Everything we do in business involves collaboration, problem solving and negotiation, and you can’t do any of those without understanding the perspective of your counterparts and helping them all to get on the same page. Establishing a common perception of and agreement to the needs, constraints and solutions is what vision building is all about. It is also a central skill in selling and in training.
Many skills, and knowledge itself, are depreciating assets – whatever I know today, and much of what I can do today, is likely to be irrelevant tomorrow. That doesn’t mean these things are not worth learning, because we all make a living in the present.
But there are certain core skills that serve us well throughout our lives because they are valid, irrespective of context. Those skills include many of the so-called soft skills that senior management dislikes spending money on because they are so hard to pin to a particular project: communication, analytical thinking, problem solving, decision making, leadership and selling. These are the skills that have the broadest impact and longest payback period in any organization, and for any individual. Selling skills in particular should be an enterprise-wide requirement.
Before I became one myself, I used to think that salespeople were about the lowest form of life in the enterprise pond. And there is a reason why so many salespeople are abhorred by their prospective customers – they do not understand their role and have not learned the skills needed to fulfill it.
One of the best ways to learn is to teach. I am forever grateful that my first manager, decades ago, was perceptive enough to make me put my money where my arrogant newly-graduated mouth was. If you are such a marketing know-it-all, he said, you can put together a training program to get all of your more experienced colleagues up to par.
That is when I started learning how little of real value I actually had in my head, and discovered how complex the real world can be. We were in the business of providing long-term market research and consultancy. The conventional wisdom in the company was that the more you knew about marketing and the markets the better able you were to sell, so training had been focused on developing that knowledge. But the business results were mixed. Level Fours are easy to gauge in sales training – if you are not signing contracts, your training has failed.
After accompanying a number of people on sales calls, it slowly dawned on me that the people closing deals had an intimate understanding not of the markets in which their prospects operated but of the prospects themselves. They sought to understand the people and their concerns and motivations, as well as the needs of their companies, and were able to comfortably hold penetrating conversations with them about those issues.
And often it helped to not know much about the particular market, because then the quest for understanding was real. Those who “knew it all” were less successful – they were show-and-tell salespeople, intent on impressing the client with their expertise, and focused on talking them into a buying decision. The best salespeople intuitively used a customer-centric process, had an unquenchable interest in learning from their clients, and sought to craft solutions that would work to mutual advantage.
That there are communication skill processes that can be defined, taught, and applied irrespective of context was a revelation to me at the time. Soon afterward I discovered commercial sales training packages that did a good job of helping people internalize and habituate those processes, and I have been a selling skills advocate ever since.
It is baffling to me that, in most companies, selling skills training is considered to be relevant only to sales people. Other employees may not be selling products, but they are selling ideas every day. In those companies where I have implemented programs for non-salespeople (for example project managers, creative teams, ISD people, or IT staff), the impact on their ability to achieve their own objectives while delighting their internal clients has been immediate. But often these programs have to be positioned with care, because most people do not see themselves as needing to learn how to sell.
Trainers (other than sales trainers) tend to be the last to want to develop their own selling skills. There is an almost visceral aversion to the very notion of trainers selling their services. This is based on the perception that selling is all about arm-twisting and pushing product.
But consultative selling skills are a long way from the techniques employed by sleazy used car salesmen and over-eager LMS vendors. If trainers, and training departments, were better skilled in dealing with their clients we’d see a lot less order-taking, more effectively conceived interventions, and a better class of service being provided. This would build the respect, credibility, and perceived ROI of the training organization. In turn, the role of the trainer as consultant would be reinforced. That is an upward spiral that can only be good for any organization.