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3 Principles to Positively Measure Sales Training Effectiveness

It’s an article of faith in business that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The alternative phrasing is, “What gets measured gets managed.”

Nowhere are those mantras more repeated than in the fields of corporate sales and training. And at the intersection—the field of sales training—it’s beyond an article of faith; it’s more like The Book.

And yet, in my admittedly limited experience (serving mainly high-end, intangible, B2B businesses), I’ve noticed very curious things:

  • Learning and development organizations want to see precise, detailed performance metrics in their sales training programs, and they request evidence of such metrics from vendors’ past client engagements.
  • Those same companies do not themselves have such metrics for past training programs – and they balk at the opportunity to create them when offered.
  • Those companies feel guilty about this disparity.

They shouldn’t feel guilty. There’s a reason none of them actually produces the metrics they claim to want—because the metrics they want are the wrong metrics. Furthermore, the act of measuring them is harmful.

Companies for the most part end up doing the right thing despite their “best thinking.” Like Huckleberry Finn, who felt himself a sinner for having helped the slave Jim escape to freedom, learning and development departments are not sinners at all—they’re actually doing the right thing.

In this article, I’d like to congratulate them for their “failure” and point out an alternative to the wrong thinking they’ve been holding themselves accountable to.

The Heisenberg Principle of Training

In physics, the Heisenberg Principle says that at the sub-atomic level, the act of measuring either mass or velocity actually changes either the velocity or the mass. In other words, measuring affects measurement.

What’s true at the micro-level in physics is true at the higher-order level in business training—the training of skills in areas such as engagement, vulnerability, listening, trust, empathy, or constructive confrontation. In those areas, the act of measurement affects the thing being measured. That effect can be positive or negative.

It does matter that you measure. What also matters, however, is what you measure and how you measure it – and we think wrongly about each.

It goes wrong when we approach these higher-level human functions as if they were lower-level behavioral skills. We apply the same mindset to them that we successfully apply to learning a golf swing, developing a spreadsheet, or creating a daily exercise habit.

These higher-level arenas evaporate when we subject them to the relentless behavioral decomposition appropriate for lower-level skills. Consider an example:

You declare to your spouse your commitment to improving your marriage. Your spouse is happy to hear of this decision until, that is, you declare that “obviously” you need a baseline and a set of metrics to regularly track your improvement. Still, your spouse is a team player and grudgingly agrees to go along. You jointly assign a 79.0 basis (on a 100 scale) for your baseline quality of marriage.

All goes well the first week: you are mindful of taking out the garbage, looking away from your email when your spouse speaks to you, and asking “how are you?” at least once a day—until measurement time. You then ask your spouse to rate your progress at the end of week 1: “Do you think I’ve moved the needle from 79.0? Maybe up into the 80s, huh?”

At this point, your spouse declares the experiment over, suggesting that you don’t “get” the whole concept. Oops. And by the way, you just slipped below 79.

What went wrong? On one level, it trivializes marriage to describe it solely in terms of behavioral tics like taking the garbage out, even though in the long run there is clearly a correlation. Further, focusing on taking the garbage out suggests it’s a cause rather than an effect. Finally, the frequency of focus on such things forces attention away from the true causes and drivers—a mindful attitude.

And on a deeper level, treating measurement this way confuses ends and means. A good marriage should be rewarding on its own terms. The overlay of a report card raises ugly questions: From whom are you seeking approval? And approval of what? Why, after all, are you doing this in the first place? What does “success” at the scorecard add to success in the marriage?

Gamification, so useful in more plebeian aspects of life, is trivializing, even insulting, when applied to the game of life.

Want proof? Ask your spouse.

Errors in Training Measurement

Such measurement is also trivial when applied to higher-level sales training. It’s true that to be successfully trusted as a salesperson, you need to do a great job of listening, empathizing, telling the truth, collaborating, and focusing on client needs. And if you do all of those things, you will sell more.

