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Closing the Sales Skills Gap

A Perspective on Closing the Sales Skills Gap

“Make the Investment & Do It Wisely”

Reading Peter Irwin’s article “It’s time to close the skills gap for Canada’s sales professionals” published in the Globe and Mail in February 2018, provided the impetus for this perspective. From my experience consulting to sales people, it is very easy to concur with Peter as I observe a common, flawed perception of sales skills in which perceived ability greatly outweighs actual ability in an environment where sales is becoming much more difficult and complex. In this brief article I will make the recommendation to invest in improving sales skills – and do it wisely.

Bernard Marr’s very first mind-boggling fact regarding Big Data (“Big Data: 20 Mind-Boggling Facts Everyone Must Read”, Forbes), states:

“More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race.”

This fact has far reaching implications in sales, particularly in business-to-business environments, such as:

  • Decisions take much longer than they used to – sales people now need to be disciplined to follow a process

  • Differentiation is now more oriented towards understanding clients and their needs, rather than focusing on product features (which are similar across multiple providers) – sales people need to more attuned to psychology to truly understand decision makers

  • The deciding factor in choosing company A over company B is ever-diminishing, and gone are the days of relying on the “gift of the gab” – sales people now need a much greater attention to detail

The above further reinforces the need to invest in skills development, yet it’s not as top-of-mind as it could be. I recently spoke at a CEO luncheon where I proved that every CEO in the room could tell me more about the precision of their back of office than the precision instilled in their front of office – sales and client management. This demonstrates why Strayer Education (part of Strayer University) reports “nearly 70% of senior executives report they are only “somewhat satisfied” or “not satisfied at all” with the performance of their frontline leaders.”

Now, before we all knee-jerk and contact training companies to invest in sales training, we need to be very aware that “only 8% of CEOs report tangible ROI on training dollars spent” (Strayer Education). Given that I have just made a case to invest in training, why is this? The answer is that we revert to a traditional view of training and think about it as a singular event (workshop) rather than continuous behavior change. If you are considering a training event and the focus is on the agenda or curriculum before identifying the specific behaviours that need to change, you are on the wrong track.

Here is my three-part recommendation to sales leaders considering an investment in training:

  1. Ownership – be very careful not to use training as outsourced leadership. If a sales individual (a) doesn’t know the business reason behind participating in training or (b) is not aware of any specific outcomes they need to achieve with their participation and/or (c) is not accountable for specific application & measurement of learnings, then the respective sales leader has not done their job. Any investment in training needs to be owned by the leader for a specific purpose…bridging a skill gap required to optimize a business practice.

  2. Accreditation – you don’t undertake an investment in tertiary education without receiving a mark, score or evaluation. Be honest – there is a common perception that attending a training course is like a little like a break from work. If more of a focus were placed on accreditation, then leaders could manager their sales teams much more effectively. For example, my company, McKenzie Pitch Partners, has trademarked a pitch preparation process which, combined with our recently developed online tool, we can use to build an accreditation process for sales managers to accredit their teams. In these instances, only those accredited individuals may be allocated the bellwether deals.

  3. Measurement – As Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets improved”. Measurement dictates behaviour, so sales skills should be measured for real improvement of front line effectiveness. Measurement needs to be focused around sales activity in the context of both quantity and quality. Quantity needs to be measured to ensure there is sufficient activity impacting your target market, while quality needs to measure the effectiveness of sales activity to ensure opportunity is optimized.

In conclusion, we 100% concur with Peter Irwin that the sales skills gap needs to close, especially with our market environment reflecting vast changes with information and technology. If you want to improve revenue, make the investment to improve skills and protect that investment though ownership, accreditation and measurement. Suffice to say, make the investment in improving sales skills, and do it wisely.

McKenzie Pitch Partners (MPP) is a boutique pitch consultancy that helps their clients win business. Their trademarked pitch preparation process, Pitch SSP, is available in an online tool called Pitch SSP Online which facilitates sales accreditation. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of MPP, also wrote “PITCH – What you’re not doing makes all the difference”.

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