When it comes to reskilling the sales force, a strategic approach is required, starting with an overarching vision and ending up with integration and alignment among selection, training and development, performance management, competency assessment, compensation, and other human resources systems. The following is a best practice process for how such change can be enacted. Many of the organizations in our study were reexamining their competency models and job profiles in such a manner in order to achieve a new level of selling ability in the fields.
The first step is to take a step back. Selling organizations need to determine what kinds of relationships they are trying to create and with what kinds of clients. This involves formally identifying and documenting the sales process for each target audience. Although it may sound simple, creating a sales process is an important activity that involves many parts of the organization—sales, marketing, and customer service, along with customers themselves. Once you have agreed on how relationships should be created with customers, you can break down the process into the following phases:
Engage. This is the first interaction with the customer to qualify the customer as a prospect (or an opportunity) and gain an initial appointment.
Analyze. This step involves needs analysis; ask questions to understand the customer’s situation.
Recommend. Here you propose an appropriate solution based on the information collected.
Implement. At this stage, you get acceptance and implement the solution for the customer.
Maintain. Here you continue to build the customer relationship postsale.
After you have identified the sales process and broken it in to discrete phases, you should go back and think about what kinds of resources would be required to create the desired relationships. In some cases, it may make the most sense to have one type of resource assigned to manage the entire process. For example, you might find that a key account manager might be necessary for all of the phases when building relationships with large global accounts. In other cases, relationships might best be constructed and managed using multiple resources. For example, if we use the above process as a guide, an inside sales group could manage the engage phase, a territory rep for the analyze, recommend, and implement phases, and a dedicated inside salesperson for the maintain phase.
With the resources identified, it’s time to create job profiles for each. This will be based on an analysis of the sales process— what each resource should be doing at each phase of the process, and what characteristics will lead to success. Identifying competencies can be an involved process. Often it is accomplished through detailed studies whereby the top and bottom performing tiers of a sales force are observed and tested. Comparing the backgrounds, skills, attributes, and behaviors of the two groups and correlating the differences to a differential in success leads to an identification of key competencies. Sometimes, organizations are able to use general competency models (such as the Salesperson Competency Assessment found in Appendix B) that are derived from multi-industry studies and observations. For example, if we think about the salesperson who handles the engage phase of the sales process above, that individual should be:
Knowledgeable of how to conduct precall research
Able to prioritize prospecting activities based on the sales strategy
Able to initiate conversations with customers
Adept at keeping customer’s attention during conversations
Able to successfully close calls by making appointments
Able to convey familiarity with common industry issues
Persistent and resilient
Able to use clear and concise communication skills (particularly over the phone)
Once the competencies have been identified, it becomes important to look at them as a set. Which are more advanced than the others? How might individuals progress from one job profile to another? Are there needs for levels within the job profiles (e.g., account executive, senior account executive, etc.)? This helps facilitate the use of the profiles for career planning and selection and helps determine the sequencing of development activities in an integrated curriculum.
In order for people to move among roles in the sales organization, they will need to be able to assess their own abilities against those required in the job profile. This is done in a collaborative manner between a salesperson and the sales manager, including ongoing coaching sessions as well as regular performance reviews. Unfortunately, performance management is not always linked with job profiles and as a result becomes more of a paper-pushing exercise than a development activity. In fact, in CLO Magazine, Brennan (2004) recently conducted a study into the character of performance management activities that pointed out that although almost every respondent (99 percent) indicated that their organization used performance reviews, 61 percent said that such reviews “do not really influence the training and development that employers offer.” Further, the study indicated that only slightly more than half (55 percent) of respondents felt like their performance management system “integrates organizational goals, individual competencies, and ongoing employee development plans.”
Training and development activity should be linked directly to the competencies and job profiles identified as necessary for executing the sales strategy. Full curricula can be created that are aimed specifically at improving the sales force’s ability to deliver on its role in creating relationships. As individuals are coached by their managers, they will then be able to determine, on an individual basis, which training activities might be the most beneficial in helping them improve performance in their role. Further, they can determine which programs might help them become better suited for other job profiles.
Additionally, job profiles should be integrated into the selection process. Using these profiles can help in all of the selection methods previously described. This is critically important, because not all people are right for all roles—despite an investment in training. In some cases, the time and resources needed to get an individual to more closely match a job profile may be unrealistic. Furthermore, not all attributes that are uncovered in the competency studies and job profiling will be trainable—some you will have to hire for.
Another support system that has to be closely integrated into the competency and job profile work is the compensation and incentive system. Too frequently, organizations reward people for behaviors that are contrary to their roles and to the relationships they are trying to build with clients. Therefore, compensation systems must reflect competencies listed for each profile as well as the progression in difficulty from one job profile to another (e.g., from account manager to senior account manager).
One of the biggest takeaways from this study is that nothing is ever (or should ever be) set in stone when it comes to the sales organization. As it becomes increasingly difficult to create and maintain customer relationships, particularly those that are based on becoming a trusted business advisor, competencies will need to be revisited. Therefore, the systems and processes for selecting and developing the sales force will need to be revisited on a regular basis. The need for ongoing change and flexibility should be embedded in them.