A Master Plan

By Heather Baldwin

Want your sales reps to become masters at their craft? Train them like pilots, says Bentley Radcliff, CEO of CompeteNet, an Atlanta-based company that provides realistic simulation training and other tools to enhance sales force effectiveness (www.competenet.com). Radcliff points out that airline pilots are masters of their skill partly because twice a year they are required to undergo extensive simulation training in which they respond to a series of emergencies until their responses become second nature. If you want your reps to adapt effortlessly to different customer moods, objections and buying preferences, he says, you need to put them through simulations of those scenarios with some frequency.

All too often, says Radcliff, sales training stops at the first two stages of learning – awareness and competence – and doesn’t move people toward the third step, mastery. Awareness comes with basic product training. Competence is achieved when reps are taught how to sell and can parrot what they’ve learned in real-world sales situations. Mastery is attained when skills required to deal with the myriad different sales situations become second nature. Just as long-time drivers don’t have to think consciously about how to operate a car, says Radcliff, master sellers don’t have to think about how to respond to variables on a sales call. They just do it naturally.

“Often a firm’s marketing department tells salespeople about their products, and somewhere along the line they give reps some sales skills training. The firm, however, leaves it to the reps to make the leap between the product and sales training,” says Radcliff. “What happens is reps run their own model up the middle and hope they get some success.”

To move reps from competence to mastery, managers must present them with simulated selling situations again and again throughout the year until the reps effortlessly can handle different situations and types of customers without thinking. The once-a-year role-play with another rep or an instructor won’t cut it. For sales skills to become second nature, Radcliff recommends simulation training up to nine times a year. Can’t pull your reps out of the field that often? Consider using a tool such as CompeteNet’s SimSell, which uses customized, interactive video to engage reps with simulated customers in realistic situations. Reps can do the simulations when it works best for them.

Regardless of whether you use such a tool, the key to sales mastery is frequency. Reps who struggle to make quota won’t become master sellers with once-a-year sales training. “The idea of mastery is you don’t stop at one time,” says Radcliff. “You build a skill over time. When you find something someone is uncomfortable with, you go back and teach it again until it becomes comfortable.” When your reps get to that point, they’re masters.