How Long Does It Take to Develop a Modern Sales Force

The Gist:

  • There is a tendency to treat training as if it were development.
  • Development may start with training, but it shouldn’t end there.
  • Like any craft, development takes time and experience.

In the past, a plan to develop a sales force would have started—and ended—with a single day of sales training. There is still a lot to be said for all-day training sessions, since focusing on one area of sales can provide new strategies and tactics that can improve results, especially if the sales force replaces their legacy approach to B2B sales with a modern approach.

The reason you do any training is to immerse yourself in the topic, but don’t forget that the knowledge transfer needs to be followed by competency transfer. Competency transfer is more difficult, and it takes more time and effort. While training is a critical component to development, development requires much more, including more time.

A sales manager attempts a knowledge transfer with her sales force

Day One: Knowledge Transfer and Role-Playing

The reason knowledge transfer is first on this list is because most of us are challenged by two things: 1) we don’t know what we don’t know, and 2)  unless we know how we need to change our approach, we lack the option to do something different. Knowledge transfer itself is relatively easy and it scales nicely, allowing you to do it in a classroom format. It’s a good place to start development, but a terrible place to end. True development requires more.

The reason to use role-playing, exercises, and simulations in training is that it forces the trainees to experience what they’re being taught, so they can get comfortable with the strategies, tactics, and talk tracks. This points towards competency transfer, but even though it is useful, it rarely creates that competency on its own.

Day Two and Beyond: Dialing in Learning Outcomes

After training, the new knowledge has to be converted into behaviors that the trainees use in the field. At one time, sales leaders and sales managers would have just checked the box: sign the form attesting that they had provided training, hand in the form to Human Resources, and let their employees figure everything out on their own. Unfortunately, while checking the box is necessary, it does nothing to enable competency transfer.

Sales leaders and sales managers are responsible for ensuring that their sales forces use their newly acquired knowledge in the field. This is the beginning of competency transfer, something that only happens through experience. It is one thing to understand something, but competency means being able to execute what you have learned. That calls for time, energy, and experience.

A sales force commits to training modules at a meeting

Ongoing Accountability for Change

If you hear a sales leader say that “sales training” doesn’t work, it’s a safe bet that they didn’t hold their newly trained sales force accountable for changing their approach. The training didn’t fail the sales force, but training only sticks when you include accountability.

The development of a sales force is about transformation: moving the competencies, skills, and results from their current state to a better future state. No transformation is possible through knowledge transfer alone. Anyone who wants to lose weight already has the knowledge they need; what they don’t have is the changed behaviors. Without continuous use of that (or any) new knowledge, development is impossible.

Team Learning

Teams learn through meetings to discuss the new approaches—what’s working and what’s not working—and to explore how individual techniques allow for better execution. Learning something, using it, and discussing it with others who are doing the same thing helps transfer the competency from those who are succeeding to those who are still struggling.

It’s easy to underestimate the time it takes to gain competency, especially if you rely too much on knowledge transfer. Listening to others describe their changed behaviors can help you recognize the changes you might need to make to improve your own competency. It’s helpful to hear different people’s experiences, and it’s useful to have an idea of what good looks like.

A sales force focuses on training

Ongoing Coaching

Ongoing individual coaching helps unlock competency over time. Coaching helps competency transfer in two ways. First, it provides a process where a person who is struggling can acquire individual attention, in a format that recognizes their lack of competency as something that needs work to improve. Second, it demonstrates that the sales leaders and managers are genuinely committed to their employees’ development.

Some people will quickly master a competency while others need more time, more experience, and more coaching opportunities. This is the nature of competency: development is a process, not an event.

Enabling Competency Transfer

Ultimately, development is a commitment. It’s the idea that each person can grow and improve, moving closer to their full potential. That’s true in any craft, especially one as complex as a conversation with a prospective client around why they should change, how they should consider important decisions, what the change will require of them, and who to choose as a partner for that project. Navigating and facilitating those conversations calls for a set of competencies that legacy sales approaches simply don’t take into account.

Treating development as an ongoing process of continuous improvement is better than trusting a single training event to magically enable salespeople to have a complex, dynamic conversation with clients who need help improving their results.

Do Good Work:

  • Use training to provide knowledge transfer and to begin the work of executing new skills.
  • Use group meetings to help enable your team to better understand what good looks (and sounds) like, allowing them to dial in their approach.
  • Work towards the goal of competency over as long a period as it takes.

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