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8 min read

Learning - to Learn to Sell

By Mark Gibson on Apr 29, 2020 7:00:00 AM

A new culture of learning cover

How Salespeople Learn

Learning is the most important skill for salespeople to master in the second decade of the 21st Century. Unlike medicine or law, selling is a profession that is learned by doing. The more calls you make, the faster you learn, and the more you learn about what works and what needs to change. Already in this decade, we are seeing the effect of combinations of exponential technologies that are profoundly and permanently disrupting the marketplace. Salespeople must learn how to learn and apply new knowledge quickly to contribute value to buyer-seller interactions.

Salespeople who are not learning and broadening their knowledge base as a habit will quickly find themselves out of touch with buyers who don’t need a sales relationship and can find and acquire the information they need for themselves, with minimal help from salespeople.

The rise of robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, asynchronous selling techniques, free trials and self-service have already displaced salespeople from transactional-selling roles.

Traditional Sales Training and Learning

There are lots of ways that salespeople can learn. In a long-established way, salespeople are inducted and begin to learn to sell through applying a product-centric pedagogy, typically laden with PowerPoint slides, conducted as an in-person new-hire sales training course. Online learning is typically product-oriented and when combined with classroom training does little to accelerate sales ramp. Ongoing learning is typically event-oriented at annual SKOs or QBRs. Selling skills are typically learned on the job by rookies - or the experienced new hire is expected to already possess them.

new culture coverThese traditional methods of training and learning have been obsolesced by the Coronavirus pandemic and hopefully will never return.

Traditional sales pedagogy attempts to convey explicit knowledge about products, markets, and buyers. But is the world of your customer static? As outlined above, the rate of change in the marketplace is increasing, as exponential technologies disrupt status-quo processes in almost every industry.

How to Evolve Sales Learning

The Coronavirus crisis has spurred a wave of remote learning innovation in just 6-weeks, as thousands of companies canceled in-person kickoff and new-hire training events and threw every ounce of creativity they had at virtual events.

As some of these highly effective remote events have proven, to evolve sales learning we need to adopt new practices, and we need to experiment and use modern learning theory to prepare salespeople for successful careers in a changing world.

Here are a few of my thoughts about modern sales learning;

  • If you are not learning, selling isn’t fun.
  • If you are not learning, you are losing ground to your peers and industry competitors.
  • Every successful or failed prospect call is a learning opportunity, but how do we capture and share what is of value from these experiences?
  • Do you record your team’s calls? If salespeople don’t record their phone calls or videoconferences, they will never grow, because they are oblivious to the areas where they could improve.
  • Learning together and from each other is fun, as ExecVision, Gong.io and Chorus.ai have proven. These are the only sales enablement tools that have ever gone viral in an organization since sales enablement became a thing and the latter two companies are rocketing toward billion-dollar valuations.
  • All learning in sales teams should public, there is nowhere to hide in peer call reviews.
  • Salespeople in peer reviews are both learners and teachers. If you need to learn something fast, teach it.
  • Set aside at least ½ day a week for learning from and in peer call reviews, each salesperson brings their best and worst calls.
  • There are many ways to sell, not just one way. It’s important for sales managers to coach and highlight great moves in these sessions when appropriate and to coach, sometimes prescriptively when it doesn’t work.

The Tacit Dimension of Sales Knowledge

The tacit dimension of sales knowledge is hard to share. I have adapted the Wikipedia definition of Tacit Knowledge for our purposes.

“Tacit sales knowledge can be defined as selling skills, ideas, and experiences that salespeople have, but are not codified and may not necessarily be easily expressed. With tacit knowledge, salespeople are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit sales knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction, and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks. To some extent, it is "captured" when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice”

We can make a distinction between explicit learning (about something static, i.e. a product or a service) and the acquisition of tacit sales knowledge through coaching, peer-learning, and social learning in learning to become a sales professional.

The Future of Sales Learning

Selling is a practice where we learn as we go and the faster we learn, the faster we grow in the profession. As sales enablement professionals, we need to teach less and enable salespeople to learn more through experiential learning workshops vs. training, coupled with modern eLearning courseware and engaging learning paradigms.

Learning must evolve to cater to experimenting, playing, sharing, creating, observing, and stealing what works and making it our own. Practice must become team-play through imaginative use of new technologies, social networks, social learning, storytelling, and intelligent gamification.

  • Learning must move the "middle-of-the-pack" to make an impact.
  • This means creating, capturing, and sharing tribal knowledge and best practices dialogue that translates product-centric marketing messaging into conversations of possibility around the issues buyers really care about.
  • This knowledge must be available for salespeople at their point of use via online playbooks when they need it, so they can learn when they get stuck in a just-in-time fashion.
  • Online Playbooks should be open-sourced, meaning that they harvest and deliver tacit sales knowledge and quickly adapt as lessons learned are fed back from the field.
  • Tacit sales knowledge capture and delivery via online playbooks are critical in producing consistent execution of the selling process to elevate performance.
  • eLearning must evolve beyond checkbox quiz responses to Powerpoint slides, to immersive experiences to create new understandings. Learning requires effort to be effective.  Salespeople should be encouraged to synthesize key points from multiple concepts and articulate new understandings, practice new dialogue and demonstrate competency.
  • Practice and spaced-repetition coupled with certification, create new opportunities to elevate sales performance and “move the middle” to elevate team performance.
  • Salespeople must learn to quickly acquire and retain useful knowledge by reading broadly outside their immediate sphere of interest.
  • Learning to speed-read or speed-listen to Audible are great ways to acquire complementary knowledge that make you a more competent and aware human being. I tried and failed at speed-reading, but I love Audible and chew through books at 1.8-2X speed, often re-listening to them to remember. Making notes and writing thoughts on learning and capturing and indexing key ideas extend the learning from reading into useful knowledge for years to come.

The future of sales learning is exciting, fast-moving and a journey of discovery through innovation, experimentation, and adaption. It is incumbent on the sales enablement community to drive this transformation in sales learning. Learning to learn to sell is not a one-off event, it is a mindset and lifelong practice for everyone wanting a career in sales.

This article adapts various ideas from John Seely Brown’s writings and videos on a new culture of learning and my prior article The Half-Life of Learned Skill is 5-Years.