I’ve been talking about the long-term impact of conventional sales training programmes with clients, and their experience seems to be patchy to say the least. One obvious conclusion is that if sales training is to have any chance of being effective, it must be continuously reinforced once the delegates are back at work.
At minimum, this means embedding the principles taught on the course into the sales people’s day-to-day sales tools and CRM platform. It requires that first-line sales managers actively promote the required approach in their regular mentoring of their teams, and in their regular review of progress.
These seem to be the absolute minimum basic commitments that are necessary to ensure that the sales people benefit from the investment you've just made in training. But there’s still usually something missing: most sales training courses focus on technique - but technique by itself won’t get your sales people very far if they are not thinking clearly.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that in complex B2B sales environments with complicated buying dynamics, critical thinking skills count for a lot more than the mastering of any specific sales techniques. The reason is simple: if we’re not thinking clearly about the opportunity, whatever technique we apply is likely to be misplaced.
Complex B2B sales are complicated. There is no such thing as a perfect sales methodology, or a perfect sales process. How we assess and adapt to each individual opportunity is far more important than our mastery of any clever technique.
There are no "silver bullets"...
Whatever techniques or processes we chose to train or guide our sales people in, they can only ever amount to a framework, not a rigid, sure-to-be-successful routine. Despite what some of the aeriated “sales experts” might claim, there are no silver bullets, no magic wands and no shortcuts. There is no substitute for clear thinking.
Clear thinking needs to be applied right at the start of the sales cycle - before we have engaged the prospective customer. It involves carefully considering where our best chances of success lie - which issues we should focus on, what organisations and roles we should target, and which trigger events we should look out for.
Investing in discovery
It means setting expectations that our sales people need to invest deeply in the discovery process rather than racing ahead to propose a solution to what is likely to be a poorly or incompletely defined need. It means expecting our sales people to think about every opportunity from multiple perspectives.
It requires that they recognise that every complex sales opportunity is inevitably multi-dimensional. It involves helping them to put themselves in the shoes of each of the key stakeholders. It means signalling to them that we believe that every unit of thought applied in the early stages of the opportunity will pay back multiple times later in the sales cycle.
The need for empathy
But thinking isn’t just an intellectual exercise: it’s also an emotional one. Thinking and empathy are co-dependent. We can’t expect to establish empathy until and unless we are capable of seeing and thinking about the world from our stakeholder’s perspective. We need to care about them and their circumstances.
We need to work out why they might need to change in the first place. We need to understand the gap between their current situation and their future aspirations. If this value gap is small, we may want to persuade them that the status quo is less comfortable than it seems, or that their future potential is greater than they might currently think.
We need to help them think through their vision of a solution, by contrasting alternative methods and philosophies to solving their problem rather than diving in with a premature product pitch - enabling them to shape their high-level approach to achieving their aspirations.
And then we need to help them think through the key capabilities they are really going to need in whatever solution they implement - regardless of whether they acquire that solution from us or from another source. If we’ve laid this foundation, and if we still genuinely believe that we can offer a superior solution, our ability to persuade them of this will be hugely enhanced through the foundations we have laid.
Applying a formulaic sales technique or methodology won’t get us there. We need to use our rational and emotional intelligence to understand how our customers think, and how we might influence them. We need to be more curious than certain. And we need to care about their outcomes, and not just our order book.
We can (and must) encourage our sales people to think more clearly. We must train them to look at situations from multiple angles. We must challenge them whenever we review an opportunity with them to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. We must prompt them to describe the opportunity from their customer’s perspective.
We must signal to them that our processes and methodologies - important as they are - are merely the means to an end, and that they are not to be slavishly followed but flexibly and intelligently interpreted. We must explain that evidence of clear thinking and intelligent action is more important to us than merely ticking off sales process boxes.
We can (and should) expect a lot from our teams. It is possible that some of our sales people, despite our coaching, may never make the grade. It is possible that some of our managers may be ill-quipped or unwilling to help them. In both cases, they are probably in the wrong role - and we need to recognise that no amount of technique training is ever going to fix that...
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