In an ever-changing world and complex buying environments, traditional selling skills and competencies are no longer sufficient to drive sales performance. The ability to quickly adjust and add skills and to align behaviors to new, changing and complex customer situations is what sets world-class sales professionals apart from the rest. Developing these adaptive competencies is a key challenge for sales enablement leaders to drive sales performance.

“Adaptive” in evolutionary biology

Adaptive competencies refer to the process that organisms follow to survive. The main components applied to sales are to maintain competencies, knowledge, and strategies that are important to be successful, to remove or modify elements that are no longer useful, and to develop competencies that lead to future sales success. As in biology, so it is in sales; it’s evolution, not a revolution. Triggered by changing environments, adaptive competencies become a key differentiator.

Case for Adaptive Competencies

We all know that what products, services, and solutions are and what they do – compared to each other – is no longer differentiating in today’s buying environments. Differentiating, relevant, and valuable for customers is to learn what a provider’s products, services, and solutions could MEAN for them: their specific situation, their challenges, and their results. Working backward from the customer’s specific context and the involved stakeholders’ specific concepts require salespeople to quickly adapt relevant knowledge, activities, and behaviors to the customer’s specific buying situation. And the term knowledge covers both: capability knowledge and situational knowledge. Additionally, the specific decision dynamic how an individual customer network is going to make a decision this time determines the engagement, the selling strategies, activities, and behaviors.
Even within the same account, every buying decision is made differently. And that’s why a situational selling approach matters. More than ever before. This situational dimension requires adaptive competencies that will determine future sales success.

Adaptive competencies enable sales professionals to quickly connect the dots across selling skills and competencies, various knowledge areas and strategies, regarding customers and opportunities.

Being fluent in different customer situations, that’s how we perceive sales professionals with highly developed adaptive competencies. Prerequisites to develop adaptive competencies are two-folded: Fluency regarding skills, knowledge areas, methodologies, and processes, as well as curiosity, open-mindedness, the joy to share and learn and the pursuit to become better every day.

Specific adaptive elements have to be developed to unfold the power of adaptive competencies. These elements are situational awareness, principles, creativity as well as critical and strategic thinking, relevant along the entire customer’s journey:

  • Situational awareness is a salesperson’s holistic perception of a given situation. It’s the ability to quickly catch and realize a situation in a holistic way, and then to focus on the relevant elements and dimensions. This situational awareness enables a salesperson to quickly draw the right conclusions how these elements fit together what’s relevant and what needs to be clarified. Situational awareness combined with a customer management structure boosts salespeople’s ability to quickly explore the customer’s situational context.
  • Principles instead of rules: Applying customer management principles instead of following strict process rules brings the accountability back to the salesperson. Principles require interpretation to be applied accordingly to a particular situational context. Engagement principles such as providing perspectives require salespersons to deeply understand the mechanisms to apply them successfully according to a particular customer situation. Salespeople must have completely internalized those principles beforehand. It requires them to be fluent regarding methods, skills, and competencies. Additionally, principles have the side-effect to widen the boundaries and to open a space that doesn’t exist in the world of strict rules.
  • Creativity: The open space between strict rules and principles should be filled with a salesperson’s creativity to create differentiation, relevance, and value. How to provide perspective for customers, how to tackle their business issues and how to show them that alternative ways may lead to better results for them – the space is wide open for salespeople to be creative on how to develop new perspectives for clients and how to orchestrate a group of stakeholders to a shared vision of future success.
  • Critical and strategic thinking: This ability is highly relevant in complex buying environments that are always changing. Based on a salesperson’s fluency especially in sales methodologies, critical and strategic thinking are the ingredients that allow a salesperson to sharpen the deal strategies. This ability is closely connected to questioning the status quo and asking the tough questions, internally and at the customer. That’s what makes the difference between a thought-through deal strategy and a wishful-thinking approach.

Building adaptive competencies is a journey with several steps. All adaptive elements require specific learning methods. As an example, situational awareness requires exercises that show people what they don’t see but what’s happening combined with techniques how to improve these awareness skills. Creativity requires to understand what creativity really is, and lots of different exercises how to unleash people’s hidden potential of creativity. Critical and strategic thinking requires a focused development approach to unleash this potential and to put it in the context of specific sales situations.

The adaptive elements, based on the prerequisites, have to be put together in context-specific, highly interactive, simulation-based training scenarios. Situational awareness, for instance, to be valuable requires applying principles accordingly, strategic thinking and creativity to sharpen deal strategies and to adjust activities. The potential of all adaptive elements is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

This article has been written for Top Sales Magazine, the July 2017 edition.