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August 2019
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TD Magazine

Soft Skills and Sales Reps

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Soft Skills and Sales Reps

Video assessments help to bolster salespeople's ability to interact well with prospective customers.

Whether you're in medical sales or software sales or business to business or business to consumer, you've probably worked with someone like John. He has been a territory representative at a Fortune 500 company for several years and brings in decent business. He has an outgoing personality, but he likes to wow customers with his technical expertise during sales calls. Rather than tailoring his pitch to individual customers and their needs, John typically focuses on product features and uses industry-specific jargon to try and make the sale. Managers and peers have coached him to be more conversational, but John is hesitant to alter his approach and sacrifice what earns him a stable living. The organization believes in his potential and wants to invest in his development, but John's supervisors don't have the time or resources to provide one-on-one coaching in the field.

Sound familiar?

John's situation is all too common in the sales world. According to Forrester research, only 20 percent of meetings with sales professionals focus on buyers' specific needs, and only 36 percent of business-to-business executives believe salespeople understand buyers' business problems and offer clear solutions for them. Those are eye-opening statistics, but they speak to a larger problem within the industry: a lack of soft skills.

With soft skills comes success

Product knowledge is important, but in a customer-facing, relationship-driven business such as sales, strong soft skills make all the difference. Most people don't like to be sold, so it's up to representatives like John to forge connections with customers, figure out what their needs are, and come up with creative ways to solve them.

A salesperson's soft skills influence how comfortable customers feel throughout the process, but which ones make the greatest impact? Although different organizations may value certain competencies more than others, proficiency in these areas is often indicative of success:

  • Communication. To build rapport or articulate value propositions, salespeople must be able to communicate clearly and listen actively.
  • Collaboration. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't usually yield great results; reps must work with the customers to find the best solution for their specific needs.
  • Critical thinking. Every sales call is different, so agility is key. Salespeople need to think on their feet, analyze information, and respond appropriately to ever-changing conditions.
  • Problem solving. Issues pop up at different points of the sales cycle, so reps must be ready to handle objections and find ways to move the process forward.
  • Adaptability. Situations dictate actions, so salespeople must adapt to whatever is thrown their way if they want to secure business.
  • Empathy. Customers won't care about a product or service until sales representatives show an investment in them. Success comes when salespeople understand the buyers' needs and prioritize them above their own.

Not just for sales representatives

While it's easy to see why frontline representatives must possess these competencies, every member of the sales organization needs soft skills to keep operations running smoothly. Take the role of a customer success manager, for example. At most companies, once a sale is made, customer success managers essentially take over the account. Not only do they onboard new customers and monitor usage; these angels also spearhead renewals and account expansion.

As the liaison between consumer and service provider, customer success managers can't hope to fulfill all these duties without first developing a rock-solid relationship with the customer. These partnerships require constant communication, frequent collaboration, and a strong sense of empathy to grow and prosper. That's why it's no surprise that McKinsey research has found that some of the fastest-growing roles in the United States—sales development, customer success, and customer experience—are largely based on soft skills.

According to LinkedIn Learning's 2019 Workplace Learning Report, two of the top seven focus areas for talent developers this year are to identify and assess skills gaps (number 1) and train for soft skills (number 5). This comes after soft skills training was the top priority among executives and talent developers in the 2018 LinkedIn Learning report.

It's clear why organizations highlight these as focus areas; however, when you start considering how to address them, another finding from the 2019 report exposes a major obstacle: When time is the biggest barrier to learning, what is the best way to facilitate soft skill development at scale?

The model for soft skills training

Many companies opt for the traditional approach to soft skills training, where an outside expert delivers a two- or three-day seminar on the importance of these skills and how to best develop them. This probably includes some role play or other interactions during which employees practice key skills in small groups. However, like other training delivered in a one-to-many format over a short period of time, the lessons usually don't stick.

Sure, one-on-one training with a coach who can provide timely, specific feedback is ideal, but who can blame organizations for employing the seminar strategy instead? Most companies don't have the time or resources to assign each manager to just one or two employees, and it's difficult to facilitate continuous learning initiatives across a large workforce. Although employers may be able to justify company-wide seminars once or twice a year, the opportunity cost for ongoing training every week usually comes at too high a price. This dilemma often forces organizations to ignore formal soft skills training altogether.

