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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422
612-978-3050

Developing Judgment as a Competitive Advantage

better training delivery changes how sales reps work with prospects

nutshell imageIn a Nutshell . . .

A human resources services company with offices around the world found it challenging to develop sales reps who could craft good opening proposals for new prospects. Their products were complex and most customers showed multiple needs in widely varying combinations. They needed sales reps to think flexibly and creatively, rather than depend on some foolproof formula to give them the one right answer (which didn't exist!).

They knew their message and their audience, but their delivery of the message was not effective.

A rich, realistic case study provided the crucial training tool to develop good sales judgment-- and the case study received a standing ovation from the trainees! These sales reps understood that while their competitors were trying to shoehorn prospects into "one size fits all" prefabricated solutions, they would be engaged in much more meaningful conversations with their prospects and customers.

Case Study Summary

Business Function:

The client provides sophisticated (and high-priced) human resource functions in locations around the world (offices in 16 countries). Services include employee selection, executive coaching, team building, employee development programs (including custom software), advice on employee retention, and any custom service industrial psychologists could offer.

They Said:

Every sale is a custom sale. Products and services can be mixed and customized in countless ways.

The client had delivered, with my help, specific training on individual services, but they still found it difficult to coach sales reps in getting started with a new client. Which service do you pitch first, which ones do you bring into the relationship later? How do you bundle things for maximum appeal and impact?

Every prospect presents a different situation, so there are no standard solutions, and it takes a long time for sales reps to learn how to read needs and opportunities and respond effectively.

My Take:

The best solution for the complexity of the task their sales reps perform is to reproduce that complexity, as briefly and efficiently as possible, in training. They needed new ways to deliver their training that more accurately reflected the real world of these sales representatives.

Solution:

I created a complex case study that presented a real life situation -- a merger of two companies with quite different cultures -- in ways that allowed for multiple successful approaches to the prospect.

Sales representatives -- experienced and new -- read this case study in evening team work sessions and drafted the proposal they would take to the prospect. The next morning, they presented their proposals to a panel of sales, product, and marketing management. They clearly outlined what products and services they would recommend to the prospect, with prices, timelines, and all the elements of a real proposal.

Outcome:

For the client: the discussion between the sales reps being trained and the managers was very rich, focusing on options and choices, rather than pat solutions. Sales reps then approached their prospects with a customer-centric point of view, listening and diagnosing prospect needs, instead of the product-based point of view they had formerly used to little effect.

For me: One of the participants stood up and talked about how much he appreciated having a rich, realistic case study for that discussion. When he said that, the other trainees stood up and applauded the case study!

Avoiding the Middle of the Road . . .

Let's look at two ends of a spectrum of case study complexity:

  1. Narrowly Focused case studies that lead to the right answer.
  2. Rich, Complex case studies that permit multiple approaches and solutions.

I'd argue that most case studies used in training should fall into one or the other of these two categories, and that too many of them actually end up somewhere in between.

The Virtue of Drill

Practice, practice, practice. Learning to recognize a situation or a significant cue, quickly and correctly calculating a result or a course of action, and many other basic job functions benefit enormously from repetition.

You want employees to practice some responses in a safe environment until the correct action is rapid and automatic, before they start giving those responses to customers or other significant players in your operations.

For that purpose, simple case studies that provide clear and quick feedback on the response are powerful tools. Try to strip out everything that doesn't pertain directly to the situation and the response.

And aim for quantity. Using many simple case studies focused on one teaching point is much more effective than giving them a case study that tries to address a couple of points at the same time. Train one part of the response with one set of tools, and when that response is good, work on the next component.

Developing Judgment

The other end of the spectrum, the rich, complex case study that doesn't point directly to a single, compact "right answer", develops a frequently overlooked, but crucial, employee attribute: judgment!

Maybe you're lucky. Maybe you're in a business where the best answer can always be generated directly by a procedure, a manual, a table or spreadsheet, or an algorithm. More realistically, most of the business world deals with human customers, suppliers, and employees in complex situations where there are no automatic answers, and getting a really good answer, much less a perfect one, depends on someone making judgments, someone making and implementing strategies and decisions without an ironclad guarantee that it is the one right way to proceed.

Not surprisingly, these skills are often underdeveloped in employees. This is a little messier, and just a little scarier, than working on a problem that has a known right answer. But more often than not, the judgment of the employees is a big differentiator between competing organizations.

The only way to develop experience with complex situations that don't generate automatic, unique solutions is to encounter those situations and learn from them. And that is most safely done with a case study, before playing with real money.

That means the case study has to be sufficiently rich, and, face it, sufficiently flexible and ambiguous, to allow different employees to come up with different "right" answers.

Why This Worked For This Client

The client was very happy with this case study. What made it work?

  • The case study itself presented more opportunities (from my client's perspective) and more needs (from their client's perspective) than could be addressed in the initial proposal with any realistic chance of making a sale. That forced tradeoffs and real decisions. If it had been narrower in scope, everyone would have picked the same "safe" answers, and little would have been learned.
  • The managers who evaluated the proposals were committed to highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, rather than saying whether the proposal was right or wrong.
  • By hearing other solutions, all trainees learned several possible approaches to common client situations. They felt, at the end of training, that if one route into the client's trust was not open, another one might be.
  • It simulated real life. The sales rep teams had to choose to promote one service before another, postpone some opportunities for later, look at long-term relationship development beyond the immediate sale. Their ability to do all of those things with a real client was greatly enhanced by making tough decisions in a safe environment, and getting feedback from more experienced sales reps and managers on their ideas.

In the end, by the way, management was surprised and pleased by some of the creative solutions the sales reps offered -- great ideas the managers themselves might not have discovered without this exercise.

It Takes a Little Courage . . .

Developing judgment in your employees can post a huge return on your investment in their training. But it takes a little guts.

You have to be ready to accept two different answers as great answers to the same question. Not everyone is ready to do that, but when people get that kind of feedback and support from their managers and trainers, it opens the door to a tremendous competitive advantage, delivered by vastly more effective employees.

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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