With an array of regional, national and international training firms delivering proven content and methods for learning, why is it many businesses who invest in staff skill development still struggle to meet their sales and business growth goals?
The answer is simple: It’s usually not the topic. It’s probably not the content. It may or may not be the delivery of the trainer. But it’s always the scope of the implementation and the level of optimization.
By definition, implementation is the process of moving an idea from concept to reality. Therefore, it is important to identify what kind of skill development measures are needed, what should be prioritized, who will participate, and how it will be implemented in a way that will be sustainable and make a substantial contribution to your performance objectives. Optimization is the process or methodology of making something as fully perfect and effective as possible.
I’ve been working in sales leadership, consulting and coaching capacities for over 30 years. Regardless of my role, the industry in which I worked, or the size of the business for whom I worked, I found that most owners and executives often fail to account for several, if not all, of the following strategies presented in this article. As you read, reflect on past and present training initiatives. If they failed to meet your expectations take into consideration how each of the six strategies I present could have shifted the nature of your implementation in ways that would have had a greater impact on individual and team performance. If so, you may find that considering their impact with regard to future initiatives will net a higher rate of return on the time, effort and money you invest.
#1: You’re Engaging in Change Management
Change management is more than a trendy term. It’s an everyday reality, illustrated by the fact that any attempt to shift company culture by improving process, introducing new practices, and developing new skills is essentially an exercise in change management. As such, you can guarantee that it will be met by varying degrees of enthusiasm and resistance from your staff regardless of their title or role.
Resistance to change is an inherent part of human nature. Very few people embrace change with the exception of top performers and those on their way to becoming top performers. Those two groups are usually willing to try anything to get an edge. The rest of your staff will likely need some persuading. Remember, it’s easier to resist change, to accept the status quo and maintain a “business as usual” approach rather than make a willing commitment in time and effort to disrupt a set of behaviors that one believes is working well enough – even when the numbers say they are not. It’s a common problem with an easy solution.
When managing change it is best to employ an active staff engagement and adoption strategy that seeks to identify and then connect your staff’s core motivations and desire for change with the practical benefits associated with the skill development initiative you are considering. For businesses that are purpose- and mission-driven, this includes making connections between each staff member’s sense of mission and desire to affect change with the mission and unique value-added benefits that enable your business or institution’s capacity to affect change. Aligning motivation creates connections and enthusiasm that reduce the anxiety often associated with any new initiative, and therefore allow necessary shifts in thinking and behavior to occur.
#2: Conduct an Operational Assessment
Before diving head long into skill development you should consider conducting an in-depth examination of the unique character of your business as an integral part of your approach. identifies gaps in existing capabilities that are significant impediments to achieving the key sales and business development objectives. Unfortunately, for many businesses this is a common oversight.
Operationally you will want to examine the nature of your market, your competition, and where you are strongest, on par, and vulnerable in your ability to compete successfully. Your assessment should also include a thorough evaluation of your use of the sales process, best practices, software systems, analytics, and resources that are meant to support your sales team. In doing so, you will discover insights that will validate or raise questions about the legitimacy of your goals, the challenges you need to overcome, and the path that will ensure a successful outcome.
Ultimately, an operational assessment’s value is its ability to clarify assumptions, shed light on efficiencies and inefficiencies, prioritize areas for improvement, and establish an accurate baseline from which to effectively implement your skill development and process improvement strategy.
#3: Conduct a Value Assessment
Many businesses and sales organizations make the mistake of assuming that the prospects, clients and channel sales partners have full comprehension of the unique value-added benefits they provide. They falsely assume that sales collateral, marketing campaigns and digital forms of content delivery adequately communicate the depth and breadth of their value and its impact on the lives of clients. This type of thinking is dangerous.
Where the operational assessment is an in-depth examination of the functional practices of your sales team, the value assessment is an-depth examination of the unique value-added benefits that clearly distinguish you from your competitors in ways that showcase the unquestionable strength of your offering and industry leadership. The assessment examines the competitive advantages associated with your company, the capabilities of your products and services, the subject matter competence and industry expertise of your staff, and the process you employ in selling, supporting and serving prospects, clients and channel sales partners.
The value assessment is foundational because it grounds your sales team with an institutional identity. It provides a platform from which gains in competitive leverage, industry leadership position, and the ability to sell and retain business without being held hostage by price can occur.
