Adaptive Competencies – Key Differentiator of World-Class Sales Performers

Did you watch the ski world cup in Vail, Colorado a few weeks ago? Try to put yourself in a world-class skier’s shoes and imagine being on the racing track and performing the downhill race. Knowing the racing track is one thing. Knowing that the weather and snow conditions will change while you wait for your turn is another thing. But being able to quickly adjust your decisions, strategies, tactics, actions, and behaviors to the new and changed conditions, and all of that without losing speed – that makes the difference. This is an excellent example of adaptive competencies in action. Now, what has skiing to do with professional selling? A lot.

Every customer makes every decision differently. Every time.

Customer situations, like skiing conditions, are never the same. Customers may be confronted with the same environmental context, but what counts is what it means to them. And that’s always specific. Every customer stakeholder group is different, especially the stakeholders’ different viewpoints on how to approach the situation. The customer’s desired results and wins are also different, every time. That does not mean that there are no clusters and patterns to work with. Of course, there are efficiency and growth challenges, transformational and effectiveness challenges, and the list goes on and on. Additionally, there are different, but formalized, buying processes. But the characteristics of each specific challenge and the related buying culture are different in each customer situation. And this uniqueness requires adaptive competencies to win business in a scalable way.

Selling approaches have to be relevant, valuable and differentiating – and that requires adaptive competencies

Whatever the methodology is you trained your sales force on, the difference between average and world-class goes beyond execution – it’s about salespeople’s adaptive competencies based on a learning culture. Adaptive competencies encompass the sales professional’s ability to adjust skills, shift knowledge and align strategies and behaviors to new, changing and complex customer situations. For sales professionals, that means being fluent in all relevant selling skills and competencies, and being fluent in various knowledge areas (customer and capability knowledge) and their specific area of expertise. Only on such a solid foundation can adaptive competencies be developed and then applied effectively. Only world-class ski athletes can win completely different races such as the Beaver Creek race and then the Kandahar race the following week. And that’s the same in sales with your A-Players.

Building adaptive competencies happens in iterations of training, practice, learning and coaching

Every sales force has different and specific challenges, a unique enablement and training history and, therefore, a different point of departure. Whatever your specific situation might be, a solid foundation of selling competencies, various knowledge areas, and customer management strategies has to be in place before adaptive competencies can be developed.  This foundation is mandatory. You don’t train a ski athlete on the Beaver Creek racing track before the athlete is a highly skilled and experienced skier.

Adaptive training sessions can consist of various highly interactive sessions, including real-world simulations. Those curriculums should consider cycles of training, practice, and learning, reinforced by coaching before the next cycle begins with training. Those cycles ensure that people can learn what works for them and adjust what didn’t work so far. This approach also requires that coaching is an integral part of reinforcing and building adaptive competencies. Integrating the frontline sales managers early builds the foundation for execution and reinforcement.

Key learning objectives should include situational awareness (the twin to adaptive competencies), applying principles instead of rules, and creativity as well as critical and strategic thinking.

Adaptive competencies, well applied on a solid foundation in a learning organization, reinforced by coaching, are a key differentiator in today’s complex, constantly changing B2B environment.

What Are the Main Investments in Sales Productivity? Part 1: Sales Enablement

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence,
intelligent planning, and focused effort.”
–Paul E. Meyer

“Where have you or do you plan to invest to improve sales productivity?”
That’s what we asked the participants of our 2014 MHI Research Institute Sales Performance and Productivity Study. Investments in improving process, skills or competency training (81%) and investments to improve product knowledge, market and competitive intelligence (82%) are the leading investments for 2014 and 2015.

We will focus today on the enablement topics. The other productivity investments in sales operations, sales technology and sales managers will be discussed in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

No training without content, no content without training

These investment areas cover both, knowledge transfer and behavioral change. The former is primarily addressed with content services, the latter with training services. But two one-way roads in parallel don’t lead to more productivity. These services have to be connected to create value instead of noise. Connecting the dots is important to make sure that content and messaging for the salespeople are customer-focused and consistent at any time, without redundancies and gaps. Providing content alone is not enabling the salesforce. Enablement has to make sure that people learn how to use different content resources effectively. For sales training, it is essential that the supporting content is available, on-demand. Product training has to be well aligned with enablement content and client-facing content. Connecting the dots sounds simple, but it is a huge challenge, especially in larger organizations where different functions contribute to these services. If so, enablement is ideally positioned to take on the orchestrating role across different functions with the bigger picture in mind and knowing what salespeople need.

Connecting the dots between content and training

Regarding knowledge, content is the leading enablement service (portfolio, industries, competitors, customers, internal, etc.). Training comes into play in two ways: First, product training should build on the internal and client-facing content that salespeople will use later on, regardless which function is responsible to provide product training, as mentioned above. Orchestrating that is enablement’s responsibility. Second, some pieces of content, such as newly designed playbooks, content packages or new ROI or other sales tools, require a “how to use” training service, to make sure that people understand how to use these resources effectively. Short video clips are the first step to making a big difference in terms of value and adoption.

