In the sales performance space, there is a growing disconnect between performance focus and learning focus.
If my email and voice mails are any indicator, there is an explosion in learning technology options crowding into the sales enablement world. An important part of my business is learning about these powerful tools for knowledge dissemination, especially as they apply to sales forces.
Learning and training tools are more accessible, more available, more efficient and more effective than ever before. There has never been a better time to be involved in the adult learning industry. However, adult learning is the least interesting part of my business. My true business is achieving lasting results for my clients.
There are two big differences between a learning focus and a results focus:
- Improving sales performance requires far more than knowledge acquisition.
- Knowledge acquisition isn’t the weak link in the chain.
My own company, The Miller Heiman Group, is innovating in many areas including improving the learning portion of the “sales performance improvement” chain. The chain metaphor fits: knowledge transfer without behavior change achieves little of lasting commercial value. If all my firm became known for was innovation in learning, we would fail our clients. “Watch this space” for exciting innovative performance management tools, though.
Sales performance improvement is far more than “training…poof!”
A great instructor can teach all of the techniques of a golf swing—grip, stance, backswing, body motion, hand action, hip turn, follow-through, etc. – in a couple of hours. That couple of hours won’t land anyone on the pro tour, though. That’s even if the student scored 100% on a post-training assessment; confirming that they acquired every atom of the instruction.
Similarly, sales performance is about adopting new selling behaviors; working to turn them into “muscle memory”. Teach those behaviors and test for comprehension all you want, but without coaching and guided practice, little or no performance change will result.
Alarmingly, many learning professionals claim that “training effectiveness” should be measured by testing for effective knowledge acquisition. The trap: testing for knowledge acquisition is easy via (electronically-administered) tests. This is a classic application of John Tukey’s quote “Far better an approximate answer to the right question than a precise answer to the wrong question…”. Testing for comprehension is so much “the wrong question” it verges on criminal: sales training comprehension alone won’t deliver the results sales leaders need. Sales training simply isn’t that kind of simple “know it = do it” material.
The pitfall to “teach-and-test only”:
Knowledge acquisition isn’t the weak link in the chain.
Training events are easy… compared to getting your sales teams to consistently adopt sales methodology behaviors. Behavior adoption requires observation and effective coaching over an extended period. Think about the time to train you to swing a golf club vs. the time it takes to achieve proficiency — then excellence. Also, think of the difference that great coaching can make in ramp-up time.
Sure, training and testing have their place. Training introduces and describes desired behaviors. Testing confirms understanding. Knowledge and understanding are important steps along the adoption path. It’s difficult to coach effectively without a clearly communicated set standards and expectations. Thus, there is a chain of events –with training and testing for comprehension as one link.
In my experience, a training event ends where the most powerful work starts. That’s where behavior coaching begins, where new habits are formed, and where lasting results are embedded…where a performance initiative becomes consequential.
The “weak” link in the chain is building new habits with your people. I call it the weak link not because of a lack of coaching tools, or ineffective ones. Rather, weak refers to the reality that people and organizations generally struggle with change. Unsurprisingly, changing behaviors is the most common failure point in a sales performance initiative. Organizationally, behavior change requires that you plan, communicate, involve, lead, and commit. Individually, sales leaders need to develop, observe, diagnose, coach, and persist. Once behaviors are instilled, the methodology becomes sustainable. I use the chain metaphor because if a coaching/sustainment piece is missing, the whole initiative risks missing on the desired outcome – and the investment has limited return.
A stronger chain
To achieve strong results, put together all of these elements:
- Great sales methodologies…yes, and teach them effectively. I’m aligned with the most successful B2B methodologies in the world, and can tell you why. My company is now a leader in learning innovation, and I’m proud align myself with them.
- Great coaching and training tools that help front-line sales managers (one key point of differentiation between success and disappointment) become effective behavior coaches. My clients can access a full set of rich coaching and sustainment tools, plus my commitment to integrate those tools into working solutions that result in meaningful outcomes.
- A great execution and change plan individualized for your organization. Just buying “butts in seats” from any training company — no matter how good their material is — runs the risk of assuming away this critical component. This link in the chain doesn’t come from a training company.
Understand: testing for material mastery is not a predictor of outcomes. Not even remotely.
The overwhelming differentiator in successful sales performance initiatives is effective behavior change, not behavior description. Make sure you have a clear change management path before you decide to “train your people”. Be sure you understand how your learners will be coached into becoming performers.
I’ve seen some e-learning tools claiming to perform automated coaching – verifying behavior change. Now that’s a cool concept, and I’m eager to see those technologies mature. In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss behavior change and organizational change management that works. For you, your organization, and your aspirations.
To your success!