Commercial skills: Making the rest as good as the best


Francis Marshall, MD of Cegos UK, looks at the importance of developing commercial skills

francis-marshall-400The development of commercial skills needs to feature higher up the business agenda
Diagnostic mapping is key in defining the strengths and weaknesses of teams
How to overcome some of the challenges of training sales teams

Strong commercial skills can make the difference between success and failure in today’s business environment, yet I am starting to question whether enough is actually being done to develop key skills such as sales, negotiation and customer relationship management – all critical in ensuring commercial advantage.

A recent Cegos poll of 132 international learning professionals at ASTD’s annual conference in North America found that while job related technical skills remain the primary focus for 40% of respondents, the development of commercial skills is rather worryingly at the bottom of the pile with just 5% of respondents citing it as a top training priority. The picture is virtually the same in Europe too with our annual European L&D survey finding just 10% of training in Europe focused on the development of commercial skills.

So what can we do as L&D professionals to address this issue? And how can we ensure that training in this domain will make a measurable difference to the business?

Firstly, we need to try and find a way of prioritising the development of commercial skills so that they are aligned with today’s business needs. If we want to be true business partners then we must challenge line managers to tell us where they want to take their teams and then deliver against these objectives.

Secondly, and where I believe we can make another real difference to the business, is we need to become smarter at helping managers identify the strengths and weaknesses among their teams thus helping to ensure that any training programme provided is relevant and impactful. It is here that diagnostic skills mapping tools have a key role to play.

Take the sales function. It would be easy to assume that the best salespeople achieve the highest sales figures; however, this isn’t always the case. For example, the person with the best sales figures may have had a major contract land in their lap or could be working in a more favourable market. So how do you identify the crucial indicators that tell you who has the best skills and how can you bring other members of the sales team up to that level?

The tools we use with our customers are designed specifically to provide both L&D and senior management with this level of insight and are targeted at helping to make the so called “rest” as good at the “best”. The use of diagnostics is not only a fast and effective way to assess the current capabilities (behaviour, knowledge and skills) of any individual at any level, but it also ensures clear identification of the specific areas for development at the individual and team level.

Let’s look specifically at sales training now. All too often we are called in by organisations whose training has failed to make an impact. While sometimes this is because an analysis of the strengths and weakness of the team has not been carried out at the outset, more often than not we see the same issues presenting a problem. Let’s face it, while sales training is one of the easiest forms of training to measure ROI on, training sales teams successfully has always been a challenge.

What are some of the key areas that need to be addressed in order to deliver successful sales training?

Apathy is often one of the biggest problems. Some participants see training as an intrusion (this is keeping me away from making my calls), others as a social event and a chance to catch-up with other team members. The best way to counteract this is to ensure that every member of the sales team understands the purpose of the training and how it can be applied to their day-to-day activities. As a trainer, understanding your audience, their business and target customers is essential.

Successful sales training is all about experiential learning – making meaning from direct experience. The experience has to be as tough and as challenging as in real life and should take place not just during the training but afterwards as well. Often it’s not just about giving individuals for example better negotiating skills, it might be about developing more general rounded business acumen which is key to managing sales talent and getting individuals up the corporate ladder more quickly.

I believe that participants need to be really pushed into making personal and even public commitments in front of peers and managers as to what they will focus on as a result of the training. That’s why the setting of pre-agreed sales targets is so important.

And a final word of caution, whether you are looking for a short-term or longer-term solution, make sure the sales training programme is carefully crafted to work alongside day to day activities and that the training programme is challenging and highly engaging to all levels of ability. The best way to make training engaging and challenging to learners is to make it interactive. Experiential and e-learning programmes are both invaluable tools.

The recession has certainly raised the bar in business. The organisations that win through will be those who can find a way to make the rest of their employees as good as the best. The development of core commercial skills is integral in creating a high performance culture.

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