- We expect too much of sales training when it comes to providing new skills and competencies.
- Transferring knowledge is part of development, but successfully improving results requires transferring competency, so salespeople can execute killer sales conversations.
- Any training and development program focused on improving results must include experiential learning.
Sales training is plagued by faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations. The first of these faulty assumptions is idea that a sales trainer can deliver the content perfectly for every participant in the room, despite their different skills and experience levels. The second is that once a participant is presented with new knowledge over the course of single day, they’ll have what they need to achieve perfect retention and execution for the rest of their lives.
But the core of the challenge for sales training is the idea that transferring knowledge is enough to produce better results. New knowledge is important, especially when that knowledge provides the sales force with a deeper understanding of some concept by explaining how to effectively approach the sales conversation. The critical transfer in training, however, is the ability to execute the new skill in the field. For sales training to work, it needs to transfer both knowledge and the competency to use it effectively.
The Transfer of Knowledge
The sales process is a good way to look at the difference between knowledge and competency. It’s a way to map the sales conversation from the sales organization’s view, marking the major stages and ensuring the salesperson achieves the outcomes that allow them to move forward to the next stage. However, simply recommending that the discovery process should result in both the rep and the client agreeing on the nature of their challenge provides little help on how to achieve that outcome.
Many competencies underlie a modern approach to discovery, but none of them would start with the question “what’s keeping you up at night?” My list of discovery competencies would emphasize business acumen (an understanding of how the client’s business works), insights that provide the decision-makers and decision-shapers with a higher-resolution lens through which to see their business and the context of their challenge, the ability to ask powerful questions that cause the client to discover the root cause of their challenge, and the ability to compel change by explaining the implications of leaving their challenge unaddressed.
The transfer of that knowledge by itself isn’t enough to provide competency in execution. For example, while executing the discovery call, the salesperson also needs to provide a differentiated experience that creates a preference to buy from them. The only tool we have to work with in sales is conversations. The more powerful the conversation, the more value it creates for our clients, making killer sales conversations a critical target for both skills and competency.
Experiential Learning and Talk Tracks
Very few people are naturally talented at consultative sales. Those with the highest level of competency make selling look easy because they have spent time sitting across from prospective clients and have acquired the experience necessary to be very good at managing the sales conversation. To be fair, they have likely also had training and have read a good number of books on consultative sales, acquiring some knowledge and the concepts that provide a map of the terrain.
Anyone who demonstrates a high skill level, in any endeavor, does so because they have practiced over a long period of time. The reason sales trainers push people to practice parts of the sales conversation is that it allows the trainers to provide feedback and make distinctions, letting their students experience using some new competency or approach. Those practice sessions are vital, along with roleplaying and using sales scripts to improve talk tracks, because they provide a safe environment to practice without the negative outcomes that can come from practicing on real prospective clients.
Development Is More Than Training
Training is part of development, but only part—a good development plan should also include coaching, for instance. But nothing comes close to experience, whether you do it in training, in the field, or best of all, in both places.
There is a reason that elite professionals combine practice with regular performance reviews. A football team spends hours watching their performance on video to understand what they did well and what caused them to make mistakes. An orchestra can listen to their performance to understand what they might change to elicit stronger emotions in the audience. It is rare, however, to find sales organizations developing their sales force over time.
True development might start with training, but it doesn’t end there. Instead, development includes time to explore and practice a new skill or competency, a chance to use it in the field, followed by an opportunity to share that experience with others who are also acquiring the new skill. Salespeople should share both what works and what is difficult, capturing the best and worst practices, to dial in the approach. There is no substitute for experience.
The True Transfer
The most important transfer in sales training and development is the competency to use what is being trained in the field. The hardest work comes after the training ends, as sales leaders and sales managers facilitate their team’s long-term professional development. The more engaged the sales leadership is reaching their growth targets, the more they should focus on the growth of the inputs: the individuals who sit across from their clients and prospects every day.
Transference means providing knowledge, gaining experience, uncovering distinctions, coordinating with others’ experiences, practicing, making adjustments, and working towards mastery. This is the path of competency, something that training can contribute to but not replace.
Do Good Work
- What new knowledge do you need to acquire now, to modernize your sales approach and improve the value of the conversations you have with your clients?
- What experiences will you need to understand and use that knowledge effectively?
- What opportunities can you use to help dial in new skills and competencies over time?