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Groundhog Day

I’m in Ireland this week and next working with Sales Executives and CEOs in a series of one- and two-day workshops as part of the International Selling Program offered by Enterprise Ireland (Ireland’s commerce department) and DIT (The Dublin Institute of Technology, where I am an adjunct professor of sales and sales management).   My overall message to the 125 or so people I’ll be in front of is one word: process.  (Here it’s proh-cess, not prah-cess).

I cover three of the most critical processes for building an effective sales capability: qualification, hiring and planning.  Sales process itself is covered in another module.

Timeline to disaster

One of the big challenges here is similar to that in the U.S.—selecting a sales VP (or director) who can get the job done. Considering the average tenure of sales VPs these days—less than two years—I created a pro-forma timeline for the newly-hired sales VP who isn’t going to work out long-term:

  • Months 1-3: On-boarding. VP learns about the company, salespeople, colleagues in marketing, services, customers, competitors, etc. Asks a lot of questions.  Generates excitement and hope.
  • Months 4-6: VP makes changes in approach, terminology, territories, business partners, marketing materials, routine (sales meetings, forecast calls, etc.) VP may bring in former salespeople that worked for them in the past.
  • Months 7-9: Little to no performance improvement realized. VP says that new mechanisms haven’t “gained traction.” Or that their new reps “need a little more time.” VP suggests that there have been changes in the market/economy/environment since they joined. Assures the executive team a little more time will do the trick.
  • Months 10-12: An occasional success! The heat is off for a time, until the CEO realizes that “one big win does not a trend make.” (Dave Hathaway, partner, now retired, from prestigious VC firm Venrock Associates said that to me in a board meeting when I was an inexperienced VP of sales and bragged about a big deal we had just won.)
  • Month 13: Consultant or board member or expert is brought in to assess the situation. Meetings, reports, discussions, back and forth
  • Months 14-16: VP and CEO see the handwriting on the wall, but keep it to themselves, hoping that the situation will magically approve.
  • Months 17-20: CEO covertly searches for new VP. VP covertly taps into his/her network while updating their resume with the appropriate spin on this latest position.
  • Month 21 (or The New Month 1): New VP of sales arrives… On-boarding…  It’s Groundhog Day!

Who is responsible?

You might wonder who are responsible for this all-too-common situation.  It’s the people who continue to hire the wrong VPs of sales or promote their best salesrep to the job.

What is the root cause?

The profiles for a Sales VP and a salesperson are, by definition, different.  Granted, most successful sales VPs have a sales background.  But promoting a successful salesperson into a management role doesn’t work unless that person has the skills and traits required for that job.  Here are a few generic sales leader skills:  management (!), team building, conflict resolution, strategic planning, coaching, hiring, and motivating.  There are numbers of additional skills required for success in each unique sales leadership position.  Plus there are a list of traits, too, many of which even top-performing salesreps just don’t possess.  Process orientation is just one.

Wait, wait!!!

If you’re about to hire a sales VP, director, or sales manager (or are about to promote a rep into one of those positions) and you don’t have a profile for that position specifying the skills and traits required for success with your company’s sales people selling your products to your customers against your competitors, STOP.

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The Value and Perils of Customized Sales Training

Yesterday during The Top Sales Experts Roundtable, Linda Richardson made a strong case for customized sales training.  It’s not something she has to convince us at ESR about.

Many organizations want a customized sales training experience, whether it be live or virtual.  This can be good or bad, depending upon what experiences and materials are customized, and to what degree. It’s important for sales training buyer to understand any and all customization requirements and objectives; and, it is incumbent upon that person to have an effective strategy for customization.

ESR have yet to find a client who says, “Yes, off-the-shelf training is just fine for my organization.” Every organization feels that it is unique, that its problems are unique, and that only a unique program can maximize their potential.

The Problem

When an organization brings in a sales training company, there is a challenge that the organization is trying to overcome or an opportunity to leverage.

This fundamentally implies that a change is needed—that the status quo is not sufficient to continue to propel sales growth. The sales training company is brought in to effect some change, usually a behavioral change, in the participating sales people, to stimulate that sales growth.

ESR recommends that the first place to look when considering any degree of behavioral change is your sales methodology.  That’s the backbone on which all your processes, tools, training, hiring, measurement system, and sales approach will be built. Fix or replace the methodology first. If you don’t have a methodology, you will need to build one.  (Training your team on how to employ that methodology eventually follows.)  This is an old song, but everyone needs to hear it until they can sing along.

Change vs. Status Quo

By acknowledging the need for change, it’s important to understand the meaning of sales training program customization. There are two types of customization:

  1. Tailoring—adapting the training materials to reflect the sales organization’s products, services, sales force characteristics, as well as market and corporate specifics;
  2. Modification—altering the intellectual property of the sales training company resulting in different learnings, or modifying the instructional design of the program so that there is a core difference in the way the materials are presented.

Tailoring is almost always useful. Tailoring materials gets your company name in front of the sales people and personalizes the experience. Tailoring can replace canned, generic workshop examples with actual examples from your sales force’s existing pipeline, or recent wins or losses, personalizing the experience and maximizing the probability that the sales person will identify with the program. Tailoring, if limited to phrasing, word usage, workshops and case study examples, is often helpful.

