For too long the sales profession has viewed learning as an event.
We conduct sales training workshops to help people handle objections more effectively. We deliver a training class on the latest product release. We serve up a lunch, and learn to update our team on one of our competitors.
All the while we ignore fundamental principles concerning learning and the impact continuous improvement can have on sales performance.
The Learning Sales Organization
If you want a real, sustainable, competitive advantage for your sales team, don't "teach" them a new skill about the features of a new product. Instead, create an organization that is continuously learning and always improving.
In their 1977 book, The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development, Pedler, Burgogyne and Boydell define the learning organization as "a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself."
This concept was later popularized in Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, where he proposed the following five disciplines of a learning organization:
- Systems Thinking
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
Let's take a quick look at a few practical ways in which we can apply these concepts to sales.
Systems Thinking, Mental Models & Shared Vision
If we are to create a learning sales organization, we must begin by abandoning the idea that selling is an innate talent or that the customer engagement is an art form in which any approach is valid so long as the outcome is a sale.
Systems thinking recognizes the complexity and interdependence between the sales interaction and the ability for the rest of the organization to deliver customer satisfaction. For this reason, the customer interaction cannot be left to the whims of individual sales people.
Rather, clear mental models must be defined that define how the organization will engage with customers and one another in order to deliver exceptional service to customers and optimize sales performance.
Moreover, these models must be part of a shared vision that everyone on the team owns. If individuals or teams don't buy-in to the model, it won't be adopted.
Personal Mastery & Team Learning
Learning sales organization must encourage personal mastery while recognizing the necessity of team learning in order to achieve this end.
Imagine for a moment a team of dedicated football players, each committed to mastering his position. Now suppose that the expectation would be that each person would achieve excellence WITHOUT practicing with others on the team. The concept is so absurd it doesn't even seem possible. Yet, many sales teams take this very approach.
Given that selling is an interpersonal interaction, it is essential that organizations leverage team learning and practice in order to facilitate continuous improvement and personal mastery.
Without this interaction and feedback, no person can achieve optimum effectiveness and the team performance will suffer. However, team learning can accelerate everyone's proficiency and provide a genuine competitive advantage.
The First Step
To start building a learning sales organization, it's essential the team take the following steps:
1. Select your selling and coaching models
Establish criteria for each and identify or develop models that meet your criteria, as these will be the foundation for your ongoing learning.
2. Integrate tools
Don't implement CRM solutions or other sales effectiveness tools unless/until you have a model for the ideal selling behavior. When you do, integrate the model into the tools so that they support adoption of these key behaviors and bring real value to your sellers, coaches and customers.
3. Build a learning library
While training events may still be necessary, recognize the incremental nature of personal development and provide a library of reinforcement and refresh learning and practices that can be easily referenced and leveraged as learning opportunities are identified.
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Bob Sanders has more than 25 years experience in sales, sales management, and marketing. Bob has served as President and CEO of AXIOM Sales Force Development from 2006 to 2018. His passion about sales behavior and coaching helps develop people into their best selves. Since Bob joined AXIOM as a partner in the fall of 1993, he's helped dozens of companies around the world generate hundreds of millions in additional revenue. Bob holds a degree in Marketing from Miami University. He has been a keynote speaker at numerous corporate events and industry conferences. He is a founding underwriter and frequent contributor to the Sales Management Association. He co-authored AXIOM's “Selling Sciences Program™” workbook and audio program, and is a contributor on "A Journey to Sales Transformation". When Bob is not advocating on behalf of buyers and sellers worldwide, he is an avid cyclist, father, and husband.