A new paradigm for CPD in sales
28th September 2021 | Colin MacKenzie and Dr Alexander C Bauer
Why there needs to be a fresh approach to the personal development of sales executives and their managers.
Many readers of this article may already be in superb sales organisations; however, for those in the sales field it will come as no surprise that many small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) have little in the way of formal sales training that could be considered as quality continuous professional development (CPD). There are many articles and publications on how to train staff, however there are fewer that discuss, and consider, how sales executives keep fresh and feel supported.
We recently undertook research (in press) into the effective ways of training sales staff and whether this was being implemented across the board. One of the most common methods of sales training is coaching. Despite the academic research suggesting that this is an effective approach, especially in sales, we found that it was not commonly employed across a range of SMEs. Moreover, where coaching was employed, it was not uniform.
We also discovered a number of other common views. Newly employed sales professionals to an organisation were often selected based on previous sales experience and provided with product knowledge, which was confused with “sales training”. Employing staff with previous experience was claimed to be a training shortcut; however, this presents problems as “experienced” sales staff can bring their own bad habits.
Employing staff with previous experience was claimed to be a training shortcut; however, this presents problems as ‘experienced’ sales staff can bring their own bad habits.
Often, staff were left with the barest of instructions and were expected to “jump in at the deep end”. This sink-or-swim attitude is not something you would expect in a professional capacity. There are few roles where it would be acceptable to say, “just have a go”. Imagine asking someone who did not understand electricity to wire a house “just by trying”.
It is not surprising that we conclude that, in many cases, the whole approach to the development of sales talent is, at best, variable across many SMEs and, at worst, practically non-existent. Our chosen sample was European manufacturing SMEs with sizeable sales departments, not micro companies where you may expect resources to be very tight.
The academic literature suggests these experiences of poor employee development are not limited to Europe.
What our investigation did highlight was that even experienced sales managers are often not comfortable with their existing skill-development processes. We heard that they would value opportunities to think and reflect on their performance and would like to support their staff; however, opportunities were often limited. Listening to sales managers talk, it was clear that they often found themselves undervalued compared to other colleagues, particularly those with professional qualifications.
A new approach to sales development
The widespread comments and unfulfilled desire of many sales managers to receive acknowledgment and continuous professional development led us to conclude that there needed to be a fresh approach to the personal development of sales executives.
Even experienced sales managers are often not comfortable with their existing skill-development processes.
We decided to create a simple, but effective, tool to provide a progressive vision of a developmental training process, which would provide a sense of CPD. There are many training tools available in practitioner and academic literature; however, we wanted to create an approach, rather than a rigid model, that can be easily grasped “at a glance” even if there needs to be some thought into its organisational application – in other words, a methodology rather than a method.
In developing our concept, we examined educational research, CPD and academic sales training literature to produce an approach that would provide the effective building blocks of personal development. The outcome of this thinking is the Training, Mentoring and Coaching (TMC) cycle (Mackenzie & Bauer, in press, 2021), as shown in Figure 1.
In order to fully understand the cycle, we need to make clear the definitions of the progressive stages. Successful application of the cycle will depend on practitioners being able to contextualise it to their specific people and organisation.
Definitions of coaching and mentoring used within this cycle
We found that there was some confusion between mentoring and coaching; however, we feel the two areas are distinct.
Coaching involves “asking questions” and enabling sales executives to discover what their next stage of development is. Mentoring is a dynamic relationship, which also involves asking questions, listening and, in sales, skills practice. Mentoring can mean a more experienced person demonstrating to a protégé; however, the subject of effective mentoring is wide, and its success can be dependent on many factors.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss detailed differences between “sales mentoring” and “sales coaching”. There are many outcomes provided by different coaching and mentoring approaches; however, we define “sales mentoring” as “a dyadic relationship for the transfer of sales knowledge”, and “sales coaching” as “supporting the ongoing self-discovery and reflection of sales knowledge in practice with the aim of skill, knowledge and attitude development”. Understanding the difference between our definitions is important in comprehending the progressive nature of the developmental cycle.
Those who undertake the role of “sales coaches” are defined as “people who act as facilitators”; however, “sales mentors” are people who “give specialist advice and recommendations from experience”. We believe by differentiating the roles of coaching and mentoring we are giving clarity for organisations to consider who should mentor and who should coach.
The ability to organically expand and retain a sales force is critical for organisational growth.
