Puppy Training for Salespeople?

Friends of mine recently had a new addition to their family which they are very excited about. She is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle and it is exactly what they were hoping for. As we spoke I could sense the excitement of being proud parents one more time after having two legged and four legged “kids” for many years. Jim commented how training methods have changed so much over the years. He is taking his counsel from the breeder and a book entitled Dog Training for Dummies. Gone are the rolled up newspapers to spank the dog and other punishment techniques, everything today focuses on positive motivation.

Jim and I have known each other for many years, having worked together in the sales arena as sales leaders. Our conversations typically gravitate to sales. He commented that for all the many ‘improvements’ in developing sales people it was sad that so much remains the same.

Some quick background. Jim came up through the ranks, proving his considerable selling talent, and then moved into sales management. In fact I recall very clearly the day he came into my office to apply for a Regional Sales Director opening. My first thought was he might be best to remain in his sales role given his exceptional performance and income level. My second reaction was he should follow our ‘normal’ progression route, taking a Sales Manager role before seeking a Director level. Did I mention Jim was a good sales person? He gave a compelling list of reasons why this role was the right one for him. I challenged him on every point, adding my concern the position was in a new town where he didn’t know anyone, have any established network, nor would he get the luxury of any ramp-up time as results were needed immediately. After some deep soul searching I gave him the job. Turned out this decision ranks up there with the best ones I have ever made.

Jim adopted many of the industry old methods for developing people. He focused on product knowledge, basic selling and relationship skills, with a heavy focus on activity management and ‘the numbers’. He was a firm believer “activity leads to results.” So how did Jim do? His regional office became number one in the country. He achieved this by incorporating a heavy emphasis on coaching, coupled with his attraction power which allowed him to bring new talent to the sales game.

As we spoke he commented he wished he could start over as a sales leader. When I asked why, he said he believes there is a lot to learn from the training dogs. He went on to explain, while he was a strong believer in his team and loved being a coach, he felt there was too much emphasis on the negative and not enough on the positive. I replied that I never saw him with a rolled up newspaper, he laughed and he said he didn’t need one. Instead he would make public the activity levels of every rep and their sales results. He remained firm in deploying the corporate sales curriculum, which while solid, could have used some changes in focus.

I asked Jim, “How has your thinking changed?” He responded he was always a champion for his people, tried to recognize their achievements often, and kept a positive perspective. He went on to say he perhaps should have looked at each one as a new puppy. A new puppy needs lots of love and attention at first until they understand the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Acceptable behavior is rewarded with immediate and frequent recognition and treats. Unacceptable behavior responses include a retraction of attention and a stern verbal admonishment. People he points out are no different than canines in that they seek acceptance and want to please.

Jim went on to say doing it all over again he would put far more emphasis on relationship building and questioning skills. He said he would consciously focus less on presentation skills and more on listening skills. He observed most consumers today are looking for an advisor, not a salesperson. They want to deal with someone they can trust and who truly is an expert at understanding their needs and wants, then helping them connect the dots to determine if the product or service they are representing does or does not, do what they are hoping it will.

I challenged him on activity management asking how he would address that. He confirmed it is important for the new sales rep to know they can get in front of people so there needs to be attention here in the early days. We talked about a transition over time where referrals began to take on greater weight and countered the need for other forms of prospecting. Jim mentioned if he could influence a person to have the right sales mindset, everything else looks after itself. If you see yourself being successful, others will too. If you see everyone you meet as a potential opportunity, they may indeed be receptive to your desire to help them.

Jim summarized by asking, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if your sales team had the same loyalty and dedication to their customer, you and your firm, as your dog does to you?” At the very least, the notion does give ‘paws’ for thought!

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