Changing the selling behavior of your sales team requires more than good leadership and training—you need the right change management tools, too.
By Kevin Temple
Your sales team is struggling to make their quota, or they aren’t selling new or acquired products, or they’re complaining market conditions are making it difficult to hit their numbers. So you select a sales trainer or sales methodology that taught you some powerful lessons somewhere along the way.
You set up the meeting place and communicate expectations. Your team shows up, albeit with a skeptical look on their faces. To your pleasure, and the trainer’s credit, the team is engaged by the material and becomes excited about the new lessons. The event is deemed a success. Your sales people jump on planes and rush back to their offices, and just a few short days later…they’re back to their old habits: same discussions, same contacts, and worst of all, the same results!
The successful transition of a sales team’s behavior doesn’t happen by accident. And it doesn’t occur because of a single successful training event. So how do you change their behavior, especially if your business is counting on the change? The complete answer depends on the size of your team, your company’s culture, the existing processes, and your leadership skills.
A sales team’s behavior transition is a challenge in change management. While there are many models for change management, the most commonly cited model is the ADKAR model:
• Awareness of why the change is needed
• Desire to support and participate in the change
• Knowledge of how to change
• Ability to implement new skills and behaviors
• Reinforcement to sustain the change
If you review the scenario painted at the beginning of this article, you’ll surmise the sales manager portrayed in the scenario unconsciously implemented the first three steps in this model (with the help of the sales trainer and some good curriculum). He or she acknowledged the problems preventing a successful outcome, and engaged an outside consultant to help instill desire and impart knowledge. But most sales training initiatives fail in the last two steps of the change management model: ability and reinforcement. Surely, if the training event was successful, they must be “able,” right? After all, wasn’t that the purpose of the sales training event?
Well, yes and no. The training event usually has exercises such as role-plays or analytical diagnosis designed into the curriculum to develop their ability. But that’s akin to having a teenager play a video game focused on driving, and then giving them the keys to the car for the first time. For the seller and the teenage driver, there is a follow up process—reinforcement—that requires observation and guidance.
Reinforcement is the practice of examination and review that brings core principles to light on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the reinforcement strategy of most sales managers consists of requiring the sales team to fill out the sales tool they used during the training event and submit it for review. While good in theory, this review usually consists of a quick read and very little, if any, feedback. At best this reinforcement strategy lasts for a month or two. There are several other reinforcement strategies that have longer sticking power and produce less grumbling than an added paperwork drill. The larger your sales team, and the more ingrained your current culture, the more you will have to do to support the development of their “Ability,” and provide more sufficient “Reinforcement” than a paper trail of sales tools.
The ability of the sales person to execute new sales behaviors is aided by role-plays in the classroom, however, real life throws more complications than can be modeled effectively in the classroom. The two most common real life impediments include the ingrained behavior of customers and the messaging of your company. Both factors push the sales person into dialogs about their solution. Further, just as in sports, certain key skills, or lack thereof, can prove the key to winning or losing.
So refining the development of your salespeople’s behavior is critical. Let’s start with what happens to the sales person when they leave the event and go back to their prospects or customers. The first challenge they encounter is the customer’s expectations for the sales dialog. They have been conditioned for years to steer the sales person into a dialog they can control—usually, a discussion about the seller’s product or service capabilities. If you’ve ever heard the request to “just tell us what your product does,” you know what I mean. Given the customer’s skill and relentless proclivity towards this type of dialog, the seller feels compelled to address their request, and unfortunately, usually gives up on the lessons they learned just a few days before.
How do they overcome this challenge? It takes effort, guidance, and teamwork—guidance and teamwork with their manager acting as their coach. So what happens if the manager has never implemented the new skills themselves? Does this prohibit their ability to coach effectively? The answer is they need to learn with the sales person. The book, “Credibility,” by Kouzes and Posner, cites discovery and developing capacity as two of the six key factors for developing credibility with your team. Taking the time to learn with your team, and develop skills together, adds to your credibility, their motivation to try it, and their ability to execute the new behavior. The sales manager that returns from the sales training event, and turns his team loose to execute on their own, can predict with certainty that most, if not all of the team, will regress to their previous modus operandi.
