Today a sales team must not only be able to sell a competitive advantage; they must be a competitive advantage. In most companies, it is increasingly difficult to sustain a competitive advantage by traditional means. Traditional factors, like superior products and innovative manufacturing technologies, may provide short term advantages but unfortunately they can be replicated in relatively short order by an increasing number of agile and aggressive domestic and international competitors.
Although a great sales team is difficult to develop, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage and, perhaps more importantly, one that is difficult for the competition to quickly copy. So optimizing sales performance matters more today than it did yesterday and it will matter more tomorrow than it does today.
Onboarding. The process of training and acclimating salespeople from a skill, knowledge, and expectation perspective is one of the most significant factors for a salesperson’s success. Unfortunately it is also historically one of the most understudied and underemphasized aspects of performance development. Great sales onboarding programs are still the exception.
This lack of emphasis is part of the larger problem that companies are having with Talent Management. “Companies like to promote the idea that employees are their biggest source of competitive advantage. Yet the astonishing reality is that most of them are no better prepared for the challenges of finding, motivating and training capable workers than they were a decade ago” (McKinsey Quarterly).
With the increased awareness of the importance of developing a sales team that can be a competitive advantage, this talent management neglect has not gone unnoticed by everyone. It is suggested that the companies who are seriously addressing this issue today will be celebrating tomorrow.
What’s Different? If you are a company that put in place the components of your sales onboarding curriculum more than five years ago, it is likely that a second look is worthwhile. There are a number of changes and shifts that have significantly impacted what an optimal system looks like. Some of those factors are:
- Success matters more. As previously noted the number of sustainable competitive advantages has decreased and the importance of a world-class sales force has grown with that decline.
- Job demands are greater. In sales there is a “book of knowledge.” In many companies that book has expanded from a fairly common, well defined set of chapters to a tome that is encyclopedic in scope. Today in order to be a top performer, a salesperson simply has to know a lot more and do a lot more than in times past.
- Specialization of the sales function has increased. Today if the sales positions in most Fortune 1000 companies were examined under a microscope, they would be greater in number and greater in diversity than in times past. So as a sales person moves up the hierarchy of positions, they are faced with different buyers, different buying processes, and differing points of view on what constitutes value.
Hence, there is a need to learn new knowledge and new skills for each position. So onboarding is not just something that is needed when hiring new salespeople – it is also needed when promoting sales reps to a new sales position such as the transition from a territory rep to a national account rep.
- Generational differences are significant. New people coming into entry-level sales positions are from a generation with a different set of expectations, learning preferences, and experience sets. This shift provides a significant need and huge opportunity to put in place learning methodologies that would not have been considered several years ago. It also presents a strategic omission if the talent management and learning strategies are different than the expectations.
Summary. So … having a world-class sales team is more important than ever … but building one is more difficult than ever because of the increased complexity of the sales environment. An effective onboarding process is part of the answer but historically and presently the onboarding process has not been a priority at the leadership level and, adding to the mix, the folks being hired and promoted are bringing a new and very different set of expectations and preferences.
The good news is this set of conditions represent a significant opportunity for the companies that commit the time and effort to get onboarding right.
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