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Robots are not the answer to IT sales success

NATURAL TRAINING

ARTICLE FOR IT TRAINING MAGAZINE

BY PAUL OWEN

Robots are not the answer to IT sales success

Analysts are forecasting higher IT spending in 2011, but they caution that demand could still falter in the uncertain economic climate. It is therefore vital for IT sales teams to be on top form to capitalise on available business opportunities.  But, after a tough recession, many vendors need a fresh approach to training if their sales people are to achieve peak performance. Paul Owen, managing director of Natural Training, offers five tips to get the best results from your sales training.

According to Gartner’s latest forecast, worldwide enterprise IT spending will total $3.6 billion this year, a 5.1% increase on spending in 2010. Gartner expects telecoms equipment, computing hardware and software vendors to perform particularly well in 2011.

However, before we take too much encouragement from this news, Gartner’s analysts also warn that the picture could change for the worse if already-sluggish US and European economic growth weakens and emerging economies are unable to sustain their higher growth rates.

In the UK, vendors face additional challenges from the cost-cutting of the coalition government, which has pledged to reduce spending on IT projects and services by more than £1 billion over the next four years.

Given this backdrop, technology firms will expect sales people to show their mettle to win as many orders as possible and help regain lost sales momentum. But how able are sales people to meet this challenge, and how can their employers help them succeed?

The effect of the recession

Selling is one of the most pressured and accountable areas of professional life. The challenge of selling can be particularly daunting for ‘inside’ sales teams who are responsible for cold-calling prospects by phone and are denied the feedback of face-to-face contact. The confidence of many inside sales professionals has taken a hit during the recession because of the higher rate of knockbacks encountered, so employers should consider how best to equip their people for the task ahead.

It is important that sales people be trained in the products or services they are selling. Although the skills of selling are notionally transferable between industries, a degree of technical understanding is essential when representing complex offerings to specialist audiences. This principle is as true for inside sales people as for field-based professionals who sell to the customer in person.

More fundamentally, however, many vendors could benefit by rethinking the assumptions that underlie their sales training, concepts that may have been unchallenged for decades.

Treat sales people as individuals

In many organisations, there persists a belief that there is such a thing as a ‘model sales person’. I take no issue with this idea, provided that ‘model’ behaviour is seen more in the results a person achieves than in precisely how they conduct themselves. Unfortunately, however, many managers still believe that a prescribed set of actions, if followed to the letter by all sales people, should yield roughly identical results. This is the school of thought that says: ’John Smith was a great salesman and he talked to customers in such a way. If everyone in our sales department talks the same way, we’ll have 20 John Smiths.’ The training that flows from this perspective is little more than a simplistic attempt to build and replicate the perfect sales robot.

This enthusiasm for mass-production, perhaps understandable in the post-war industrial era, no longer bears great scrutiny today. For many vendors, such a training approach tends to create sales people uncomfortable and unconvincing in their calls, who ultimately underperform against targets. Often, this failure arises because sales people are self-consciously acting out a script. In contrast, some of the most successful IT firms today, who routinely outsell their competitors, have embraced a very different training philosophy that puts the uniqueness of the individual at its heart.

One only has to watch an episode of the hit BBC television series The Apprentice to appreciate that sales people vary enormously in their personalities. Although in the last series not everyone warmed to the bombast of Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs, he achieved many of the sales goals set for him. Arguably, however, it was the more understated and natural style of Liz Locke and Stella English that proved more successful. As we are used to telling our children, people are at their best with others, and likeliest to achieve their goals, when they are ‘being themselves’. It therefore follows that training yields a far greater return on investment when it harnesses the personality and knowledge of the trainee rather than suppressing them.

Taking this belief as a starting point, here are five recommendations for improving the effectiveness of your sales training in 2011:

Always remember you are training sales people. Even though they differ as individuals, most sales people share certain qualities. They thrive on challenge, competition and rapid feedback, and dislike abstract theories. The entire training experience must therefore be built with those requirements in mind if it is to engage and motivate the trainees. Make each session as interactive as possible, with a minimum of classroom time and a maximum of hands-on learning.

Give trainees a framework, not a script. Trainees need to learn a framework of effective sales techniques, but should be free to adapt these methods to their personal style. Whether it is structuring the opening of a sales call or devising a voicemail message that a customer will return, thoughts must be expressed in a way that sounds natural. A customer’s receptiveness quickly evaporates when a sales person transparently follows a script. The trainee is therefore best-placed to judge how sales techniques should be employed, not the trainer.

Work in small groups. We have all endured traditional classroom sessions where a trainer stands before a large group and operates principally in ‘transmit’ mode, learning little about the class. The outcome is seldom satisfactory for the trainees or, indeed, the trainer. By working instead with small groups (no more than eight trainees to one coach) the group dynamic changes entirely and offers the trainer the insights needed to understand each trainee’s needs.

Don’t teach people what they already know. Conventional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching tends to entail working through a list of best practice recommendations until the trainer reaches the end, regardless of whether the class has heard the ideas many times before. This approach is an excellent way to fill time and send an audience to sleep, but does little to change behaviours. Instead, use the small-group format to establish where trainees actually need help and focus the training on those areas.

Make the experience real. Nothing sears a lesson into the mind quite like a real-world triumph. Therefore, replace role-play and hypothesis with actual sales encounters, such as live calling sessions. Keep score of each trainee’s hit-rate during the day and give this feedback to the entire group to fuel their excitement, rivalry and hunger for success.

Paul Owen is managing director of Natural Training, the award-winning IT sales training firm. www.naturaltraining.com

Natural Training has a range of sales training courses available in the UK, London and Europe.

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