The Importance of Selection

The Importance of Selection

Any major change in the sales organization may require a new kind of sales resource to deliver on it. Sometimes this is achieved through upgrading the skills of the current sales teams. In other cases, a more dramatic restructuring is undertaken. Krishnamurthy (2002) indicates that large-scale changes, such as a move to solution selling, could require an organization to replace more than 50 percent of its existing product sales force within the first 12 months. In fact, they estimate less than a third of a product-oriented sales team will be able to make the leap to solution sales. Given the constant change referred to throughout this text and the magnitude of it, it is not surprising that there is a continuous focus on finding talent within all of the sales organizations we spoke with. Even in recent times when job seekers were in great supply, being able to properly support strategies with qualified resources was never far from the minds of sales leaders. Noted one, “One thing we’ve got to work on is making sure that our people don’t get poached by the competition. It’s always a possibility, always a worry.”

Combining the fact that sales is traditionally a high turnover function with a view of the significant investment required to recruit, it is clearly critical to reduce the risk in hiring decisions and earn a better return on personnel investments. As such, a strategic approach to salesperson selection is a must.

Selection methods vary by organization. There is no one way that has been scientifically proven to guarantee or come close to ensuring a successful hire. Primarily, organizations will utilize personal interviewing in combination with other methods to make decisions about whether to bring someone into the sales organization. In fact, Randall (2001) includes interviewing, biodata collection, assessment centers, recommendation letters, reference checks, handwriting analysis, personality testing, and even blood type inferences among methods used today. Because there is no clear-cut best practice, the magic then is not in any particular selection methodology but in ensuring that it is tied to a clear set of competencies and job profiles. Are you hiring people who are or can be Business Consultants? Are you prepared to help them make the journey? As one sales manager lamented, “For years we hired the wrong people and wasted time trying to coach and develop people who couldn’t be developed.” More succinctly put by another manager, “Put an idiot in training and get a trained idiot.”

Training to Develop New Skill Sets

In addition, many organizations will approach an initiative to reskill the sales force by instituting formal training and development functions. At present though, The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) estimates that only 39 percent of U.S. companies provide sales training to their selling organizations. Even then, training often is focused on product knowledge—even at the expense of selling skills and sales processes. While product knowledge is certainly a critical element of selling, it can be costly to use it as a replacement for interpersonal skills, financial acumen, or other needed competencies. In fact, in a study of training effectiveness, Dubinsky (1996) indicated that a greater proportion of product knowledge did not increase the impact of sales training.

The organizations in our study took a variety of approaches to sales training—some had integrated curricula while others did spot training on an ad hoc basis; some focused on supporting ongoing skill development while others concentrated mainly on new hires; some delivered exclusively product knowledge training while others delivered a variety of product knowledge, interpersonal skills, and technical training.

Ideally, organizations are moving toward an integrated, ongoing, multilayered curriculum. However, given the environment in which salespeople operate, creating a learning and development culture—much less executing a single training initiative— can be quite challenging. Sales training needs to provide value greater than the opportunity costs of being out of the field, in addition to delivery and personnel costs. It should be implemented to address a varied audience, often geographically dispersed and with a variety of backgrounds and learning styles. Furthermore, it should concentrate on skills and processes that can be immediately applied in the field, facilitated by someone who has sales experience. Anything that is perceived as being academic or too theoretical will never live beyond the classroom (or the Web module). As Wilson (2002) notes, if training content and selling environment are misaligned or disconnected, the ability to transfer training to on-the-job performance improvement will suffer significantly.

Even meeting all of these requirements won’t ensure success. If we look at interpersonal skills or sales processes as an example (like the competencies mentioned in this chapter), a structured approach is required. In fact, our experience has shown that to increase the likelihood of behavior change, a learner needs to go through the following series of five phases that occur before, during, and after what is traditionally considered “training”:

  1. Commit to learn. Learners must open themselves to new possibilities and resolve to master and apply essential skills. This is facilitated through program elements, such as prework and opening exercises, that help participants understand how skill and behavior changes could benefit them.

  2. Assess current performance. Recognizing and monitoring performance gaps motivates learners and helps them focus their efforts. This gap analysis can be accomplished through manager observations or self-observations and by utilizing the assessment and measurement tools incorporated into your organization’s training programs.

  3. Acquire knowledge. Within the training program itself, a varierty of methods and tools (video, reading, dicussion, observation, analysis, etc.) are used to assist the learner in acquiring knowledge and understanding specific skills.

  4. Develop competency through practice. If knowledge is skillsbased, then it has to be practiced. This can include practicing technical skills (e.g., flight simulators). The training of interpersonal skills on the other hand (e.g., selling skills) requires practicing live with humans. This can take place within the training programs themselves or during live follow-up sessions (face-to-face or by using teleconference or synchronous Web capabilities).

  5. Apply new training. A range of application and reinforcement tools—peer- and manager-led discussions, planners, and job aids—can be used to give learners the clarity needed to apply skills to real-life situations. Further, managers of learners can reinforce and sustain skill and knowledge application through coaching, recognition of use, and consistent modeling in their own interactions.

For example, a sales training intervention regarding account management might look something like Figure 6.1.

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Figure 6.1: How a Learner Might Move through the Learning Formula Phases

As you can see, there is clearly much more to development than just sending a salesperson to a class or providing access to a Web module. However, most organizations approach learning and development in a fragmented manner—leadership training is conducted by Human Resources, sales skills training by the sales or marketing departments, product knowledge training by the Marketing department or from vendors, and technical training from yet another functional area. As a result, most focus is spent on the Acquire and Develop phases, while little is spent on the rest. In fact, a recent survey of 300 sales executives (Galea 2002) reported that over half (57 percent) indicated that they were not aware of measurement systems associated with training in their organizations.