Creating an environment where employees can thrive even when they encounter a competitive marketplace of wrenching change is the primary reason to train them. To create such an environment, your people need to exhibit what we call CPE – consistent performance excellence. If you are investing time, money and effort in training but you’re not getting CPE, you are probably missing one or more of the big three pillars for achieving consistent performance excellence:

  1. Proven best-practice content
  2. Practice, practice, practice
  3. Aligned and targeted coaching

As an avowed training idealist, I find it painful to admit what everybody knows: way too often, training is not taken seriously. Certainly not by culture change ninjas who sometimes greet an upcoming training session by rolling their eyes (“Waste of time – I already know how to do my job.”), or who can be heard telling others, “This is great, two paid days with no obligations.”

Sometimes, even management doesn’t take the training seriously enough. When this happens, does your executive team go about scratching their collective, puzzled head asking, “We trained them on what to do, so why aren’t they doing it?” If so, the front line and their managers must reconsider, especially if they believe that training is a crucial component to performance excellence, higher profits, better service, increased customer retentions and increased brand recognition.

It’s not mysterious – there is no great secret. It’s pretty simple, really, if not easy. If your training is failing, fading or just not taking root, it’s because of the inadequacy of at least one of three things: your content, practice or coaching. That’s it.

Content

Developing and acquiring the right content is sometimes challenging. Knowing that the content must be customized for our clients’ needs, we always talk to senior management about what their goals are for training; and they might say, “Sales! We need to increase our revenue by X percent on this product and by Y percent on that service. We need more sales to current customers.” But then they ask us to provide leadership training. Okay, we’ve delivered some great leadership training in my day, but that was to produce great leaders, not to increase sales. Your training content needs to match your needs.

Or we might tell senior management, after we’ve done some discovery work amongst the salespeople, “Your salespeople are well-schooled in product knowledge, but very few of them exhibit the communications arts and skills that lead to sales effectiveness – such as tone, tempo, smile, listening, sincerity and confidence.” But often, senior management will say, “No, we just need them to get better at product knowledge.”

No matter how well-schooled your salespeople are with respect to product knowledge content, they have to become equally schooled with respect to the “style” of content presentations, as customer buying behavior studies demonstrate that a customer will more readily buy from a seller who is credible, likeable and consultative.

Since credibility is the sine qua non of consultative selling, the use and application of sales training scripting clinic formats is recommended. In a scripting clinic, the facilitator works interactively with the customer-facing personnel to develop the best practice content and then uses role-playing for developing the best practice style techniques so that salespeople learn not only “what” to say but “how” to say it.

Unfortunately, it is also not unusual for training content to be selected solely because it has sold well and not because it has been proven in the field with companies whose needs resembled yours. There is no substitute for checking out the experiences of others who have invested in the content you are considering. If they got great results, you should, too – if, that is, your people have the right foundation for it. If others did not get great results, why would you hope to?

And finally, the concept of “leader led.” To maximize the best quality content and achieve positive behavior change, leaders (versus training professionals) should deliver the training. The leader-led concept ensures the accountability and positive reinforcement necessary to increase the motivation needed for your trainees to change behaviors and succeed, let alone achieve CPE.

When managers facilitate, the training culture change ninjas, whose favorite motto is “Don’t worry, this too shall pass,” can’t misbehave or underperform your training outcome expectation unless they’re planning an early retirement. This is true even when as little as 20 percent of the training is delivered by leaders.

Practice

Nobody ever got excellent at anything without practicing it over and over. The biggest stars in the NBA practice free throws every day. The number one tennis player in the world studiously hits for hours every day – not just fancy shots but the most basic forehands and backhands. They want that muscle memory that allows them to execute the perfect shot under the most grueling, testing, competitive conditions.

Opera singers don’t just drill the hard parts of arias they learned years ago – they start by practicing their scales. They do that because they would otherwise experience what we call the Rubber Band Principle. It’s normal for a rubber band, no matter how long it’s stretched, to snap back to its original form when it’s not tested. It’s normal for human beings to snap back to old behaviors if they have not sufficiently drilled on new, replacement behaviors.

Why would it be any different for great salespeople? A lot of what they learn does not come naturally. For example, what to say when a customer says, “You’re being pushy.” You can tell them what to say when that happens, and they can watch a video of somebody saying it just right. But if you don’t drill them on what to say and how to say it, by just winging it they are going to make a meek apology, or worse, they may say, “They make us do that,” and they will fear putting themselves out there again in the future.

But if you do have them practice on what to say and how to say it sufficiently, they are going to be delighted to hear any objection the customer might make because they know exactly how to respond in a way that converts that objection to a positive response. Instead of fearful, they will be avid, confident and energized, like athletes who truly can’t wait to be tested in the arena. Practice turns fear into self-confidence.

This is where what we call the Off-Broadway Principle comes into play. Theater producers launch shows in small venues of less sophisticated audiences so they can make their mistakes away from the bright lights. Practicing the newly learned behaviors of critical skills in a safe environment before they have to use them with high-valued customers allows salespeople to make their mistakes, be coached on improvements, and eventually do both the what and the how to perfection. They are now ready for the bright lights of Broadway.

Coaching

There are three essential elements of great coaching – that is, coaching that leads to CPE. It must be observational. It must be targeted. It must be aligned. Otherwise, it’s more like cheerleading, scolding, or just repeating instructions.

Never underestimate the power of personal observation. When you’re dealing with trained salespeople and trying to lift them to a truly superior level, general coaching is a waste of time. They need highly specific advice on precise skills performance, and you’re only going to know what advice and skills if you personally observe them in action.

As for targeting, your people have different foundations and different responsibilities. If a business developer’s performance is coming up short, you will want to target your coaching to the specific needs of that particular job. But if it’s a service specialist, you’re going to want to adapt your coaching to that set of responsibilities. There’s no value in generalized coaching.

If a golfer is having trouble with his backswing, it doesn’t help to coach him on his putting; he needs specific advice on the backswing. Different associates are going to demonstrate different deficiencies that need coaching. You want to align your coaching accordingly. If you have a great communicator who is timid about certain objections, he or she needs coaching on dispelling fear and then probably on overcoming objections. If you have another who knows exactly what to say for every objection, but comes on too strong or forgets etiquette, that’s a completely different coaching session. Coaching them both in general terms helps neither of them.

Without observational coaching, how will you know which person excels here but is deficient there? Who tends to snap back to old behaviors? What’s hard for your team to learn? That’s one reason managers need to learn the training content well enough to teach it and coach it.

The other reason is that only managers who remain on the scene after trainers depart can make sure the training is actually embedded through a combination of accountability, reinforcement and positive motivation. 

Until they’re embedded, the newly learned behaviors are always at risk of being left behind when people go back to their jobs. Nothing wastes your training investment like the failure to embed.

In summary, if you combine observational coaching with leader-led training, there’s no way that you will fail to achieve training and behavioral embedding results and increased overall CPE.

Furthermore, if you develop your top performers (which generally are 10 percent of your population), they will motivate the next 80 percent (who are the fence-sitters), and the bottom 10 percent (the ninjas) will either get with the plan or be gone. And that’s the truth.

By carefully developing your content, practice and coaching to meet your goals, you can expand your top-performing group beyond 10 percent and realize great competitive value.

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