Etch a sketch sales force – implications for sales training

The Etch A Sketch Sales Force

The Etch A Sketch was introduced at the peak of the Baby Boom 1960 and was one of the best-known toys of that generation.  Today, it’s included in the hall of the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th Century by the Toy Industry Association.  Recently it has gained a renewed notoriety so we thought it might be a good bit of framing to use to discuss the increasing need to revamp ones sales force to be better aligned with ones customer base.

Recently Booz & Co published an interesting white paper about this alignment issue – The Adaptive Sales Force.  The central thesis developed in the white paper is as follows:

  • As markets become more competitive, products commoditized and companies focus more on organic growth, the need to create a superior sales force is becoming more critical.
  • That challenge is made more difficult because customer demands about what they buy, how they buy, and what they are willing to pay for it are changing in new dynamic ways.
  • In such a business environment “companies must be willing to revamp their sales force on a regular basis – perhaps as often as every two to three years.”

So, what this means is the old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it “ is perhaps not the best guidance for 2012 and the years ahead.  A more apt image would be an Etch A Sketch where you shake up the picture by turning the left knob a bit and then the right knob a twist or two …  not because your sales force is broken, but because it the right thing to do to stay better aligned with your customers.

The authors at Booz warn us the temptation remains to look at the process of adaptation as a once in awhile isolated event done only “in times of extreme challenge when the company’s survival is at stake.”  Not so.  A better idea is to constantly be looking for ways to better align the sales force with the changes that are occurring in the customer base.

Adapting a sales team so that it is aligned with the customer base requires fine-tuning along a variety of dimensions from sales strategy, territory design, and structure to the performance skill sets of the account executives.  For this blog let’s restrict our discussion to the performance skills of sales people and examine what the “adaptation” requirement means for sales training.

Set the customer as a trigger. If you review history most training projects were initiated because of some internal event – revenue dipped, a merger took place, new products were launched or a new VP of Sales was hired who brought a new set of ideas.  This is okay.  However, if we look to the advice from the authors at Booz, then an entirely new array of reasons emerge for doing sales training.  These reasons stem from shifts in the customer base.  If the customer’s buying environment changes, then it makes sense to implement a training effort to help the sales force to adjust and adapt to the new environment.

Use the sales team as an early warning mechanism. People who make most of the decisions about when to do sales training and what sales training looks like are in Corporate.  If we want to be more sensitive to the challenge of customer shifts, then the sales team in the field needs to be the “canary in the coal mine.”  While living to tell the tale, they need to pick up when things are changing and when adjustments need to be made.

Create more innovative training designs. If you were implementing a standard call execution sales training program, there are a number of vendors from which to purchase the program or you might even design it internally.  On the other hand, if the challenge is to help a sales team make subtle adjustments in response to customer shifts as to how to think and act strategically about their accounts and make fine-tuning changes to their call performance, then that is a more difficult sales training hurdle.  It requires perhaps a different training partner, a different business arrangement with you training partner, and an enhanced internal capacity in your training department.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

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. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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