However, the cycle is not simply about coaching and mentoring. It involves “sales training”, defined as “the transfer of sales knowledge and skills” and “sales induction”, which is “the selection process and basic company introduction of systems, process, ethics and additional necessary knowledge that needs to be imparted before a salesperson can move onto their main role”.
Having differentiated between the stages, we need to be clear how the stages dovetail to build knowledge, practice skills, and provide a professional approach to talent development.
The TMC takes into consideration the benefits of quality induction, training, mentoring and coaching. It employs action research and reflective practices; these are areas that support continuous professional development.
As individual development needs are contingent, variable consideration needs to be given by senior leadership to suitable process that should be installed to ensure appropriate selection and delivery.
Explanation of the cycle stages
The TMC approach is designed to be individual and organisationally contextual, meaning that it is unlikely that everyone will need the same detail and be at the same point on the cycle. Some organisations may have effective induction, training and mentoring, but they may be weaker in how they refresh these skills within the workforce. The TMC approach accommodates organisations and individuals being at different cycle segments.
The cycle stages are distinct and separate and are briefly summarised below:
- Induction – Induction proved to be a weakness in many SMEs: giving people the technical literature and telling them to get on with selling it is not the most instructive method for quality sales. Clear thought and a professional approach should be given to this area. The induction process may involve ensuring sales professionals are familiar with the organisational systems or processes required to complete a sale. Other examples may include order recording and the customer relationship management (CRM) system and explaining its importance to the sales strategy. Understanding the organisation’s values with in-depth training on the professional and ethical policies relevant to the sales department may be an important consideration. Induction is really the introduction to the organisation and its values, and therefore a first impression is important to new starts.
- Sales training – This is about gaining the knowledge required to undertake effective sales. This may be formal or informal training, onsite or offsite or modelling. It may include product/service knowledge and learning the building blocks of effective selling. It is not simply about product training, on which many companies seem to be exclusively focused.
- Sales mentoring – Mentoring involves transferring knowledge gained of the sales process into skills practice. Establishing a trusting mentoring relationship with the “right” person is a consideration. Formal feedback, either 360° or to an external manager, may be supportive. This is often confused with coaching; however, as per our definitions, mentoring may be more instructive.
- Sales coaching – Sales coaching allows for building in of reflective practice. It differs from mentoring and may be undertaken by a coach or someone familiar with coaching practice. In the coaching stage, the sales professional is asked questions relevant to their performance to deepen their own thinking and responsibility for self-development. Encouraging a personal development is key to introducing the next stage.
- Reintroduction – In a global world, organisational change is constant. Sales staff need to be appraised of any changes and not be the last people to hear about them. Reintroduction may involve relistening to the original induction to pick up on things missed or reappraising updates. This review resets the mind for the next stage. It is an opportunity for organisations to allow their employees to reflect on the initial induction process and perhaps contribute to growing company values.
- Reacquaintance – It is quite clear that many experienced salespeople would appreciate a “refresh”. As practitioners in sales the authors have heard many people say, “I have been in sales for x years and thought I knew it all until I went back on a sales course.” Reacquaintance is about updating existing knowledge and skills, whether this about understanding different selling techniques, sales strategies or amending existing ones for new products. It could simply be about dropping bad habits and reintroducing parts of the process that have been skipped. It may include thoughts or workshops around updated ethical selling or methods to deepen the psychological contract in sales.
- Targeted sales mentoring – Areas will have emerged from reflections during the reacquaintance process. Addressing these and ingraining them into habit may be achieved through targeted mentoring. Most feedback given to salespeople is only about their numbers; however, we found that skills-development feedback was welcomed in many cases, and a suitable mentor could support a positive change of sales habits.
- Targeted sales coaching – Targeted coaching should be designed to change the gear of sales professionals. Continuous learning and reflection are important to keep fresh. This stage may have multiple outcomes depending on what is required. For example, it may prepare sales executives to become a sales mentor, sales coach, or coaching supervisor. Alternatively, “sales coaching” can be more specialist or focused on different aspects of personal development, such as resilience or personal mindfulness, perhaps, through alternative coaching methods.
Benefits of CPD
As well as the most obvious benefit of a skilled sales force – that is, more sales – the ability to organically expand and retain a sales force is critical for organisational growth. If “selection” is added prior to induction, it is possible to grow people into key sales positions internally. Using the cycle as a guide, but personalising the content, will co-create a unique sales proposition that adds value to organisations.
The TMC cycle is an initiative that should be considered not only by sales managers, but also by HR departments, consultants, and business leaders as a pillar of sustainable personal developmental leadership.