Sustainment After Sales Training Means Getting Better at Every Turn
Sustainment is elusive. Shifting priorities and everyday challenges distract from the constant attention required to sustain new selling skills. Consistency is difficult in an evolving business environment where seemingly urgent, unexpected needs surface daily.
For this reason, leaders need to think about sustainment differently because true sustainment is not just about maintaining skills — it’s about sustaining continuous improvement.
If you’re thinking about sustainment as protecting the status quo, then you’re thinking about it wrong.
Sustained improvement offers considerable benefits. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that employees who sustain skills demonstrate a 16 percent increase in overall performance as reported by their managers. Moreover, this same group exhibited 125 percent less burnout than their peers.
What makes sustainment so powerful is that it serves as a basis for what the researchers behind the study identify as growth, or “thriving.”
“We think of a thriving workforce as one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future — the company’s and their own…people who are developing their abilities are likely to believe in their potential for further growth.”
This growth is characteristic of a sustainment strategy.
How Sustainment Drives Results
Competitive advantages are fleeting. Advancements in technology have brought affordable, effective capabilities to nearly all businesses. This phenomenon has led to a continued pursuit of the next big advantage.
As a result, businesses are churning through “advantages” at an accelerating rate. Consider research from Deutsche Bank showing that business cycles are likely to shorten in the near future.
This trend may explain why research from AT Kearney shows:
“about two-thirds of companies have a strategy horizon of four years or less…Another 30 percent have plans of five to six years, and only 6 percent of companies in our survey have a strategy that stretches beyond six years.”
Corporate lifespans have nearly halved in the last 30 years. Constantly switching strategies is expensive, risky, and labor-intensive. The better solution is to focus on employees and their abilities to sustain skills because a strong workforce is competitive in any economic setting.
Some advantages to committing to a strong sustainment strategy include:
- Driving Engagement: A business cannot succeed without employee engagement. Long-term results and innovation come from employees who are “dialed-in.” The value of engagement is seen in the estimated $1 billion American companies spent on employee engagement as recently as 2017. Employees recognize the importance of their skills when they see investments like this from leadership. Additionally, engagement is becoming a necessity in business, as leaders have less time to interface with employees amid a growing list of other responsibilities. That is, managers today have less time to manage.
- Boosting Alignment: It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of change without controlling all variables. Sustainment creates consistency across team members. As a result, managers can be certain that business outcomes are tied to learned skills. When teams are aligned around a core set of skills, they’re better able to work in cooperation and even help one another. Alignment is especially important as team selling becomes the norm. As the number of decision makers increases, there is a greater need for a team of sales professionals to engage the group with a unified approach.
- Improving the Customer Experience: The most productive business relationships are long-term. Creating a long-term relationship means delivering a consistent customer experience. Sustained selling skills are the foundation of this approach. A sustainment framework operates as a quality control process. When customers know that they’ll receive strong service every time, they experience less anxiety around a purchase. This reassurance is important because we know that research from Harvard “reveals that emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making.”
How To Develop a Sales Training Sustainment Strategy
Sustainment requires structure. As leaders get a more informed sense of what works and what doesn’t, they can change their sustainment framework, as needed.
Here, we look at the five key steps, in sequential order, that we believe form a sound sustainment strategy.
Communication is critical. Sales professionals need to know that sustainment is a priority for leadership. These expectations should be expressed in clear, actionable language containing no ambiguity.
Additionally, leaders should underscore the urgency of the expectations by expressing them in the right medium. That is, they should conduct a meeting in which all expectations are outlined in person. If the selling organization is distributed geographically and an in-person meeting is not possible, then leaders should share expectations via video.
The key is to avoid easily dismissed messaging like emails or a short memo. Just as sales professionals are expected to sustain skills, leaders should be expected to sustain communication by reinforcing expectations consistently.
One announcement is not enough. Achieving this critical first step immediately places leaders ahead of the competition, given that “only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work,” according to research from Gallup.
Connect Skills to Challenges
Skill training often unfolds in the controlled environment of a classroom. Scenarios are clearly defined, and outcomes are hypothetical.
Converting learned selling skills to the real world is more challenging. Leaders need to help sales professionals bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world by encouraging skill adoption immediately after training when it’s still fresh.
When sales professionals see the effectiveness of the skills in real selling situations, they’re more likely to continue using them. In other words, skill effectiveness gives sales professionals agency, and agency underpins sustainment.
To connect skills to real selling challenges, leaders should also encourage sales professionals to “post-game” each sale, whether successful or not, and reflect on lessons learned. Consider Harvard research findings showing that “reflection has an effect on both self-efficacy and task understanding.”
Change takes time, and most of us are impatient. If people don’t feel like they are making progress with the new behaviors, they are much more likely to return to their pre-training behaviors.
It is important to break up behavior change into incremental steps so that people feel that they are making progress. In addition, success, even partial success, is important so that people feel the benefits of putting in the effort to master the new knowledge and skills.
Many sales professionals have habits that are counter to the new skills. Leaders can help them overcome this problem by using the old habits as a trigger for the new ones. As Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit explains, “the Golden Rule of Habit Change: you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”
Hold people accountable for their behavior change.
Doing so helps people to take personal ownership of change management. Without accountability, sustainment can feel like a “top-down” approach in which sales professionals take directives from leaders. This approach puts distance between the sales professional and the outcomes of their work.