#4: Implement a Cross-Functional Approach
We place considerable emphasis on titles, roles specific responsibilities and the skills required for each. It’s typically how business is conducted, skill is developed, performance measured, and our contribution judged. For example, we often introduce one set of skills for executive leadership, another for sales representatives, a third for account managers responsible for retention, a fourth for customer service, and so forth.
Title and role specific initiatives are well intentioned and appear to be a logical approach to skill development. However, with regard to sales growth they may do more harm than good. They fragment core skills among functional business units responsible for cultivating professional relationships, client acquisition, client retention, and growing revenue within existing accounts.
In contrast, your skill development goals should consider implementing a fully integrated approach – a seamless integration of skills that delivers a unified team with aligned objectives, a common process of shared best practices, and strategic skills that advance competence, elevate performance and provide predictable behavior throughout your sales organization. This horizontal approach to cross-functionality applies equally to staff hierarchy from the executive suite, to mid-level management, and staff-level personnel. Executive endorsement and participation are critical, displaying a level of commitment that leads by example and further unifies your team.
As you begin to reap the benefits of cross-functionality you will want to migrate your new skills to business units in non-selling roles, such as marketing and communications, customer service, and customer experience, all of whom should be considered stakeholders in your business development scheme. Cross-functionality incites a collaborative team effort between all stakeholders within your organization responsible for the cultivation, acquisition, retention of clients regardless of department, title, role or position.
#5: Integrate Past, Current and Pending Initiatives
Your extension of a cross-functional implementation should include the integration of past, present and pending skill development initiatives. When I conduct an operational assessment I like to understand the leadership and the team’s perception of skill development initiatives in which they have participated – who participated, did they experience value, to what degree, what were the rates of adoption, what were the outcomes, how did they measure them, are they continuing to have impact.
This also works at the individual level. When I work with a sales team it’s also important to understand the influences that have positively impacted the performance of each member involved in the coaching process – be it a seminar, webinar, book, training series, coaching or mentorship. For example, my emphasis on motivation-based inquiry for accurately identifying the core motivations of decision makers dovetails elegantly with consultative selling, strategic selling, SPIN selling, as well as pursue to win and strategic account management strategies.
Furthermore, from a digital systems perspective you can expect integration to apply to investments in computer systems and digital tools that are meant to guide sales process and drive performance. Referencing the prior example, the framework for motivation-based inquiry can be integrated within customer relationship and customer service management systems.
This extension of cross-functionality delivers greater impact, making the use of prior, current and pending skills and systems complimentary, always with the goal of eliminating fragmentation, reducing confusion, increasing adoption and optimizing investments.
#6: Develop Your Sales Channel
Though most businesses employ a sales staff, many also rely on sales channel partners to identify and close much of their business. Brokers, agents, advisors and value-added resellers are not simply an extension of your sales team. They are your sales team!
Through the years I’ve seen sales channel development efforts focus primarily on product introductions, feature updates, and price. This type of information is to be expected and necessary. However, it does little to distinguish you from your competitors in ways that nurture your value in the eyes of channel sales partners. Since channel partners typically represent multiple providers and recommend a best-in-class solution based on the buyer’s needs, your inability to differentiate leaves you vulnerable to misrepresentation and the low-cost recommendation.
Ask yourself the following questions.
- If my team and I are implementing value-based selling strategies that help us differentiate from our competition, increase our competitive leverage, and minimize the need to sell solely on price, wouldn’t we want our sales channel to have that same understanding and skill set?
- If my team and I are incorporating new value-based sales planning and account retention strategies that will help us acquire and retain profitable business, wouldn’t our sales channel partners find these strategies helpful as well?
- Lastly, in sharing these strategies wouldn’t we encourage more productive collaboration and team selling opportunities with our sales channel partners that would be mutually beneficial in meeting and potentially exceeding our collective sales goals?
For the record, equipping your sales channel with many of the new skills your team is employing is always to your advantage. First, it’s a powerful way to create advocacy. Second, it will increase collaboration and reduce the tension often associated with who controls the client. Third, it extends the cross-functional implementation outlined in Strategy #3 to your sales channel, which unifies objectives, shared best practices, and strategic skills that will provide you both with consistent and more predictable growth.
As you’ve read each of the 6 strategies presented here you may have begun to see things in a new light. If previous initiatives did not meet your expectations, reexamine them in this context. When contemplating new opportunities for staff skill development take into consideration these same strategies. A shift in your thinking may very well influence your behavior in a way that rewards you with more profitable investments in skill development, team performance and business growth.