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By Lucy Hirst, Openside Tutor

Organisations who view their sales capability as matching their ambition for growth are a rare breed.  Dissatisfaction with overall ability to sell is common amongst Boards and Exco across the world.

In reality, most organisations have sales team who are pulled along by a handful of top ‘rain making’ performers, who in turn support a sales population who just about meet their targets, together with a group of under performers.  Those that can secure budget and leadership team backing are in a fortunate position to invest in, and roll-out, training and development programs to redress this imbalance and increase overall levels of capability (whilst reducing reliance on a few star performers).  Yet, training delivered as a standalone intervention is likely, at best, to have only a minimal and short-term impact.  In some cases, delivery of training could even result in a less engaged or even frustrated sales force.

Training is often the way in which companies address sales effectiveness issues

Return on investment on training interventions is difficult to measure, yet, training remains the most popular way to improve ability of sales teams to develop business.  Yet, real, sustainable change of anything – but in particular sales forces, who tend to prefer clear guidelines in which to operate – will only happen when a number of changes are made at the same time and which all point to, and drive or solve for, the same outcome.  At Openside we frequently encounter the following:

1. Training is not linked to a clear vision or strategy for the organisation.

If it is, this link is not reinforced during the training itself. When the reasons for training are clear, compelling and realistic, training itself becomes an enabler to individuals, rather than simply something that is nice, good or useful to do.  A law firm we worked with did not make it clear that training was designed to support growth but also build a common working culture post integration with another firm.  Consequently, the message about why training was being delivered did not land with the fee earners and impetus for change slowed.

In addition, the timing of training in relation to the sales year or cycle is rarely considered, meaning that the ability of attendees to fully focus on the coaching offered can be reduced.  A global telecommunications company rolled out training to a large sales population meaning that some sales leaders did not attend training until Quarter 1 of the new sales cycle, when business development teams are busy securing pipelines for the new year.  Feedback received was ‘we wish we had done this last year and not now.’

Opportunities to reinforce strategic goals and mobilise employees are frequently lost.

2. Leaders are not consistently supportive.

Training that is not proactively championed by all Exco members and senior leadership teams will ultimately fail.  There was a marked difference in how training was received in a business services organisation – for those practices and business units where leaders were committed and supportive, training was far better received.

In the practice where the leader did not turn up to training (yes this did happen!), the attendees openly queried why they were attending (rather than doing their day job) and the commitment of the entire leadership team was called into question.

Training programmes that originate from transformation teams can also run into problems.  Sales leaders can view them as another business change initiative they can ultimately disregard.

3. Sales or business development governance, processes and frameworks are ill defined.

Training is often disrupted by discussions of what actually happens versus what should happen between first client contact and conclusion of delivery / renewal.

If sales processes (including governance and sales steps, such as approvals to proceed, submit and contract) are not mature or even standardised, and appropriate levels of sales support and funnel management are not evident, attendees can feel confusion – if not frustration – that requests are being made of them when basic sales related ‘house-keeping’ is not in place.  Similarly, training can be undermined if attendees feel that guidance on pricing or target margins is weak. This is particularly true when training is being delivered to groups from different business units or geographic locations where there may not be common pratice associated with the sales process.

4. Accountabilities are not clear.

If individuals are unsure of their roles, the decisions they can make, who they interface with and reporting lines – as well as their own personal targets and accountabilities – rolling out training can be perceived as an attempt by the organisation to run before it can walk.  In organisations where there is a division between business development, advisory or consulting and delivery teams, this lack of clarity can increase tension amongst these teams both during and after training.

5. Sales effectiveness training is not clearly linked to performance objectives or sales targets.

Training is often delivered when targets may not have been agreed or communicated, or targets broken down into attainable account plans and opportunity lists (e.g. our target for region x is y, therefore, that means for these accounts we want to increase revenues by x, and generate this number of new clients), This means that for an individual, it might not be clear how what I am being given now will help me to get ‘there’.

Evolving the sales operating model

We need to reassess BD training in the context of evolution – sometimes revolution – of a full end to end review of how a company operates (in other words, an organisation’s sales operating model, or how business and sales strategies are made a reality).  This includes:

  1. What are we ultimately aiming at – how does training support the vision and strategic goals of an organisation?;
  2. Are all our senior and most respected leaders truly bought in? Not only sponsorship for training itself but ongoing support for refreshing and embedding new ways of ‘how we do things around here’;
  3. Critical processes – how and when do we do what we do;
  4. What activity sits where – who does what, and;
  5. What drives our people – how compensation and reward is geared and set.

The need to urgently improve sales effectiveness frequently means that most organisations move quickly into training without considering, or anchoring, training against 2 critical elements:

  1. Is it really clear why this is being done, and are the leadership truly joined up and aligned in their commitment to make this work?
  2. Are capability improvements locked into the broader day to day elements of how a company actually works, and the world in which sales teams will return to, once they have left the security of the training room?

Designing training in the context of what we want sales teams to ‘think, feel and do’….

To reduce the risk that training results in a minimal return on investment, before training is rolled out it is worth taking some time out to review – and stabilise where necessary – all elements of the end to end sales operating model.

This means close and involved collaboration with leadership teams, process owners, systems owners, sales operations teams, Finance and HR – in other words, doing some decent homework before a training program is designed and rolled-out.  Which takes time and effort, but, will mean individuals and teams are better prepared to receive – and act on – training offered.  And what does ‘being ready’ look like?  For that, it means a sales leader is in the following position:

“I know why we are doing this and what it means for me and my company;

My line manager, and their line manager, and our leadership team are visibly and actively supporting this – they really mean it;

How we work, the processes and systems we use (including basics on pricing), are clear – we all broadly use a common language, and I know the rules of play;

I understand what my role is, what I am accountable for and how I work with others across the entire end to end value chain; and

Training is grounded in my targets and objectives both short and long term.”

Once a sales leader is comfortable speaking to each of these elements, your organisation and your people are ready for training!

For more information on how Openside develop the core business development skills and behaviours for professional services firms, please contact us or visit our training page.

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