Mind the (skills) gap!

9th November 2020 |   Mark Cheever

Article summary

Finding the time for training and development while meeting customer needs (and achieving bottom line results) is a universal struggle faced by nearly all sales executives.

The struggle is especially real for those in the highly competitive IT industry, where rapid strategic and industry change require ever-increasing time and effort to stay “in-the-know”.

SAP’s Sales Coaching Team has made bold steps to meet this challenge head-on through the creation of their Skills Assessment Program – a voluntary, online self-assessment (available to both sales executives and their first-line sales managers or “FLSMs”) that uses big data analysis to identify and close skill gaps through prescriptive training recommendations tailored to the learner.

What’s more, data collected during the assessments enables SAPs sales leadership and enablement teams to quickly analyze skill gap trends impacting sales at the global, regional and market unit level – insight that has proven invaluable both in terms of pointing existing training to where it’s needed most, but also in the development of new training to close skill gaps affecting large groups of sales executives.

The team’s work began in late 2016, when it was observed that sales metrics for SAP sales executives – while in line with or slightly above industry standards – were not meeting sales management expectations. With a worldwide digital transformation in full swing, it was imperative that SAP’s sales executives were well-trained to help customers understand and implement emerging innovations as part of their transition to a digitally enabled business.

The performance gap wasn’t caused by a lack of available training. In fact, at the time SAP had a robust, world-class sales learning curriculum, which (to this day) includes everything from formal, in-person workshops to MOOCs (massive open online courses), experiential learning, simulations, and virtual live classes.

Surveys and interviews conducted with sales executives and their managers revealed that there was a strong desire to learn, but hectic schedules only left time for training that was easy-to-consume and, preferably, tailored to their individual learning needs.

This feedback led to the development of a revolutionary, two-pronged approach to sales enablement at SAP—comprised of the aforementioned skills assessments (crucial to uncovering sales executive and FLSMs skill gaps) but also an all-in-one platform known as the Skills Assessment Framework (SAF), used not only to deliver the assessment but also as a “one-stop shop” for participants to access their assessment results and link directly to recommended learning.

Programme design

The programme’s design began with a thorough business and performance needs analysis to identify the KPIs and skills (such as forecasting, pipeline management, territory planning) that, if improved upon, would help SAP sales executives attain quota and revenue targets. As part of this effort, interviews were held with top performers to identify what they were doing differently along with the characteristic skills they employed when winning deals.

Similarly, in their study of top-performing FLSMs, the Sales Coaching team sought to identify the key leadership and coaching techniques that have led to success in their teams.

From this analysis, the team created a globally standardized list of roughly 60 skills (that are crucial to success in the field. Role-specific skills were also developed in conjunction with SAP’s various line of business leaders. A similar list of standard/role-specific skills was also defined for FLSMs geared toward coaching and leadership skills.

With this information, SAP formed a preliminary view on how existing sales enablement, resources and events could be recommended to sales executives and their managers via personalized learning plans to close skills gaps.

Skills Assessment Framework

The Assessments and the Skills Assessment Framework (or “SAF” – the delivery platform described above) were then developed, making big data skills gap analysis and personalized learning a reality for thousands of quota carriers and their managers.

Held once a year, the sales executive assessment – known as the “Sales Skills Assessment” (SSA) – asks sales executives to assess their proficiency on a scale from 0-4 (novice to expert) across both standard skills (such as negotiating and closing, prospecting, executive conversations and solution skills – to name a few) and role-specific skills.

Once complete, their managers (the FLSMS) rate sales executives on their team across the same skills. The assessments take roughly ten minutes for sales executive and manager to complete.

Comparing results

The Sales Coaching team then compares the results, identifying gaps between how a given sales executive perceives his or her skill level versus their manager’s rating. The Sales Leadership Assessment (SLA) follows the same concept except FLSMs self-assess their proficiency across leadership and coaching skills and their manager (the second-line sales manager) provides the secondary assessment.

The SAF platform is then used to provide participants with their skills gap results and corresponding learning recommendations designed to close each gap. The SAF also allows sales leadership and enablement teams to quickly analyse a wide range of data at the global, regional, market unit, and role-specific level.


The team’s analysis yields tremendous insight, including reports pinpointing the “top skills” (at various levels including role, region, market unit, and so on) that, when no gap is present, lead to additional average quota attainment. For example, those without a gap in the skill “Deal Negotiation & Closing” achieve, on average, a 35-percentage point increase in additional quota attainment.

By defining top skills that correlate to high quota attainment, sales enablement teams then focus on boosting proficiency for sales executives with gaps in these skills, thereby improving quota attainment across the board.

A similar analysis has been run across entire skill groups. Not surprisingly, high proficiency in “Selling Skills” – a group of roughly ten key selling skills – has also proven to be a critical component in reaching or exceeding quota. The team’s correlation analysis revealed that, across the key Selling Skills, there is an overall 74-percentage point increase in average quota attainment as you move along the proficiency scale (from novice to expert).

Here again, the positive correlation between quota attainment and proficiency across a major skill group area helps enablement teams focus their efforts and reaffirms the importance of ongoing professional development for the team’s learning audience.

Successful outcomes

The Skills Assessment Program and platform have enjoyed tremendous success within the organization – both in terms of new, highly detailed insight (as described above) but also from a performance standpoint.

To isolate the programmes’ impact, the Sales Coaching team ran an analysis of 2019 CRM Pipeline data, comparing sales executives who participated in the Sales Skill Assessment versus a control group of non-participants. When compared to non-participants, sales executives who had participated in the Sales Skills Assessment Program and, most importantly, completed at least two of the recommended learnings in their Personalized Learning Plan achieved:

  • 79% more value in their pipeline opportunities
  • 68% increase in unique accounts won
  • 46% increase in conversion ratio
  • 33% increase in annual bookings
  • 17% decrease in time to close a successful deal

Also, when comparing 2018 to 2019, the team recorded a one-point average proficiency level growth in the skills that show the greatest correlation to high performance and quota attainment across all SSA participants.

Looking forward

The SAP Sales Coaching team will continue to share the great benefits and insight from the programme to help drive awareness throughout the organization. By sharing results via internal publications, newsletters and webinars (to name a few), the team and its stakeholders across the organizations have built a dedicated community of sales executives, managers and leadership who now rely on the assessments and corresponding data both for professional development and planning.

In fact, the Skills Assessments and the SAF platform have gained so much popularity within SAP that other departments, outside of sales, are expressing interest in replicating the approach to uncover skill gaps for their colleagues.

Project Manager of the Skills Assessment Program at SAP

Mark Cheever is a member of SAP’s Sales Coaching team and, as Project Manager of the Skills Assessment Program, plays an integral role in boosting the performance for thousands of SAP colleagues in sales and sales-related roles around the world. Data gathered from the assessments allows for an-depth analysis of sales executive performance and skill proficiency and is then used to provide sales executives with highly-relevant, personalized learning plans and one-on-one coaching from certified, internal coaches. Cheever holds a BA from The University of Pittsburgh and a Masters in International Business from Germany’s Hochschule Osnabrück.