Leadership Operations

2019 SMA’s Sales Force Productivity Conference – Day 1

Wait, is that blog post title right? Isn’t this a program management blog?

A wise person once said to me, “program management is operations,” and the last few years, I’ve been taking that to heart, rounding out the more operational functions of my team and increasing my knowledge/skills in various operational areas.

My latest focus is on a sales force’s operational productivity and effectiveness, and because I learn best by jumping “feet first” into a topic and surrounding myself with experts and the language, here I am at the Sales Force Productivity Conference, hosted by the Sales Management Association. Huge kudos to the person who recommended the conference to me (you know who you are!).

When I saw that the first session was “Creating a More Agile Sales Force,” I kinda had to go. Sadly, because my flight was delayed leaving Chicago, I was not able to make that session. However, the content will be posted after the conference, so I’ll review it then.

After a few hours delay, I arrived in Atlanta, and headed to the Ritz Carlton downtown, where the conference was being held (really happy the hotel night discount was as much as it was!). Just in time for the second session of the day, which was a Symposium on Sales Organization Learning and Development: Research and Insights on Emerging Practice.

Symposium on Sales Organization Learning and Development: Research and Insights on Emerging Practice (link)

This session was a panel discussion with Michael Ahearne and Phillip Wiseman (both of University of Houston) leading and Adrian Voorkamp (Johnson Controls) and Damian Ferguson (Schlumberger) on the panel.

The session was anchored on research studies that looked at how various approaches of learning and development (L&D) impacted sales force effectiveness, which was measured by the ability to hit quota. There were two studies 1) Emerging Trends in Sales L&D and 2) Current and Emerging Practices in Salesperson Onboarding.

The studies were seeking information to inform how centralized vs. decentralized L&D approaches work in today’s world of technology and digital learning and how effective are sellers being trained; what’s working and where can there be improvements?

The studies found that two-thirds of organizations surveyed are forecasting to have increases in investment in Sales L&D and Onboarding in the next three years. About 30% reported that there wouldn’t be a change, and the rest reported a decrease.

Sales Training/L&D

Even though investment is forecasted to increase, when asked if Sales Training was effective, only 26% said that Sales training was effective. 27% said that it was somewhat effective, and 47% said that it was ineffective. When asked about the quantity of L&D in their organizations, 81% reported that it was Too Little, with 8% reporting that it was Too Much, and 11% reporting that it was The Right Amount.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.31.52 PM.png

So where are the effectiveness gaps?

The biggest gaps were regarding 1) Customer Knowledge, 2) Sales Methodology Processes and 3) Market/Industry/Knowledge. These topics/components had the widest gap between a topic being scored as important and how effective the L&D was.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.32.47 PM.png

The study then went on to study the data by 1) General Onboarding, 2) Onboarding New Hires w/o Prior Sales Experience and 3) Onboarding New Hires w/Prior Sales Experience.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.40.39 PM.png

In the panel discussion, the role of the Sales Manager was discussed, and the need for the Manager to “patch holes” to round out the training, and the panelists stressed the need to measure the effectiveness of the L&D training to better understand the value that it’s providing to the organization.

There was discussion around the “event culture” where there is a training event when someone is hired, and there are a lot of positive feelings, but the practical application of learnings soon after is usually lacking – usually the corporate training is very “peanut butter” and “not like the real world” once the CRM, CPQ and ERPs get involved.

The suggestion is to move to a multi-modal training in some cases, and also rely heavily on the Sales Managers because when training is “too centralized,” it can be seen as “someone else’s job.” If a Sales Manager is responsible, then they will ensure that their direct reports have what they need and there’s accountability for performance and enablement.

Centralized support can help by having scripted programs, making it easy for the Sales Manager, partnering with Business Partners to check-in and even culminating the training in a capstone program. Tech can enable this as well; however, it needs to look less like an LMS.

Damian from Schlumberger shared that he and his team use MindTickle and Metrics that Matter to deliver training and measure its effectiveness, especially to measure how much of the material was “scrap learning” that can’t be applied in the real world.

When discussing the content that should be given the highest importance it was: 1) Customer Knowledge, 2) Product Knowledge and 3) Process Knowledge.


Moving to Onboarding, all panelists spoke to the importance of defining what Onboarding means, e.g. is it being set up in systems or being ready to sell. For this session, the later definition was used – inclusive of initial training, what’s expected of the role, achieving some level of competence, carry a quota and general admin info knowledge.

