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Developing Sales Professionals in a Competitive World

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Wed Dec 10 2014

Developing Sales Professionals in a Competitive World
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The LexisNexis Group is a corporation providing computer-assisted legal and business research, as well as risk solution services. It analyzes and collates information for professionals in law firms, corporations, government, academic institutions, and other industries. 

Darryl Cross, vice president of performance development at LexisNexis, runs the sales training function for approximately 1,300 people.  He says, “Because of the complex and specific nature of our products, most of our salesforce is highly educated. Close to half have masters or law degrees. That speaks to the sophistication of our products and our customers. Our sales professionals need to be on equal footing with our clients.” 

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One of the biggest training challenges with this salesforce is that the majority of workers are home-based and dispersed around the country. Some of the training is delivered live and in-person in sessions that are dense and rich. At the same time, Cross’s department provides synchronous and asynchronous training, using video, electronic modules, and live online classrooms to supplement the in-person training. 

“One of the challenges of doing sales training is the fact that it’s not just memorization. It’s responding to challenges in the marketplace. Memorizing a script isn’t sufficient. Our salesforce needs to practice how to sell with real people. We do as much in-person training as we can. However, because of logistics and budgetary challenges, we also recreate this kind of training in an online environment,” says Cross.     

When Cross took over the position four years ago, he made a decision to switch to simulation and role-based training. “We demand a lot of engagement and activity with our sales professionals. For example, we may do 20 to 30 minutes of instruction, followed by 60 to 90 minutes of practice in simulations of real-life situations. For these practice sessions, there are various scenarios, and we change the rules frequently. It’s simulation-based so learners can repeatedly practice what they’ve learned. It’s similar to what you’d find in a police or fire academy, or in pilot or military training,” he explains. 

“In addition, we make some of the challenges hard enough so the students cannot succeed. We put a group of sales professionals representing LexisNexis in the scenario, and then we bring in other LexisNexis sales professionals, who serve as our competition. It’s a real-life war game, where we not only get to practice our skills, but the other groups (playing our competitors) expose holes in our strategies and product offerings,” Cross adds.  

Cross’s group also uses technology in many ways. “We have virtual classrooms where we broadcast live video several times a week. We have classrooms that use Adobe Connect, where salespeople can talk to each other, or use their webcams. These tools help eliminate travel time for training. 

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“We also drive training to their phones and tablets through apps we have designed specifically for that purpose. Our department pumps out content, so a salesperson can be sitting in a hotel lobby waiting to see a customer and be reviewing training while he waits. This bite-size training supports our philosophy of continuous improvement, because training can occur on a daily basis and not just a couple of times a year at an event,” Cross notes. 

Three types of training 

Cross oversees three types of training. The first is on-boarding of newly-hired salespeople. “We have a formal process for that, as we want to make sure new hires understand our company within the first 30 days. We want them to be able to talk about the company and the products we sell. In the next 30 days, we want our sales professionals to be able to talk to customers about specific solutions we can offer. And for the rest of the year, we help transition our salesforce into a self-sufficient and continuously improving cohort that’s capable of selling 100 percent of their quotas.” 

The second type of training, about 25 percent of the total, involves learning about products. Sales people need to thoroughly understand new products or new releases of existing products. They need to know what they are, how they work, how to sell them, and how they compare to competitor’s offerings. They also need to be able to describe the effects of choosing no solution at all. 

The remaining 50 percent is training in such skills as selling and negotiating. According to Cross, “This is where we use video-recorded simulations for repeated practice. People can see how they performed, and how well they did versus their peers. Onboarding and product training is more yes/no and pass/fail. Skills training is more subjective and competitive.” 

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When employees don’t succeed at a particular part of the training, Cross finds that learning retention is usually the issue. “When an employee reads the material, but doesn’t remember it, our first approach is to have him read it again. We are big believers in working on fundamentals and repetition.” 

Cross adds, “After that, it’s usually a problem of application. If someone has taken the training but doesn’t know how to use the information in the real world, it’s often because it doesn’t fit into what he’s done previously or doesn’t sync with the clients he sees. That’s why we develop programs that include lots of practice in realistic situations.”   

There are five components of training and coaching at LexisNexis, some of which are multi-part:

  1. Emphasizing fundamentals: Sales professionals practice their skills over and over, like a baseball player in a batting cage. They master new skills and also practice existing skills so they don’t get rusty.

  2. Situational planning: With coaching, sales professionals plan their strategies for situations where they will be vying with one or more competitors.

  3. Simulation: Sales professionals practice real-life scenarios as often as necessary.

  4. Reflection: This is a period of guided review where we ask sales reps, What did you do right?  What did you do wrong?  Why did that happen? How can you make it better?

  5. Continuous improvement: Even if an employee gets a tenth of a percent better, that’s good. We’re always rolling out new products and facing new challenges, so if our sales professionals’ skills are static, they’ll not be good enough next year.” 

Linking metrics to business performance 

Coming from a sales background, Cross pays attention to metrics. “I don’t think our sales executive management, or our CEO, care about how many hours each sales professional spends in training. However, they are interested in how sales are going. So we track the training department’s success by the degree to which our reps drive more revenue, increase customer retention, and increase the preference for our products versus competitors’ products. These are indicators that training is giving us a competitive advantage,” says Cross. 

The department tracks two types of revenue: long-term contracts versus how much revenue a sales professional generates in a year. “If training is effective, both of those numbers should go up. In other companies, some sales training groups might be reluctant to tie their success to the performance of the business. At LexisNexis, I believe we have no other purpose, because that’s exactly what we tie ourselves to. If those numbers aren’t improving, our training must not be sufficient and we will change it. Our metrics are oriented to business results, not to training production. Whatever the company’s success metrics are, that’s what training has to be tied to and not to internal training production. If I want to sell our training projects to management, I have to speak the language of growth or no growth, and the facts will be the translator. I need to pay attention to the things our senior executives and sales leadership pay attention to,” he says. 

“We made a decision to decentralize training and assign a performance consultant to each of our major customer segments, such as law firms (large and small), corporate clients, government, and academic institutions. The consultants who work for my department have regular meetings with the vice presidents of our different sales segments to identify and adjust training needs, whether they’re new or ongoing. We go over those reports to see how we’re doing based on the actual sales results of each segment,” Cross continues. 

Cross feels that training sales professionals is harder than most other types of training because of the changing nature of markets, of customers’ expectations, and the limitless information that technology makes available to all parties. New approaches and new skills must be learned constantly, while the core skills of selling must be mastered and practiced consistently. Today’s sales professionals must be able to think on their feet. 

“Selling is not a profession for the faint of heart,” says Cross. “Each month, you essentially have to start over and hit your quota again. Sales training must take a similar approach if it is to remain relevant and effective.”

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