OK, You’ve Had the Training – Now Change

I would like you, if you will, to join me in a little mental game. Ready? OK.. . In your mind’s-eye imagine that you have recently accepted the job of Sales Director at a well known international company. After a few weeks of observation and inquiry inside the company the following 4 facts are obvious.

1) A year ago your company took over a competitor and now has to merge the two competing sales forces.

2) Because of the Global recession, your market share is shrinking and your sales team seems to be relying on price-cutting in an attempt to gain more business.

3) Your once ‘unique’ market benefit is slowly being eroded by competitors’ product improvements.

4) Your customers are in trouble themselves and are squeezing you on price and other contract issues.

Now (typical !) as you are about to send your initial analysis to the CEO she preempts your email with one of her own: “I know things are tough out there [Bob] but we brought you in to change things for the better.. . . So now that you’ve had a few weeks with us, what’s the plan?”

Now you’re on the back-foot. But your reputation in your marketplace is that of a decisive and determined sales leader. So you set up a teleconference with your various country sales managers around the Globe, to decide on the action plan. This teleconference has revealed a clear need and an overwhelming desire amongst your team to DO something.. . anything.. . they are all relying on you. They’ve tried Knock-on-more- doors (the old ‘numbers-game’ sales approach) but that didn’t work. Also wait-and-see (The ‘something will turn-up’ strategy) and price cutting (Because ‘price’ is always an objection).

But they have both proved fruitless too. So you -the decisive one- have decided that wholesale re-training of the sales force is the only way forward. [For goodness sake there must have been considerable advances in sales training in the past 10 years; there must be some new ‘intergalactic techniques that can be used by our sales force!]

You can feel that your Global team of direct reports are not particularly enthused by your decision. They have seen similar big-projects before you arrived. There was the “Leadership 3000” initiative organized at MIT. This involved sending up-coming young executives to USA to learn how to become ’empowered’. Problem was, when they returned from Boston, all-fired-up after three weeks, they were universally advised, in their individual departments, to return to normal ‘ASAP’. This failure to capitalize on the new-learning cost a small fortune and gave rise to a great deal of cynicism.

So here you are.. this is your dilemma. You have to do something otherwise nothing will happen and you will inevitably get fired. But experience shows that doing the usual sort of ‘something’ will also result in ‘nothing’ so you will eventually get fired.

So why does all this happen? Why do the vast majority of companies spend lots (and lots) of money on training -especially sales-training- for which they get virtually no measurable benefit. I asked my last boss (when I was ’employed’ rather than, as now, self-employed in my own business) why our very large and well known financial information company, constantly ran these expensive retraining projects. “You know why”, he said with a wink, “it’s just to keep everybody busy!”

Right.. . so what’s it to be: Training or Results?..You choose. The first focus addresses the need for a feel-good, tick the box solution: OK I’ve organized the training what’s the next project? The second focus is on finding a way to make the desired change stick.

In my experience when selecting an outside training company for an employer, we (the committee) always tended to make our final judgment solely on what the short-listed company presented to us by way of ‘content’. The more unusual or new ‘nostrum’ the more we seem to like it. Ah! the fresh air of some new ‘New stuff’ -breathe it in! But content is only one part of the story. The bigger question that I (you) should be asking each training company is this one: “Just how are you going to make this training of yours effective and long lasting?”

When you approach training from the point of view of “How?” you are- probably for the very first time- on your way to achieving some real measurable change in behavior. Why does an effective approach to training need to be from the “How?” rather than the “What?” point of view?…because we humans find changing our habits very, very difficult for four deeply rooted reasons:

1) Organizations rarely make changes quickly or because of some authoritative, top down, dictat. 2)Classroom training costs a lot of money and is most effective only for the part of the training process where interaction with the trainer and fellow students is required. 3)We humans only willingly change our behavior if we can see how it will help us personally. 4)Unless our behavior-change-progress is regularly measured and fed-back to us we will usually be back where we began within 30 days [‘That which doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done’]

To address these issues (and avoid the school of hard knocks) here’s how I’ve finally learned to make training effective for my clients:

1) In most companies there is no-time. Everybody is searching for the new-new thing, allowing no time for the last new-thing to take effect. An effective training organization makes sure that line managers are rewarded and measured for their role as ‘coach’. It is regular coaching that makes training work and stick. Spending time training your managers in field-coaching skills is like a miracle-pill. When sales people go into the field with their coach once each month and reinforce what they are doing right, the results are usually amazing.

2) When I learned to fly an airplane (part of my mid-life crisis) we did spend a lot of time in the club-house on the white-board looking at dotted lines, sketches of runways and cross sections of airplane wings. I honestly don’t remember any of it; nothing…but clearly a lot went in. It was, however, a safe non-dangerous environment in which I had a chance to ask questions about meteorology, navigation and ‘Air-law’. But the only serious memorable learning happened when we got into the plane and I had a chance to do it- for real. So for introducing new subjects and problem-free practice, use the classroom. For reinforcing the real skills and for long lasting change, get out into the real world with your coach.

3) If training is seen as some generic, off-the-shelf ‘thing’ introduced to your sales force in a classroom setting, after which they are left to work out how apply it themselves, then it will fail. Adults – that’s you and me- learn best when a new idea is presented in context. Each sales person must be able to see the track they can follow with the new skills which will eventually bring them more sales. New skills need to be practiced in realistic role-plays using realistic data and with colleagues acting like realistic clients. New procedures must be presented in terms of the company values and company culture. (I was once trained to be very firm when customers endeavored to negotiate a price reduction. When I politely applied the training in the field, a customer complained to the CEO who instantly caved-in. He then sent me a nasty note telling me not to ‘go round beating customers up with base-ball bats’.. . . not good training)

4) The most important question for you, or the person who has been asked to organize training, to ask at the start of your training project, is as follows: “What problem are we trying to solve here?” It is the first question I ask all customers who call my company out of the blue to inquire about training for their sales force. Many times it is a show-stopper…I can hear the enquirers mouth hanging open. So I help them by asking the second question, “Well could you describe what things will look like at the end of this training program?” They usually find this a bit easier to describe until I ask them to put some measurable mile stones (usually some numbers) into their description. But without something to measure, how will we know how effective we’re being? One customer told me that his objective was ‘customer satisfaction’ but struggled with the definition: service? price? delivery? colors?…We got there eventually but it wasn’t easy.

All these things may appear common sense but they are rare. The only company I have ever worked in where application of the 4 steps outlined above was a religion, was an American copying machine company in the UK in the early 1970s. Their training program was constant, consistent and nobody was exempt. If it had not been for this carefully coached approach I don’t know where I would have ended up. I certainly would not have been able to make a successful career in sales. I would not have set up two successful training businesses. And I definitely would not have written this article.

Bob Etherington

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