focus on the correct skill elements;
creating a coaching programme to address the behavioural issues; and
using the data to re-align the customer service functions.
It seems obvious to point out that you can’t make sound decisions and implement effective solutions without first having a high level of insight into the issues that underpin a given situation – especially when such decisions directly relate to the talent within an organisation. However, until recently, sales talent management has been something of a dark art, with decisions more often based on instinct and ‘gut feel’ than hard data. Effective sales talent assessment is at last beginning to shed some real light on this situation.