But the higher sales come about because you focus on the relationship.  The sale should be a byproduct of a relationshipnot the purpose or goal in itself, with the relationship solely a means to the sale. Focusing solely on the byproducts sends exactly the wrong message.

There are two errors you can make:

  • Measuring those improved sales every week (or very frequently). Doing so proves to everyone that you really don’t care about all of that empathy and trust stuff except insofar as it improves sales. Which means you’re a hypocrite. Which means they won’t trust you and won’t buy from you. Hello Heisenberg.
  • Measuring the constituent behaviors. If you break down “empathy” into various behaviors (looks deeply into client’s eyes, pauses 0.4 seconds before answering questions, uses phrases like ‘that’s got to be difficult’ at least once per paragraph, etc.), it proves to everyone that you don’t “get” empathy. You are just a mimic, and not a terribly good one at that. Which means they won’t trust you, and won’t buy from you. Hello Heisenberg, again.

Using Measurement Positively

Up until now I’ve been negative about the ways measurement is used—actually, the way we talk about it being used—because in fact, our better instincts take over and we don’t actually do these things often. But there are positive ways to measure. There are three principles:

  1. Pick long-term, big picture metrics. The best one for sales training is, of course, revenue—but measured over time. The right timeframe varies with the business, but less than quarterly is too much.

Other things you could measure—and there shouldn’t be too many—include account penetration, share of wallet, or cost of sales. Again, these should be looked at as trailing indicators of performance, avoiding any suggestion that they are short-term causal drivers to be tweaked. You don’t cause mindsets like trust by practicing tiny behaviors; you cause tiny behaviors by focusing on mindsets like trust.

  1. Substitute discussion for reports. If your only reason for metrics is to “manage” them, then everyone will intuit your bad faith—that you don’t really care about empathy, you care about winning the battle for being empathetic as soon and as profitably as possible, and you will ding anyone for not being empathetic.

Instead, have irregular but frequent open-ended discussions about the numbers. There’s nothing wrong with discussing listening techniques or examining pipeline status. Doing so is how we get better and should be the purpose of sales coaching. But by discussing rather than “reporting” and “evaluating,” you show that your purpose is indeed on the end game (engagement, trust, etc.) and not on scorecards.

  1. Publicize discussions as motivation, not metrics. If someone has a breakthrough in listening, use the process to celebrate and educate the organization. (Look at what Joe did, and how he did it!) This is using Heisenberg in a positive way—to publicize insights and to encourage.

The alternative—defining smaller and smaller behavioral details—whether you publicize it or not, sends the message that salespeople are being evaluated, not coached. It also says that the metrics matter, not the end purpose they’re intended to serve.

Learning and development people: stop thinking you need detailed behavioral metrics. Give yourself a break, give your vendors a break, and give your salespeople a break. Coach your staff, demand principled behavior from them, and hold them accountable. Don’t track them minutely and with an hourglass. Coach on details to get better, measure end results to show it’s all working, and communicate what’s important.

Half of What You’ve Learned About Sales is Wrong

Maybe you’ve heard the old line, “Half of advertising dollars are wasted – you just don’t know which half.” Something like that is true in sales – except that you’ve got a much better chance of telling which part to keep.

(Many thanks to Chris Downing and Anthony Iannarino for helping develop this thought).

The Challenge

Take this quiz, based on your own business:

1. I think closing is:

  1. obviously critical to selling
  2. one of the more harmful concepts in sales

2. I think cold-calling is:

  1. a tough, but necessary, and improvable process
  2. to be avoided like the plague

3. I think the customer wants:

  1. a clear value proposition
  2. a relationship
  3. a fast, cheap transaction

4. The critical job of sales management is:

  1. motivation
  2. training
  3. supervision

5. Price should be:

  1. mentioned up front
  2. not mentioned until value is established
  3. not talked about between sophisticated people

Now total your scores: Give 1 point for each a), 2 points for b) and 3 points for c). Now add them up. What does it all mean?