Training on skills, competency and processes is more focused on behavioral change. Content has a supporting function. Nevertheless, salespeople should have access to this supporting content at any time, but in a valuable way. Providing supporting content in small chunks when needed (depending on the stages of the opportunities salespeople work on) creates add-on value. The next step would be to create small, on-demand training modules to refresh what has been learned, depending on the sales person’s selling context.

Stay tuned: Part 2 will cover investments in sales operations and technology.


Please have a look at the related blog posts:

Sales Enablement: Auto-Pilot versus Strategic Thinking

Enablement in transactional and complex sales environments

Sales Enablement’s Role in Value Messaging

Is Sales Enablement Making Salespeople Stupid? Part 2 – Sales Enablement’s Role In Value Messaging

In Part 1 of this series we discussed the question: Do salespeople rely too much on the organization to get things right at the expense of strategic thinking? This was a panel topic a few weeks ago in Atlanta, at the Sales Force Productivity Conference, organized by the Sales Management Association. Today, let’s consider another question the panel discussed:

Has sales enablement led to an inability to communicate value messages?

Thought provoking, indeed! Our research at the MHI Research Institute shows that the inability to communicate value messaging is year over year the biggest inhibitor to sales success. On the other hand, one of sales enablement’s main goals is exactly that: Equipping salespeople to have more valuable conversations with prospects and clients along their entire customer’s journey – to increase sales growth and performance. Something seems to be wrong. Let’s take a deeper look.

Value messaging is dynamic and modular – but not scripted

Value messages express the business value of a product, solution or service, mapped to the customers’ specific challenges and their desired results and wins. Furthermore, value messages have to be tailored to the different phases of the customer’s journey as well as to each buyer role.

There is no “one size fits all” value message or value proposition. To be effective, value messages have to be focused on what a product, solution or service means for the customer’s specific situation and their desired results and wins, rather than what a product is and what it does. As the customer’s focal points change along the customer’s journey, the value messages must also change. Additionally, they have to be tailored to different buyer roles and often per industry. That requires a dynamic messaging approach that helps salespeople to quickly access and customize value messages for specific selling situations.

But dynamic value messages – just as any other piece of sales content – can never be used without the salesperson’s strategic and critical thinking (see Part 1 of this series).

Creating value messages has to be changed first

We design value messages by working backwards from the customers’ journey and their specific challenges.  This may feel counterintuitive for product and marketing people who have done it the other way around for decades. Often, different product (marketing) teams compete against each other to get salespeople’s attention for what may be product-centered sales content. That’s simply not how buyers buy. Buyers buy the value of products and services to achieve their desired results and wins.

Changing the design point in content creation and value messaging from a product to a customer core approach is a serious change process that shouldn’t be underestimated. Such a transformation should be orchestrated by a strategic sales enablement function that understands both the customer and salespeople.

Applying value messages effectively is an ongoing training and development issue

It’s not enough to get the creation process right and to provide value messages on an enablement platform. To be effective, salespeople have to be trained to deliver the value messages effectively. This is a challenge that’s often overlooked. Messaging training has to cover two dimensions in parallel: knowledge transfer and behavioral change because value messaging is different from pushing products.

Sales enablement per se doesn’t lead to salespeople’s inability to communicate value messages. Only the inability to change does.

Sales enablement can create real value if the messaging creation process is changed and if salespeople are trained to deliver those value messages in different situations.
Often overlooked, but key to success: The front line sales managers’ coaching approach has to support exactly this transformation to reinforce continuous improvement – training, practicing, coaching, adjusting, practicing -> learning.

Finally, salespeople are always responsible for the messages they use in front of customers. Only they can decide, based on synthesizing the customer’s context, the different stakeholders’ concepts and their specific decision dynamic, what kind of messages will create value and support their perspectives.


Related blog posts:

The Inability To Communicate Value Messages – Biggest Inhibitor To Communicate To Sales Success 2014

Sales Enablement: Customer Core Framework to Provide Perspectives

“The Expert” – Why Understanding Your Customer Is Key To Provide Perspective

Providing Perspective – A Customer Core Principle


Enabling Principles To Develop Salespeople’s Adaptive Skills

Let me start by defining a couple of terms that I’ll be using throughout this article.

Principles provide guidance that are based on an organization’s core values how to deal with different customer situations. Principles require interpretation and adaption to the specific situation. Instead, rules are clearly defined statements with almost no space for interpretation. Rules define what and how to do in a certain sequence, given a defined situation.