Do your sales tools support the new behaviors or reinforce the old behaviors? If you want your team to explore the business impact your solution can deliver to the customer, but your datasheets and corporate presentations spout mostly product or service capabilities, you’re encouraging the customer and the sales person to have the same old unproductive dialog. If their product training focuses on product capabilities versus customer challenges, then they will certainly fall into the trap of talking about the product capabilities. It’s as if your company set them up to fail.
The messaging of your sales support tools must align with the new behaviors you are seeking. If you want your sales people to call higher, your sales tools need to highlight the topics an executive cares about such as time to market, cost management, and competitive differentiation. If you want your people to introduce new products more effectively, your product training needs to be tuned for need creation—identifying where to find a problem to solve, not focused on a solution that has no problem tied to it.
Next on the list of “ability” is to diagnose the shortcomings of the team and address the identified areas with additional training or coaching. Let’s say you implement a sales methodology to move from a point product focus to a broad portfolio sale involving many of your products and services. After a short period of time, you take an inventory and notice a majority of your team implemented the new dialog, but they are having difficulty getting to the senior executives who oversee a broader problem set. The role of the leader driving a successful transition would be to schedule a focused skill building solution; whether to require the team to read a book on the subject, attend a more focused training on the subject, or bring in experienced subject matter experts to share their best practices.
In a nutshell, the ability of the seller to implement the desired behaviors is dependent on; 1) successfully navigating the customer pattern the first few times they attempt it—coaching them through the process; 2) inspecting sales tools and tweaking them to support the new behaviors; and 3), identifying any critical skills that need further development and focus.
So how do you reinforce and get a real picture of the sales person’s behavior?
Review the communications they’re sending to customers on a regular basis; e-mails, follow-up letters, proof of concept agreements, and proposal cover letters. All of these individual messaging elements give you insight into the behaviors of your sales people. If the proposal cover letter simply thanks the customer for the opportunity, and attaches a price quote, you can bet they didn’t talk much about the customer’s business challenge or the impact of not taking action. If the proof of concept agreement simply states the customer will be evaluating the software for 30 days, it’s likely they didn’t discuss what the customer will be evaluating, who will review the findings, or what the next step is after a positive outcome.
One of the most powerful reinforcement opportunities that occurs on a frequent and regular basis is the forecast discussion. Think of the opportunity to prepare the forecast while looking for the behaviors you desire. Consider adding a few questions to your forecast inspection to reinforce the new behaviors. I call these Level 1 reinforcement questions:
• What business initiative is compelling the customer to purchase a solution?
• What challenges are they facing that differentiate our solution?
• What is the impact if the customer doesn’t buy anything?
• Do we have a proof of concept agreement in writing?
• Do we have access to the person who ultimately signs off on the purchase requisition?
The idea is to consistently ask the same questions over and over again, until sales people realize they need to behave differently with customers in order to answer your questions with a positive result. Of course, you have to be careful to detect if they are telling you what you want to hear, so consider double-checking by asking Level 2 and Level 3 review questions:
• How do you know this information?
• Did the customer confirm this?
• Is it in writing?
• What’s the impact of not knowing this information?
• Was there any value in my questions?
• What was the value of my questions?
• What are you going to do next?
Culture and Team Size
As I mentioned earlier, culture and team size are relevant to the scope of the leadership challenge when transitioning a sales team. The bigger these factors, the more you have to pour into your transition leadership effort. While the examples I gave earlier work well for an individual manager with a team of fewer than ten sales people, the second or third level manager may have to consider applying more reinforcement and ability building initiatives to scale to the size of the organization. This has to happen to make up for some of the first level managers that don’t take a leadership role in the transition, and leave the leadership initiatives to the second and third level of management.
As for culture, consider the pressure you might feel from your peer group if you suddenly changed your hairstyle, clothing, and speech pattern. The larger the peer group, the more pressure there is to fit into the norm. There are many leadership initiatives that can be applied to overcome cultural inertia. A common cultural change practice is to change hiring practices to bring in outsiders who demonstrate the desired behaviors. Other initiatives include consciously changing reward and recognition practices, communication practices, or meeting agendas. The level of culture change sophistication needs to match the scope of your organization.
Kevin Temple is president and CEO of Enterprise Selling Group. To learn more, visit www.enterprise-selling.com.