Pretty much nothing, I’m afraid.

It. Simply. Depends.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

We all know this, of course.  B2B is not like B2C. Internal customers are not like external customers. Inside sales is not like external sales. High-ticket items are sold differently than low-price point items. Intangible services are not the same as tangible goods.

We know that.  And yet – an enormous amount of sales advice out there doesn’t make the distinctions.  Here are some examples from page 1 results of Google searches on some terms:

15 Ways to Improve your Closing Ratios.  Probably great advice. For someone. Is it great advice for you? Darned if you can tell by reading the article, because it’s addressed universally.

How to Write a Value Proposition. An excellent article, by an excellent organization. But where does it rank in the scale of importance to your business?

When to Quote Price: Useful information in dealing with “be-backs” (i.e. “We’re just not sure, we’ll be back”). But how important are be-backs if you’re selling systems integration projects?

How to Turn a Relationship Into a Sale. Great advice for an industrial paper business; but do I want the counter guy at Dunkin’ Donuts establishing a relationship with me?

And I could go on; and so could you. I didn’t pick bad articles – those are pretty good ones, some of them excellent. But – they don’t explicitly deal with the relevance of the advice to you.

Fitting Your Size

How, then, to figure out what advice to take?  You might start by characterizing your business across several continuums (continua, if you prefer):

For example, draw five lines (one for each characteristic), connecting the two endpoints:

     a. from frequent to infrequent purchases

     b. from high to low price point

     c. from tangible to intangible goods

     d. from high margins to low margins

     e. from transactional to continuing revenue relationships

Then mark the midpoint for each continuum.

Now – for each issue – on which side of the middle does your business fall?

Now ask yourself – what’s the right answer for the other side of the spectrum? And what’s the right answer for my side? How and why do they differ?

========

A little reflection can go a long way.  If you’re a law firm, and you’ve figured out you need sales training (which you probably do), don’t go hiring sales experts from retail B2C businesses. If you’re selling web-hosting services, you may not need the world’s best advice on building deep relationships.

Another way to put this might be: if something doesn’t feel right to you – your gut may be telling you something valid. Have enough courage to at least ask questions about it.

Don’t just do what someone who wrote about selling tells you. Their advice might be in the “other half” of sales advice – the wrong half for you.

It depends. On you.

Sales, Narcissism and Therapists

I recently had some back and forth emails with Richard Osborne. Dick has 30-plus years’ experience as a therapist. His credentials[1] include a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Harvard where he studied under, among others, Chris Argyris.

We covered a lot of ground, starting with the idea of narcissism, but ending up talking about sales and about change: personal change, corporate change, and the role played by leaders and coaches.

Following are some excerpts.

Sales readers: hang in there—the good stuff’s coming.

RO: I read your article in Trust Primer Vol. 10 about sales and narcissism with interest.

CHG: Good. I should have asked you before I wrote it—is there a guru of narcissism?

RO: You mean, as opposed to narcissistic gurus? OK, that’s just my cynicism showing. But, having seen one self-proclaimed Holy Man after another come and go (often in riches or scandal or both…), I admit that I’ve developed a certain skepticism towards the type.

CHG: Scandals aside, can’t a guru say anything important about narcissism?

RO: Sure. Some raise some interesting questions about it–specifically, the phenomenon of charisma (which I’ll define as interpersonal presence and power). Some who are charismatic are also narcissists — but not necessarily all.

The true charismatic knows what he or she is about and is naturally confident. That clear belief in oneself and one’s role (or mission or product, for that matter) is powerfully attractive because we all suffer from what William James called “the will to believe.” Most of us feel less than fully whole or confident. The charismatic therefore represents a level of confidence and a wholeness that we lesser beings admire and desire; they believe in their ability to lead and influence us and we are grateful to follow.

The narcissist, on the other hand, may project charismatic qualities but, at his core, is wounded and insecure. He seeks praise and/or followers to reassure and shore up his shaky self-regard. But he also tends to use these people and even to hold them in some contempt because, not really believing in his goodness or rightness, he believes he has manipulated and even fooled others into becoming his devotees and sycophants. He has a tendency to shore up his own self-regard up by devaluing others. He also is much more sensitive to — and sometimes explosively reactive to — criticism. The true charismatic is solid while the narcissist is brittle and reactive.

CHG: How many of each type are there?

RO: Well, there are few pure types in the real world. Many people have genuinely charismatic qualities — but are a bit narcissistic too (i.e. a little too focused on kudos and competition with peers and a bit too thin skinned). Politics is full of these types. Hitler and Khadafi are probably as close as you can get to pure narcissism. Bill Clinton and Elliot Spitzer are charismatic — but a little narcissistic too.

CHG: I bet most people would buy that.

RO: So, back to your article: certainly the fear of rejection is powerful — and potentially debilitating. I understand what you are getting at with your advice to avoid becoming a “narcissist” — i.e. to stop personalizing sales encounters as a thumbs up or down on one’s core worth and, instead, cultivate an attitude of genuine interest in learning more about what works and what doesn’t and why. That is, to become an observer and student of one’s own behavior and its effects on others and on the sales process.

In therapist-speak, you are reframing the issue so that sales encounters are not seen as a test of one’s sales “mojo” or basic worth, but to develop a process of study and mastery — or learning how to learn. (This idea harks back to Gregory Bateson, cybernetics, and “second order learning” which Argyris pushed in his books and classes. A variant of that line of thought is expressed in books like “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” by Daniel Coyle and “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” by Geoff Colvin which discuss and promote the concept of “deep practice” and the like).

CHG: Shrinks have their own issues with this, don’t they? Are shrinks any better at it than salespeople?

RO: Sure, it’s the same struggle. It’s a profession in which a majority of clients drop out quickly without explanation, leaving a lot of therapists puzzled and scratching their bruised egos. [Sales folks: sound familiar?] There’s a wide spectrum with therapists who build successful practices with waiting lists at one end, and those who struggle to maintain a quarter time or third time practice with constant cancels and no shows at the other.

So, back to my quip about narcissistic gurus. Many of the very successful therapists are undoubtedly charismatic. Some are also narcissistic, the most egregious ones being those who sexually exploit clients to stroke their own egos (and raise malpractice insurance premiums for the rest of us!).

CHG: How does a therapist evolve past this? Perhaps even more than a salesperson, a shrink has to get beyond the self-centered crap. How have you done it?

RO: I don’t think I’m very charismatic as a person or as a therapist. I know that there are clients who are disappointed with that. They are willing potential believers in search of a therapy guru. Temperamentally, I’m too skeptical and philosophically savvy to have a true belief in any one school or technique. I am an eclectic by default because any other position is intellectually and professionally untenable to me.

But I am not flying completely blind. What little science there is in my field has repeatedly yielded the following robust findings:

Schools and techniques account for a very small portion of therapy outcome. Instead, the biggest sources of variance are:

a. What the client brings to the party

b. The person of the therapist and his/her ability to form an effective therapeutic relationship.

CHG: OK, this is getting very cool. I believe the therapist-client relationship has a lot of parallels with the salesperson-customer relationship. So let’s make the translation. If the metaphor holds true, that would suggest that:

The methodology of sales you choose accounts for a very small portion of sales success. Instead, it would be driven a lot by the buyer’s predilections, and by the salesperson’s ability to form an effective buyer-seller relationship.

Does that make sense to you?

RO: I’m no salesperson, but yes.

CHG: OK then, the obvious question—and you can answer this from within the therapist metaphor—are therapists made, or can they only be born?

RO: I used to believe that the ability to form successful therapeutic relationships was simply something you had — or not; i.e. the innate talent that Coyne is referring to. For some, natural charisma is part of it.

But I have come to believe that wherever one is on the innate talent/charisma continuum, one can improve significantly through the sort of process that you are recommending to sales people — becoming a student of the interpersonal process.

CHG: We at Trusted Advisor Associates also believe that trustworthiness—which includes a lot of what we’re talking about here—can be learned. On the therapy side of the metaphor—what does it take to make it work?

RO: One key ingredient is, of course, getting feedback. Therapy research has produced another repeat finding: therapists are often poor judges of how their clients feel and react to them.

We believe we are being effective when we are actually missing the boat; and we often wrongly assume we have failed when clients drop out when some of those clients have actually gotten a great deal out of that limited therapeutic encounter.

In other words, we’re often simply clueless, groping in the dark because we’re not asking for feedback and using that to self-correct.

CHG: So: let’s review the bidding. Don’t be a methodology ideologue. Get over yourself. Learn how to relate to others—which can be done. And learn how to seek, and learn from, feedback.

Dick, what with insurers cramming reduced fees down your throat for everything you do in your profession–have you considered going into sales training? I have a sense you’d be good at it.

RO: Only if it includes trout-fishing on the Battenkill on Thursday afternoons.


[1] Dick’s also my brother in law, but don’t hold that against him.

Sex, Lies and Sales

Most salespeople have a complicated relationship with the truth. It’s not hard to understand why, but most of us shy away from truth-telling. Too bad for us. It’s not only misguided—it actually doesn’t work. (And don’t worry, we’ll get to the sex part later).

Take James—a smart, personable man in his 40s. He approached me after a talk I gave and said:

I like all your stuff about how truth-telling increases trust and how that helps sales. But I just can’t do that. I changed industries just over a year ago and I’m competing against guys who have several decades in the business. If that gets out there, I’m dead meat. I just can’t afford to be that truthful.

I’m sympathetic to James. First of all, he’s far from wrong; many buyers place a premium on experience and he’ll lose at least some of those customers. Second, it’s very real. Salespeople operate in the ultimate meritocracy—you can run but you can’t hide from performance.

And yet: James is a liar.

Don’t get me wrong: he feels bad about it. He’s not proud of it. He wishes there were another way and he’ll wiggle quite a bit to avoid having to tell an overt lie.

But see, that wiggling is the lie itself. You’re kidding yourself if you think letting others mislead themselves is materially different from lying.

Lying Destroys Customer Centricity

Think about why James would lie. Think about why you lie. Almost always it’s to get something you don’t have, or to keep something you’ve got. Both of which, let’s face it, are entirely about you. It’s usually fear that leads us to lie—fear that we won’t get what we want if we don’t step in and give the scales a little help.

Companies and their salespeople love to say they are “customer-centric.” But you cannot claim to be customer-centric, and at the same time tell lies to enhance your own interests. And that’s not a question of logic, it’s a question of human behavior—people profoundly distrust those who mislead them.

Why Truth Is More Practical Than Lying

There’s one version of the truth and an infinite number of non-true versions of the same facts. Life is a lot simpler if you only have to remember one version of truth. No more keeping track of various stories, managing selective access to information, and keeping track of white lie cover stories. It all gets very simple when you make friends with the truth.

More importantly, people—including customers—are drawn to those who value truth-telling over snagging the sale. You can trust those people. You do not have to evaluate every statement they make. The natural human response, when we meet people like this, is to trust them. And trust is a powerful driver of buying behavior.

Forget ethics and morals—look at your own numbers. Do you make more sales, gain longer-term customers and more repeat business by:

a. Tweaking the facts to improve the odds in every sale, or by

b. Always telling the truth, believing that honesty will be more persuasive and will attract more future business.

There’s no question in my mind. The paradox of Trust-based Selling is that you best achieve your ends by helping others achieve theirs. Success is not a goal; it’s a byproduct.

To those who say:

“But Charlie, you don’t understand, the vast majority of salespeople out there don’t do that; they bend the truth and work for every transaction and would never give up an edge.”

I say:

You are right. I suspect the majority of salespeople have made themselves into fear-driven liars and have compromised their own success. But the majority is tragically mistaken. You have a chance to benefit comparatively by being a truth-teller. Have faith that customers vastly prefer honest salespeople and will vote with their wallets.

The really great salespeople—the minority—already know this. It’s the average and under-performing majority who don’t.

If you’re still wondering what this has to do with sex, think one-night stands vs. relationships. Lies work better with the first but they’re unsatisfying, more expensive and require endless new lead streams. You choose.

Sales Training: By Good, or by Bad, Example?

I was recently chatting with Mahan Khalsa, as part of an upcoming Trust Quotes Series interview I’m doing with him. I’m excited about it, because his Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play was one of the three Great Sales Books I considered when writing my own. Stay tuned for that interview sometime this winter.

While we were talking, he asked me an interesting question.

“Why,” he said, “did you place the S factor in the trust equation into the denominator as a negative item?”

Here’s what he meant. We could have defined the trust equation as:

(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy + Other-Orientation)

Instead, we chose:

(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)

            Self-Orientation

I had to think about that, including after our phone call. Here’s what I came up with.

I thought a+b+c+d was inherently boring. It raises the question, “why not e, and f, and g?” That kind of model just looks to me like one long string of positive attributes.

But by changing other-orientation—a positive attribute—into self-orientation (a negative one), and flipping it into the denominator, I think we made it far more human. And by human, I mean—we do dumb things. We screw up. In fact, that’s what makes us human, one could argue. (Man is the only animal who blushes. Or has cause to.  Mark Twain.)

So by enshrining that little negative component and very clearly making it a limiting factor on our potential for being trusted, I felt we mirrored something human. There are the good things we have to do—and then there’s the bad things we have to watch out for.

What a Contrarian View Means for Sales Training

I don’t know if Mahan thinks this way, but the natural instinct of a great many trainers is to focus on the positive: to show the model of how things should be done. 

You describe the model; you show how it makes sense; you demonstrate it, you practice it, you focus on refining the essence of it, and you gradually get better and better at it.

I have always felt a little squirmy about that. I just have a predilection to want to know how things fall off the rails, how they go wrong. I’m interested in the psychology behind how we are our own worst enemies, how we sabotage ourselves. This comes, I’m quite clear, from my own inner struggles at how to think and feel about selling.

My first major sales article, Selling Professional Services, was written this way. I just felt that if I couldn’t come to grips with the fears in my own head, I would never be at ease with selling, nor would or should any client be at ease with me. So I wrote about my own fears, assuming others felt them as well.

Enough people clearly did, and that article was the beginning of what became, with much more material, the book Trust-based Selling four years later.

In the sales training work I do, I still reflect this bias. I prefer role-play examples that tend toward the train wreck, because I believe we can all nod knowingly down that path—and when we see how we went wrong, we can conquer that fear.

I prefer sales discussions that focus not on great elevator pitches, but on why elevator pitches make us feel smarmy; that focus not on great objection-handling, but rather on shared objectives. Years ago Thomas Harris wrote “I’m OK, You’re OK.” One of these days I intend to write I’m an Idiot, You’re an Idiot: Let’s Just Get On With It. 

I believe this parallels William James’ views in Varieties of Religious Experience. He described the “once-born” and the “twice-born.” The once-born come into the world religiously, live religious lives of peace and happiness, and die at peace with their god and their religion. 

The twice-born, by contrast, have been to hell and back—and know the difference. Their religion is constantly informed by a sense of grace, because they know how thin is the line that separates sanity and insanity, rich and poor, lucky and unlucky. In case you didn’t gather, I identify more with these guys.

And how about you? How do you like to learn, or teach, sales?  Does it work better for you to focus on the good, the right way to do things, the model of success? Or do you like shining the light under the bed to scare away the sales monsters?