Sales simulations and vacuum cleaners – two stories of innovation

James Dyson and the Vacuum Cleaner

Yesterday, when selecting sales training, those doing the selection often turned to a program they have used in the past.  “When I was at Acme we use the XYZ program, I’m familiar with it and it’s probably as good as any.”

But is that the right answer for today? Buyers inside most large corporations have changed significantly in the last two to three years … What they buy, how they buy, and what they are willing to pay for it have changed.  So, is yesterday’s sales training the best bet? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Let’s explore the question from the perspective of innovation and begin with an unlikely analogy – the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

In his TV commercials, James Dyson shares that just making a more effective vacuum cleaner bag wouldn’t address a key issue – losing suction as vacuum bags fill. Rather, Dyson shares that he had to think about the problem differently – realizing that the trick was to separate the dust from the air. This insight formed the foundation for building vacuum cleaners with a small industrial cyclone inside that separated particles from the air instead of filtering them.

The Dyson vacuum is a great example of an innovation. But how did Dyson do it? He didn’t try and do what was being done better, he thought about how to do it differently. Let’s take that insight and apply it to the design of sales training for meeting the challenges faced by today’s sales forces.

1. Do more and do it quicker. Designing sales training around one specific skill is becoming increasingly problematic.  Today sales people must possess a comprehensive integrated skill set to get the job done successfully. They won’t develop this integrated skill set by attending an extended series of sales training programs – each containing a piece of the puzzle.  It takes too long, it costs too much and most sales people won’t “connect the dots”.

There’s way too much noise on their radar to expect sales people to integrate on the job what they’ve learned in the different sales training programs.  Sales training programs must be designed that address multiple skills sets simultaneously and provide opportunities for sales people to execute how they will integrate those skills in a sales call.

2. Eliminate costly and time-consuming steps. Next, let’s take aim at the long accepted first step in sales training design – needs assessment. A couple of things struck us about traditional needs assessment for sales training purchased from outside vendors: it takes a fair amount of time, it costs a substantial amount and it is usually not as insightful as an in-house effort that solicits the expert opinion of front-line sales managers.  Front-line sales managers can provide an excellent snapshot of the sale team’s exiting skill level and where they need to be.  So get a small group of them together and ask the group what is going on and what needs improving.

The second point about where they need to be is particularly interesting. If you believe as we do that sales training must be designed to meet tomorrow’s demands, which are changing more rapidly than ever, than traditional needs analysis is somewhat limiting.  It tends to be more about the traditional and the past, than it is about innovation and the future.  Impactful sales training should focus on a company’s strategic initiatives – not where the company’s been.  Front-line sales management and the senior sales leadership are the folks that can and must articulate that future.

3. Think innovatively about the training. What is the best way for developing the integrated skill training required to meet tomorrow’s challenges?  The Training Department needs to work with the sales leadership to understand the nature and scope of the company’s strategic initiatives. Then, identify the skill sets needed to drive the strategic initiatives and craft them into learnable chunks. This thinking means that in the training, sales people learn and practice key skills – and then apply them in situations they will face in their own accounts. You drag the real world into the classroom.

One sales training design that has proven to be particularly effective for dragging the real world into the classroom is a sales simulationCustomized sales simulations can provide a learning experience that not only “sticks” but also supports a company’s strategic initiative.  Two situations where sales simulations have a great track record are:

Selling new products – Especially when selling new solutions or selling to new audiences, sales simulations provide an opportunity to “practice” before “prime time”. They provide a safe environment to try new ideas, make mistakes, and get feedback.  You learn than launch versus launch than learn.  The difference is striking particularly when the competitor is “close behind.”

Adjusting to transformational changes – With sales training simulations, the sales team can experience actual sales challenges they will be facing, ramping up their learning curve rather than putting the total onus on the sales reps to make the transition. If your company is experiencing a time of transformational change, only a few sales reps can, by themselves, adjust and adapt to the “new reality”.

In times of change it is difficult to prosper by simply doing a better job doing what you have been doing. This means the sales team must learn new skills and learn to apply existing skills in a new set of situations.  So, perhaps that sales training you used when you were at Acme several years ago may not the best bet.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Janet Spirer

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. Janet has followed two different, yet complimentary paths. First, as a B-School Professor she taught marketing, sales, and business strategy courses. She also managed a consulting practice focusing on sales productivity and marketing – working with a variety of clients ranging from Xerox to IBM. She translated those experiences into a book – “Parlez-Vous Business” – that helps sales people develop the business savvy to sell successfully. Since co-founding Sales Momentum® in 2000 with Richard Dr. Spirer received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, an M.P.A. from The University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Economics from Brooklyn College. She holds the appointment of Professor Emeritus at Marymount University.
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