Demanding, complex buyer networks require adaptive sales professionals

Today’s customers are very demanding and more risk averse than the customer from a few years ago. The number of involved customer stakeholders is growing, and buying processes are more formalized than ever. Decisions are no longer based on features and functions but on financial business performance criteria. Furthermore, every customer makes every decision differently, every time, which makes every sale different. Sales professionals have to learn, unlearn and relearn very quickly due to those changing buying environments. That covers all areas of knowledge, selling and problem solving capabilities. Therefore, an adaptive mind set is the prerequisite to remain successful even in complex environments.

Navigating complexity – principles are key to success

When embedded in a framework, principles, defined as guidelines (see above), and based on core values, such as providing perspectives, can be easily adjusted to those different and complex situations. Rules wouldn’t be flexible enough for complex environments. A customer’s journey has iterations, especially in the early phases. The more customer stakeholders learn, and the more new stakeholders get involved with different concepts, the more likely they will step back and tackle the challenge again from a different perspective. Ideally, a sales professional has provided a more value-creating perspective and caused such iteration. The flexibility of principles combined with the ability of the sales professional to apply those principles fast to new situations is an A-Player’s recipe for success.

Enabling Principles

Sales principles are focused to create a specific value for customers to help them achieve their goals. In parallel, they help to move deals forward. Sales enablement has to define those principles how to achieve each stage of the customer’s journey, derived from the sales methodology. As an example, the principle for the awareness phase could be to develop a shared vision of the customer’s desired future state to drive their desired results. There are multiple ways achieve such a shared future vision of success. But the success depends on the customer’s specific context, the stakeholder’s different concepts, and the sales professionals’ decision dynamic expertise and their adaptive capabilities to adopt principles to a specific situation fast and effectively.

Sales enablement has to build frameworks with enablement modules addressing those principles. Design point as always is: customers at the core.

  • Level one is the knowledge foundation. It covers packaging content modules stage per stage in interactive and dynamic playbooks. And it teaches how to use them effectively.
  • Level two is the skill foundation, it’s about all relevant selling capabilities, mostly provided as training services.
  • Level three makes the difference. It’s about training the sales professional’s adaptive capabilities based on the provided knowledge and methods. Training to create impact has to be an ongoing, consistent practice to achieve world-class performance. It has to be reinforced with a connected coaching practice by the front line sales managers.

Level three training – “selling simulation” would be the better word – is about practicing business awareness in different conversations with different stakeholders at different stages in different situations, but in a safe environment.

Enabling and sharpening adaptive skills is the missing piece in sales enablement that equips sales professionals to play in the Premier League, to deliver significant results in today’s complex and fast changing buying environments.

How do you equip your sales professionals’ adaptive skills?

The Difference Between Simplification and Simplicity

If only it was this simple: Hire to a sales stereotype, give them a pitch and turn ’em loose. Sales experience – not necessary. You need critical thinkers preferably without a sales background.  How did the sales profession miss something so… simple? Or maybe it just looks that simple on the chalkboard.

Simplification has its roots in math, following strict rules. The purpose of simplification is to make something easier to understand. Who wouldn’t want that? Simplification done the right way is a useful process to reduce an existing matter to its essentials, stripping away everything superfluous and redundant, which requires some heavy duty critical thinking.

Unfortunately nowadays simplification is often performed by people without sales experience ignoring the above. Taking the fast track in this case leads to “Experience doesn’t matter anymore.” An excellent example what can happen with a serious topic – oversimplified. Leading people in the wrong direction. Creating more confusion than value. As a sales leader, you cannot afford to follow a misleading approach based on overhasty and wrong conclusions.

Simplicity is different, it’s a holistic approach.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
–Leonardo da Vinci

Simplicity is based on clarity, which comes from a complete understanding of the issue to be simplified. Applying simplicity correctly means to define the different elements of sales experience in the first place, such as knowledge in different areas, conversational, questioning and social skills, collaborative and competitive behaviors, attitude, business acumen, vertical knowledge and others. Simplicity would require to look deeply at your sales system and at the buying systems your organization has to deal with. Then, simplicity would require to analyze all dimensions from both perspectives, then synthesize both views before making conclusions.

Then – and this is the visible difference – simplicity creates a framework in the beginning how to look at the topic from different perspectives to make it easier to understand and to navigate a complex issue. Simplicity would probably come up with a different framework for transactional sales and for complex sales. Simplicity doesn’t allow that important dimensions are not considered at all. That’s exactly the trap with simplification, that right in the beginning, relevant dimensions are taken out of the equation – ironically in order to “simplify”.

As customers make their decisions differently, every time, because their situation is different – so do sales leaders. There are no silver bullets. Every sales organization’s challenges are specific. Every sales organization’s customers are different. The way how your specific customers want to engage with your sales organization is different as well.

Simplification is taking the fast track – which includes the danger to be wrong, not to add the value you possibly could.