Modification is a two-edged sword. Modification can be helpful if there are processes within your sales organization that you know factually and empirically work, and if you can separate these working best practices from those processes which you know, or suspect, may be constraining your sales growth.

The Risk of Modification

Modification carries a potential risk—LCD—”lowest common denominator.”  There is an observable tendency among course and methodology modifiers, resulting from pressure from certain stakeholders, to fine tune the new methods and processes taught in the course materials to such an extent that they are “devolved” into a mere reflection of the existing, flawed sales methodology. Customizing course materials to make the program “more like our business environment” can effectively negate the original objective of the program, which was to effect behavioral change.

With that in mind, ESR has recognized some leading sales training companies for their very effective approaches to modification.

Avoiding “Devolution”

How do you avoid “devolution” in your customized sales training programs?  Four considerations:

  1. Invest in a comprehensive, objective assessment of the performance of your sales team—know very specifically what works and what doesn’t;
  2. When documenting and implementing best practices, make sure that you have empirical metrics that denote that those practices do, in fact, stimulate behaviors that increase sales;
  3. Evaluate your sales training company’s methods for modification of educational programs;
  4. Stick with tailoring of your training provider’s content, assuming you’ve selected the right partner.

Number three is important. Some sales training organizations resist modification of their programs at all.  Some have a core set of learnings that are assembled and designed around a study of your organization’s best practices. Others have designed proprietary systems or methodologies for modifying course materials that are specifically designed to maximize the value of nomenclature tailoring, while minimizing the probability that the structural integrity of a course will be damaged by the customization effort.

My recommendation is this: Don’t make a snap decision on either a trainer or on your customization approach.  Do you have to spend all this time and effort figuring this out?  Only if you want to get it right.

Source:  The Value and Perils of Customized Training, an ESR/Insight™ Brief.

Photo credit: © bugman – Fotolia.com

ESR’s Sales Training Vendor Guide Published Today

ESR’s Sales Training Vendor Guide: Third Edition was published this morning.

The Guide analyzes, compares, and contrasts 23 leading sales training providers across many areas including:

  • Solutions Range
  • Range of Target Companies
  • Range of Target Audiences
  • Range of Training Programs
  • Adaptability
  • Range of Instructional Aids & Tools
  • Quality of Instructional Design
  • Measurement Programs
  • Post-training Reinforcement
  • Supporting Technology
  • Yield Growth
  • Return-On-Training (ROT)
  • Utilization among sales teams
  • Ease of Learning/Adoption

The Guide weighs in at more than 150 pages with 40 graphs and charts.

Based upon pre-publication sales, I believe this edition of the Guide is going to be the most widely appreciated and used to date.

You can learn more and order here.

Sales Playbooks

A few weeks ago the folks at Kadient briefed me on their approach and their sales performance improvement tools.  As you would expect, I posed the chicken-and-egg question with respect to what order a company should implement Kadient’s tools versus installing and implementing a sales methodology.  I liked their answers.

I picked up a tweet from Kadient’s Rich Berkman (@richberk) last week about a new guide they had just published, How to Create Killer Sales Playbooks: Four Steps for Designing Sales Playbooks that Win Deals.

Just from the title, I was immediately encouraged.  Here’s why:

  1. I believe in sales playbooks. I’ve used them and have recommended them to clients, who generally saw significant performance improvement;
  2. “Four Steps” represents process and sales leaders and sales people can often use a lot more of that;
  3. The guide is focused on winning deals.

I downloaded the guide and read through it.   These guys from Kadient get it.  Here’s a quote from the guide (with permission).  Highlights are mine:

Whether you decide to begin with a top-down or bottom-up approach, your playbooks should be aligned with your sales process.

“But, wait,” you say. “We don’t have a sales process!” This is a very common situation. Chances are that you do have some process or steps that define the stages of your sales cycle. Sales playbooks are an excellent organizational hub for defining them. Also, every organization has successful salespeople who are following their own processes.

If you don’t have a defined process, you can still get started quickly by defining a baseline set of sales stages and then using playbooks as your organizing tool for its development. Focus on mapping out your existing sales-to-buyer lifecycle or process. Some of the most successful playbooks have been those designed from a blank slate or ones in which it was decided that the sales process would be reinvented through the use of sales playbooks.

If you have a sales process (or multiple ones), align it with your customers’ buying cycle and create a map for your sales playbook. The goal is to stimulate a conversation between seller and buyer-the seller diagnosing the buyer’s needs and then providing the buyer with the right information at the right time.

In addition to directing salespeople to what they should do at each stage of the sales cycle, mapping will also identify specific activities that need to be completed to advance deals. This should illustrate how your sales teams engage with customers at every stage of the buying process.

You can download the guide here (registration required).  I highly recommend it.

Photo credit: © Sharpshot – Fotolia.com

My Interview with SMT

I was recently interviewed by Lori Champion from SMT (The Professional Society for Sales & Marketing Training) as part of the ramp-up for their annual conference in Orlando October 14 – 16, 2009.  I’ll be keynoting at the event.  The topic will be Sales Excellence 2012: Overcoming Tough Obstacles,  Achieving Measurable Results.