The importance of clarifying roles and responsibilities was also discussed – the importance of role clarity and role conflict (where there is a lack of overlapping responsibilities).

Adrian brought up that the onboarding approach and content to be learned depends on how long the process is between contact to contract. The greater the length, the content will be differentiated. If it is a short length, it’s easy to script a repeatable process, one does not need in-depth knowledge of the customer and the product. There’s a lot more focus on the product needed because it’s a complex process, that also requires one to understand the customer.

Damian shared that the core classes are around negotiation, bidding and presentation skills, however, they are customized by product lines based on the knowledge that a seller needs based on the product and the target customer. Also, how the sales process is trained on varies based on circumstance. These areas need to be customized because a basic, “here’s the CRM, figure it out the rest” approach doesn’t work. Ride-along and cohorts were other examples of ways to onboard sellers.

I asked the panel the question of how does an organization understand the current level of knowledge within a sales force of the customer, and Adrian responded that at Johson Controls, they surveyed the sales team to rate their sales managers on the product, customer and the process, and that provided some eye-opening data.

Deliverying Content Optimally 

In this section, the panel discussed topics such as segmenting the sales force into learning groups, the benefits of a single event and continuous delivery and how to incorporate customizations.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.41.20 PM.png

Damian shared that Schlumberger is rolling out the 21 Minutes program to “give employees time to learn.” This will create space and make it “okay” to be comfortable with learning during the day vs. learning in the evenings and/or on the weekends. They also highly customized the training by ensuring that all roles have job codes and material is mapped to each code using the ADDIE method, which helped identify gaps and inform needed training.

Adrian shared that the recommendation for the Expertise Economy book, which provides some ideas on how to disrupt more traditional learning and development concepts. Ideas like multi-modal learning and how there are disconnects between science and the current business of learning, and the benefits of learning platforms like Degreed.

Role of Sales Managers in Onboarding

Back to the studies. The studies found that a mix of ownership between a centralized group and the Sales Manager was the most effective approach to onboarding.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.42.57 PM.png

There is accountability on the Sales Manager where the onboarding script progress is tracked and shared, similar to revenue results. A manager should have flexibility, but there can’t be too much flexibility. There is some self-driven accountability where the Sales Manager will lose their job if their Seller doesn’t hit quota.

Also, it’s important to remove any potential disincentives to a Sales Manager providing training, e.g. if they manage a P&L, they may be disincentivized to send a Seller to training because it comes out of their budget. However, if training costs are covered by a centralized budget, then there isn’t a disincentive.

When it comes to accountability, there can be accountability that Sellers must go through onboarding and ongoing training, where the L&D team sends a report on compliance. A Sales Manager can request that a Seller be exempt from the training, but it has to go to the equivalent of a Regional Director. On the compliance report, exempt counts as complied.

On the flip side, it’s also important for L&D groups to be able to quantify the ROI on the training, e.g. how much money do I make if I send someone to this training? This is where Metrics That Matter can also help because the process is able to quantify the value, e.g. $1 turns into $1.05.

There was also discussion around the impact of various generations, e.g. those who are close to retirement and the “freshouts.” Also, the technique of hiring experience so that there isn’t a need for training, and what Johnson Controls has found is that the “freshouts,” who may start out slower than the more tenured sellers, end up meeting more of their quota starting in year two.

Digital in Sales Onboarding and Onboarding on the Job

Next, the discussion moved to the role of digital in sales onboarding, and if it can deliver value. The panelists discussed how they blended digital into their onboarding and training.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.43.55 PM.png

The panel stressed the point that it’s critically important that the Sales Manager understand the information in order to hold the team accountable. For example, if a Seller just came back from SPIN training, and the Sales Manager couldn’t even spell SPIN, then that’s the training is not going to be successful in the long run because the Manager isn’t following the process.

Do not teach something that the Managers are not going to enforce.

The conversation then turned to if it’s possible to “onboard on the job,” and another study was shared where a major retailer tried out an approach with a cohort of Sellers where most of the learning was on the job, and the study found that it was more effective, especially with the Sales Manager being given ownership for the Sellers onboarding. Sellers were able to implement and apply the knowledge immediately.

This works best when Sales Managers have a “narrower scope of control,” because less direct reports and fewer admin responsibilities allow for more time to ensure that their team members are successful. This approach is very contextual based on organizational circumstances.

Overall, I really enjoyed the session and appreciated the insights from the panelists, and I’m looking forward to the full day of learning even more tomorrow!




0 comments on “2019 SMA’s Sales Force Productivity Conference – Day 1

Leave a Reply