Simplicity requires more thinking in the beginning to create a framework which helps people to navigate a complex issue really easily – but only to create the biggest possible value at the end.

Simplicity is pure and precise.
Simplicity strives for perfection.
Simplicity requires critical thinking.
Simplicity accepts no excuses.

This blog post was first published at  The Sales Thought Leader Blog.

How To Drive Cross-Functional Collaboration With Councils – Part 2: Trainings Council

Sales trainings – what’s crossing your mind first? Product trainings? You are in good company. But that’s only one of several sales training categories. That’s why there are many different stakeholders, perspectives and target groups to be orchestrated. And that’s the reason why cross-functional councils can increase effectiveness significantly.

At this point, we assume that an overall strategy is in place and that sales trainings are considered as a strategic issue: More in Dave Stein’s excellent article “Tactics vs. Strategy: The Distinction Makes a Difference”.

Let’s look at the two different target groups: Front line sales managers and sales reps. Whatever you invest in sales reps, you will have much better results, if your sales managers are equipped accordingly – how to become a world class front line coach for their teams. To equip the sales managers the right way is essential to leverage any sales system’s full potential.

Let’s look at different training categories that are relevant for each target group, but in different shapes and forms:

  • Skill trainings that cover e.g. value messaging skills, storytelling skills, questioning skills, presentation and negotiation skills or how to manage tension. Coaching is part of this category.
  • Product or portfolio trainings – revisited.  They should equip people how to sell, what products and services do and what they mean to different customers, rather than what their features and functions are. Ideally, these trainings are closely connected to messaging trainings. If integrated, even better.
  • Sales methodology, sales process and customer’s journey: This is all about how your sales methodology and your processes look like and why it helps to be valuable and successful. Account management is also in this category.
  • Tools and systems: CRM, SFA, sales enablement and collaboration platforms, pricing tools, proposal tools, client visit tools, on all devices, and many more.

So much for that. Your foundation should be an overall sales enablement framework with the customers at the core, with different sales milestones that are mapped to the different stages along the customer’s journey. All that should be connected to the sales process. Such a framework is your design point for all enablement, not only for training services.

Let’s define a Trainings Council as a cross-functional strategic board that makes strategic decisions on design, piloting, rollout and impact metrics for all defined sales training categories and for both target groups: sales managers and sales people. The execution can remain in the initial functions. Budgets should be assigned to the council, but your point of departure will often be the other way around.
True leadership is required!

Follow these steps to initiate your trainings council:

  • Create a compelling story to sell your vision internally and to get senior executive buy-in: Address the challenge clearly (current focus is too narrow on product trainings, an integrated big picture is required across all training categories on what and how to sell, efficiency potential between content and training has to be leveraged, coordination has to be improved to avoid “random acts of sales support”). Make pretty clear, that sales managers need a special focus on coaching to leverage a sales system’s full potential. Your story is to make the whole training landscape much more efficient and effective. In a perfect world, the sales, the marketing and the HR leader are the council’s senior executive sponsors.
  • Define the trainings council lead: The person, who leads the strategic sales force enablement team should lead the trainings council to provide strategic guidance, based on the overall framework. Make sure that your partner in crime, the content council leader, is a member of the trainings council.
  • Define the council members: Typical members are the leaders of product & solution marketing, vertical marketing, portfolio management, content council, any kind of dedicated training teams and – often overlooked – HR business partners and skill development leaders are important members.
  • Create a council charter: Such a charter defines vision, mission and principles, defined outcomes for each phase of your roadmap, members, sub-teams and sponsors as well as a meeting calendar. Creating this charter together will help you to build a strong team.

Define a first roadmap:

  • As-is Analysis and big picture: Create transparency on all the different training services that happen across the sales system. Map them to three dimensions: Your target groups (sales managers and all sales roles), the customer’s journey (where along the customer’s journey it this training most relevant?), and to your training categories. Identify redundancies and gaps. Create a big picture of your desired future state based on the above mentioned dimensions.
  • Define two fields of action: One to fix the worst redundancies, one to address the most important gap (which will be often a sales manager coaching program).
  • Create a roadmap from current state to future state and define teams to execute the first two projects: Such a road map needs milestones that are easy to communicate (design, pilot, rollout or as-is-analysis, redundancies are fixed and gaps are closed), that help you to track progress and to communicate success and to address necessary decisions to your sponsors.

These three streams decide on your council success: Your vision and how well you execute on it. The next two streams are ongoing streams, which – depending on your organization’s maturity – have to be developed from scratch or just to be honed.

  • Align trainings and technology to increase efficiency and effectiveness
  • Create metrics along the customer’s journey to measure efficiency and effectiveness

Start your trainings council and create impact!

This post was published initially @ TopSalesWorld, December Magazine.