Sustainment requires sales professionals to see the connection between their efforts and results. Create this setting by communicating that each person is responsible for sustained skill adoption. At the same time, remind employees that the leaders represent a support structure and resource.
Accountability is a routine; it must be perpetual and underpinned by direct feedback. Employees need to know where they stand. Honest communication is important because it ensures that the employee’s understanding of expectations matches those of the leadership.
Finally, accountability requires measurement. Both leaders and employees appreciate the clarity that comes from well-defined metrics.
Shape the Culture Around Sustainment
Behavior changes must be “real” and not a “flavor of the month.” If people go through training but their work environment has not noticeably changed to support the new behaviors, people will think that the new behaviors are optional or, worse, that management is not serious about change.
On the other hand, if people go through training and return to a work environment that is significantly different and better aligned to support the new behaviors, people will see that management is serious about this change.
Shaping the culture around sustainment means creating routines and initiatives that advance the goal of growth.
Some key ways to do this are:
- Reinforcing One Skill Set At A Time: Modern selling skills work by connecting with one another. Therefore, sales professionals need to gain one skill set at a time. For example, it’s critical to adopt an effective questioning strategy before gaining the ability to move on to the step of floating ideas, which is a precursor to recommending a solution to a customer.
- Aligning Skills to Higher Priorities: Continuous improvement requires commitment from sales professionals. Gaining this commitment means aligning skills to higher priorities so that each person understands how their improvement drives core business goals. Skills become much more important when each is seen as a necessary link in a chain of capabilities that leads to advancement.
- Using a Variety of Modalities: There are a variety of options for driving a comprehensive sustainment strategy, from video coaching to virtual workshops. Think about each skill or capability you need to drive and how you need to do that in the immediate, short-, and long-term sustainment journey. Then, let your goals drive the modality you select. Furthermore, mixing up your approach with a variety of modalities can support engagement and interest along the way.
- Mixing Coaching and Training: Sustaining skills and consistently improving them requires both coaching and training. Coaching helps sales professionals put learned material to practical use in the field. Moreover, it provides a cadence in which continued improvement is possible through regular interactions designed to hone skills. Learning helps show sales professionals what good looks like. Adopting complex skills requires both environments.
- Providing On-the-job Tools for Performance Support: Sales professionals need skills where they will matter the most — in real selling scenarios. On-the-job tools make it easier for sales professionals to bridge the gap between the organized setting of a classroom to the disorganized and often messy environment that is the customer’s buying journey. Mobile-optimized learning and skill reinforcement has made this approach scalable.
- Developing a Feedback Mechanism: To constantly improve, sales professionals need to know how they’re doing. They need to know where they can be more effective. A feedback mechanism keeps the focus on skill growth by offering insights that are direct, honest, and practical. Having this information is critical for sales professionals because it offers them the opportunity to put the ideas into practice fast and see the results that encourage the drive to continue improving.
How Sustainment Evolves Into A Culture of Growth
Sustainment is important because it’s a precursor to growth. That is, growth cannot occur if each new skill set erodes.
Consider superior selling skills as a structure. Each new skill sits on top of the last. If any of these underlying capabilities give way because of lacking sustainment, then the structure collapses. This tiered configuration of skills is the sales academy structure common to selling organizations today.
The sales academy structure is a necessity as selling becomes more challenging. Sales professionals can no longer rely on one core skill. Instead, they need to draw on a spectrum of capabilities and seamlessly shift between those skills. Reaching this level means building upon a sustainment strategy and creating growth.
Fortunately, sustainment provides the environment for exactly this growth in two key ways:
Sustainment Emphasizes the Long Game
Long-term growth is too burdensome to be supported by the leadership alone. Everyone must participate. However, participation must emerge from within. That is, employees must have a sense of responsibility for their achievements. Creating this responsibility starts with forming individual identity.
Identity emerges when employees see themselves as valued. They no longer see themselves as a person responsible for executing instructions. Instead, they see themselves as in control of their success.
This ownership encourages them to develop alongside the company rather than as a replaceable part. Leaders can incite this ownership phenomenon by expressing trust in employees. In fact, research from the Journal of Business Ethics shows that simple acts like receptiveness to advice, delegating important tasks, offering public support, and encouraging creativity all yield respect, and respect leads to growth.
A sustainability strategy is the first link in this chain of events because it shows employees that the leadership wants to invest in them. Sustainability is a high-stakes bet on the future, and no leader wants to place that bet on someone they don’t believe has potential.
Sustainment Boosts Resolve
Success is the ultimate motivator. A sustainment strategy provides success, which, in turn, drives sales professionals to reach further. As each team member learns to retain skills, they develop a repeatable performance that yields incremental gains.
Building a work environment around this concept is a competitive advantage for organizations, given that only 30% of employees strongly agree that their manager involves them in goal setting, according to Gallup research. Moreover, this same data shows that just 19% of respondents strongly agree that they talked to their manager about steps to reach their goals. Simply put: “only one in two employees clearly know what is expected of them when they go to work every day.”
Sustainment is valuable because it provides a routine in which these critical but often ignored conversations can unfold.
The result is a more purposeful environment where employees believe their work has meaning. As employees become more achievement-oriented, they become more receptive to continued skill adoption because they know that each new capability learned brings them closer to an outcome that rewards them emotionally and financially.
Traditional ideas about sustainment are often incomplete.
They miss the crucial idea that true sustainment means constant improvement. Without regular improvement, sales professionals stand still while the competition moves forward. Matching and exceeding their pace demands consistent growth.