Lori’s interview begins:

What do a CEO, a Trumpet player, a computer software programmer, a VP of Sales, and an expert in landing “very big contracts” have in common? They describe the background of one man and he is Dave Stein! Let’s add “Opening Key Note Speaker” to the list. He is, after all the Key Note for SMT’s 2009 annual conference in Orlando, Florida this October.

I had the privilege of sitting down and speaking with Dave about a week ago. I wanted to find out more about this very versatile CEO who will be addressing us this fall.

Dave Stein is the CEO and Founder of Massachusetts based ES Research Group, Inc. (ESR) which provides Gartner-style, independent advice about sales training programs, sales performance improvement tools and approaches. It also does  evaluations and comparisons of the companies that provide them.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Powering Through The Economic Crisis

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting less frequently during the past two weeks.  ESR is in the midst of a number of projects and new initiatives.  In addition, I’ve been on an increasing number of phone calls with clients, prospects, vendors, sales training associations’ leadership, and business associates.

I wrote Here’s What’s Going On two weeks ago.  There has been lots of activity (and some productivity, as well!) since then.

Here are some points, observations, and opinions I’ve taken from my activities over the past few weeks:

  1. I read all the news.  I understand the economic situation.  But deals are getting done.  Four of ESR’s clients I spoke with yesterday are cautiously optimistic about their Q1 numbers. They’re winning business.  A few others are struggling.  But the point is, there is still business going on.

  2. At the moment, ESR believes sales training will be down twenty or more percent in 2009.  If we don’t hit bottom and come out the other end of this situation soon, that number could go down much further.  That’s bad news for a lot of reasons.

  3. As a result of the slowdown in training, many of the sales training companies we cover have been hit hard.  They’ve significantly reduced their staffs and slowed or stopped development.  If you’re engaging with a sales training company, you really need to understand their current financial situation.  ESR isn’t interested in advertising which firms are having trouble.  But we do guide our clients in the right direction, helping them figure out how to mitigate any associated risks.

  4. We’ve convinced a number of our clients to redeploy salespeople who aren’t suited for the sales positions they hold.  By that I mean performing a comprehensive assessment of their past and current performance, their skills, traits and behaviors against what is required to comply with and execute their selling process.  Relative to that, I recently did a briefing call with DDI.  They’re a leader in the talent management and assessment area.  I’ve written about PIWorldwide as well.  HR Chally is another solid alternative.  Now, more than ever, every company, even the smallest, needs to have a talent management/assessment firm partner with a sales specialty.

  5. Under Brian Lambert’s leadership, ASTD is making significant progress in the sales training discipline.  Brian has a lot to offer the industry. I sit on the ASTD sales training committee along with a number of very experienced and professional consultants, trainers and practitioners.  (Al Case, ESR’s Principal Analyst, and I will be presenting at ASTD’s Conference in June.  The subject:  How to Measure Sales Performance Improvement.)

  6. We’ve had a record number of inquiries come in during the past month from people charged with driving sales training initiatives within their companies.  The common theme is that they have to “get it right this time. ”  They can’t waste any more money on ineffective training and, with this economy, they’ve got to get their salespeople bringing in as much business as possible.  Even with overall sales training down, this is encouraging.  Several of those people are charged with moving their companies from positions of commodity to value providers.  A bit late for that, but better late than never.

  7. With the last point in mind, Irish sales trainer, coach and consultant Niall Devitt wrote a post this week that describes precisely how sales leaders go about buying sales training the wrong way.  The post, entitled Need Sales Training? Let’s Sit Down and Talk About It is well worth reading.   Niall sets an example for sales trainers as well.  I commend him on his understanding of how sales performance improvement should be approached and his integrity for not folding, even with money on the table during these tough times.

  8. Louise Leonard, program manager for The Dublin Institute of Technology and Enterprise Ireland’s International Selling Programme, sent me a list of sales-related concerns expressed by the sales executives and CEOs who are participating in the program.  I’ll be addressing many of them during upcoming two-week, five-seminar trip to Ireland.  Although Ireland is plowing through their own set of economy-related challenges, the International Selling Programme has  a record number of participants this year.  Better attendance at each of the sessions as well.  This program is a seriously good place for Irish companies to be investing their money.

Photo: © 2004 Dave Stein — MacGregor Powering Through a Summer Day

ESR’s Approach For A Sales Performance Improvement Initiative

As ESR is completing our Sales Training Vendor Guide we are updating a number of our models.  Here is a presentation of our sales training approach model that we deliver to project teams tasked with finding, evaluating, and selecting sales training companies. The content is based upon work we’ve done with clients during the past two years.

As you can see, the process is considerably more comprehensive than you might think. Clients ask us, “Do we really have to do all this just to do some sales training?” Our answer is, “Only if you want it to work.” (Thanks, John Zobel.)

Here’s another taste of what’s in our Guide:



If you’d like to speak with us about how we support our clients through this process, let me know.

Resources: