Don’t Focus Just on Skillsets

It’s become a truism: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. (Actually, it’s quite a debatable proposition.) A corollary is that therefore what matters are observable behaviors, hence the essence of training is to develop skills that generate those behaviors. We’ve all seen, in the opening page of nearly every corporate training session’s objectives statement, “Participants will learn the skills associated with the behaviors of…”

But focusing on skills alone produces dangerously myopic results.  Let me use a sports analogy here – let’s go with golf.

Whether you’re stroking a 3-foot putt or hitting a long drive, two kinds of things can go wrong:

  • You may do something incorrectly, e.g. swing in a bad plane or aim the club face wrong. This will result in the ball going other than where you intended.
  • You may think incorrectly, e.g. correct some last-minute perceived error or try to set a course record. This too will result in the ball going other than where you intended.

If the results are the same, which error do you fix? Does it matter? Remember that mental errors manifest in physical ways. A desire to “kill the ball” may result in swinging in a wrong plane. Worrying about missing the putt is likely to cause you to over-control and flinch, thus aiming the club face wrongly at point of impact.

Fixing the “doing” is improving our skillsets. It includes things such as altering the grip or moving the ball forward in our stance. Fixing the “thinking” is improving our mindsets. It includes advice such as “swing through the ball” or “trust your swing.”

Mindsets and Skillsets

The metaphor for sales is clear, I hope, though it applies equally to other fields of advisory business relationships. Sometimes we do or say the wrong thing. More typically, we don’t do or say the right thing. But how do we know which issue-set to focus on in sales? Does the golf metaphor give us guidance, or does it just help define the problem?

It’s been my experience that when it comes to sales – here comes a gross generalization – we put too much emphasis on skillsets and not enough on mindsets. A couple of qualifications: my experience is mainly built around B2B sales, with a heavy focus on complex and/or intangible products or services, and a concentration in professional services. So, I have my biases, just to be clear, in what follows.

We Live In a Skillset World

In the Western world of business, the sub-world of sales has not been immune to some larger trends. Those include, first and foremost, a recent massive trend toward quantification.

Cloud computing is relatively new. iPhones are only 10 years old. Computer laptops are only a few decades old. The web didn’t exist before the 90s. The spreadsheet was invented only in the late 70s. And the 1981 IBM PC had one (big) floppy disc that held 64K (another optional drive doubled capacity all the way to 128K).

Two other phenomena are worth mentioning: the creation of Michael Hammer’s Business Process Re-engineering strategy and the invention (courtesy of the Boston Consulting Group and Michael Porter) of the quantitative approach to competitive strategy.

These big three—computing power, process perspective, and competitive calculation—changed the way business is done. In a nutshell, we began hearing that mantra about “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and “You get what you measure.” Business began to view organizations as processes, not hierarchies, with all the data that come with processes (not to mentions manuals and procedures). All this happened within recent times for Gen X managers (but feels ancient to millennials).

Sales Skillsets

These trends greatly influenced (led to?) CRM systems. Sales trainers (influenced by behaviorally trained organization trainers) began to phrase training in terms of measurable behaviors. And after all, isn’t sales the ultimately quantifiable function?

In a skillset world, two assumptions keep popping up: one is a linear approach to cause and effect, and the other is a belief in breaking things down into pieces. The first belief views sales as “a sale, repeated over and over.” You’ve all seen depictions of sales processes, typically rightward-moving arrow diagrams. They all boil down to, “If you do X, you’ll get Y.”

The second assumption is that we gain greater control over a process by breaking it down into finer and finer pieces. This assumption has been greatly enabled by the availability of data. (It’s also been only a few years since the word “analytic” was turned from an adjective to a plural noun).

Sales Mindsets

Of course, with data and behavioral skillsets come many advantages. But there are two advantages to focusing more on mindsets.

First is that the more complex the situation, the more difficult it is to map out all the appropriate skillsets. A level of generalization, an ability to deduce specifics from the general, allows not only more customization, but more speed. With skillsets alone, all we can generate is practiced behavior. With mindsets, we gain the ability to improvise.

Put another way – mindset scales; skillsets don’t.

The second benefit of mindsets is that the more human the buyer, the less likely they are to respond to mechanistic behaviors (or the perception thereof). Sometimes we just want to interact with a chatbot, and we want it to just plain work. But other times, we want to interact with a human. And when we do, we want the person to do more than just recite rules, try to manipulate us, or emulate a robot.

Mindsets don’t guarantee behavior. No golfer ever succeeded by simply envisioning a swing and never practicing.

But if all you do is increase your repertoire of behaviors, your customers won’t be able to tell you from an automaton. The really effective salespeople have internalized mindsets, and they can generate the appropriate behaviors “on demand.”











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