Reinventing the Wheel for Sales Training (Part 1)

In the U.S., the width between train tracks is always four feet, eight & one-half inches. This odd standard was chosen by an early 19th Century British engineer and is used in 55% of all rail systems today. Sales training today is loaded with this kind of “that’s the way it’s always been done” inertia. It’s time to re-think that particular wheel.

In 1825, civil engineer George Stephenson designed the Stockton & Darlington Railway in northern England. He chose four feet, eight inches as the gauge or width between rails (adding a half inch later on) because he was familiar with that gauge used in other projects. Some claim he measured the ruts of a wagon road, which had remained the same width apart since the days of chariots in the Roman Empire. That story is unlikely, but it does illustrate a problem we have today: doing things a certain way because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

The the four feet, eight & one-half inch standard is not universal. Only 55% of the world’s rail systems use it. It’s not even ideal from an engineering perspective. Many others, including Stephenson himself, later believed that a larger gauge would have been better. Since the mid-19th Century, however, attempts to change it have failed—mainly because of cost and just plain inertia. It’s an apt analogy for today.

The 4-Foot, 8½-Inch Sales Management Problem

This type of inertia exists in the sales management arena. The mentality of “that’s the way it’s always been done” makes rapid performance improvement IMPOSSIBLE—regardless of how much technology investment you throw at it.

Let’s take a look at a big screw-up that 95% of all sales organizations make every day: the inability to identify top performers, or the techniques that make them successful. This costs billions, drives unwanted turnover, slows the learning pace of new hires to a crawl, and injects all kinds of unnecessary friction and frustration between salespeople and sales managers.

In 2000, we were working with several companies (e.g., Schwab, America Online, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) that were rapidly expanding call center operations. They asked us to help with training because customers were complaining and, while efficiency metrics were fantastic, sales and customer service numbers were awful.

When visiting these call centers, the first thing I did is get about 5-10 of their top performers in a room and ask some simple question about how they work, what they believe drives their success, how they’re managed, and so on. Then, given the fact that virtually all the calls were recorded, I’d ask a sales manager if he/she could give me 10-20 examples of fantastic customer interactions and the same amount of mediocre ones—so I could get a feel for the gap. In nearly every case, they were able to provide average or mediocre recordings in a matter of minutes. However, it took days or even weeks to find stellar examples. In many cases, they couldn’t find them at all.

This happened over and over, from company to company, and it STILL happens when we start projects with companies that want us to work with their call centers. Invariably, they manage numbers and quotas, rather than identifying successful team members, and coaching others to emulate their behavior. They manage “the way it’s always been done.”

The problem is NOT that call centers simply have low-level, or poorly managed employees. This issue exists at all levels. In the last 20 years, I’ve worked on projects with over 120 companies, many with highly-paid sales teams. At the start of every project, I always meet with top performers and then ask management if there are recordings or even transcripts of a top performer making a sales call—even a staged one. In some cases, they have highly scripted examples from new hire classes that sound like something you’d hear in new-hire training. I have NEVER met a sales manager who could quickly show me clear examples of top performers explaining their competitive advantages, differentiating factors, value proposition, elevator speech, credibility statement, or agenda statement. It’s simply not the way it’s been done.

In the continuation of this blog, I’ll go into ways to change this—by applying actual coaching to the problem. Sales manager inertia cannot be overcome with mere technology. We have to reinvent the way things are done.