Fortunately, recent advancements in technology offer a potential solution: video assessment. Video assessment solutions enable experiential learning and soft skill development at scale through structured workflows that focus on learner-generated video. Organizations often use these workflows to create exercises where salespeople practice key skills, collaborate with their peers, receive personalized feedback, and apply their knowledge within a real-world context. Such video activities give coaches and managers a baseline of each representative's proficiency level and also provide a safe space for development to occur.

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What does that look like? Let's revisit John's situation. Based on the initial assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, John's manager, Julie, decides to have him complete exercises focused on communication, critical thinking, and empathy. Each video activity follows a different workflow to target these specific soft skills. Here are examples of what these exercises may entail.

Scenario 1. John is on a cold call at a customer's place of business. He completes the discovery phase of the sales process and determines that the customer is a quality lead. Using the needs he uncovered (in this case, Julie provides them), John must deliver a tailored pitch that demonstrates the value of his company's product or service. To encourage practice and reflection, Julie gives John the ability to self-assess and re-record his video multiple times prior to submission.

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Scenario 2. In this hot-seat activity, John must respond to common sales situations on the spot. Julie plays the role of a customer and delivers scripted prompts in succession after each of John's answers. This activity aims to replicate the nature of a real-time conversation, so John's recording starts immediately after Julie stops talking. Unlike the previous exercise, he only gets one attempt at each answer. Some example prompts may revolve around overcoming objections, building rapport, and solution selling.

Scenario 3. Julie uploads a video of a representative interacting with a customer in the field. At designated points throughout the clip, she pauses the video and asks John to comment on what he sees. Examples of questions Julie could ask during this exercise include: How would you relate to this customer after hearing the problems his business is facing? What could you do differently in this situation to ensure the sales process keeps moving forward? How would you communicate value to this customer based on his needs?

While John practices key soft skills as he completes the above workflows, an integral part of his development lies in the feedback he receives on his performance. After each activity, the evaluator—in this case, Julie—views John's responses. Most video assessment solutions have feedback capabilities that enable evaluators to provide personalized coaching at specific points within each video. This helps John see exactly where he excels or still needs improvement. When appropriate, Julie can also have John's peers assess his videos for additional perspective.

Asynchronous video is the key to this kind of employee development program. This technology enables salespeople to complete video exercises on their own time and enables reviewers to assess them at their convenience. Although setting up video exercises and providing specific feedback take time, this kind of investment outweighs the opportunity cost of taking salespeople out of the field to train—especially when employers get visible results from it.

Proven improvements

It's difficult for companies to gauge the value of training when they have to wait weeks or months to see whether employees transfer new knowledge or skills to their jobs. This process becomes even more challenging when judging soft skills application. Hard skills such as product knowledge are generally easier to evaluate because there is usually just one correct answer or procedure to adhere to. While managers can program a computer to assess someone's retention of facts and figures, they can't make it feel emotions like a customer would during interactions with a representative. That's why the video component is so important to soft skills development.

Instead of blindly hoping that training pays off, organizations can use video exercises they put salespeople through as direct evidence of their competency. For example, once Julie gets a baseline of John's communication skills, she can use subsequent activities to judge how much he has improved. The video portion also provides more insight into John's thought process as he navigates through different scenarios. As Julie watches him solve problems, articulate knowledge, and react on camera, she gets the most accurate representation of his proficiency level in different areas.

So, what can organizations expect from soft skills training delivered in this format? Although video assessment solutions are still a revolutionary concept, many companies have seen positive results from programs involving many of the methods discussed here.

  • Development Dimensions International conducted a meta-analysis on leadership development initiatives in 2016 that involved more than 15,000 leaders across 44 countries. The Global Leadership Forecast found that when leaders went through a developmental approach focused on positive modeling, repeated skill practice, and post-training applications, they increased their soft skills by 49 percent.
  • The meta-analysis also found that for every $1,100 that organizations spent on developing soft skills, they saw an average return on investment of $4,000.
  • When Lenovo combined microlearning with video sales coaching, training completion rates increased 50 percent; knowledge retention also improved.

While video assessment solutions aren't the only development approach companies are taking, many of the foundational principles involved in it have proven successful. As employers search for a solution to the growing soft skills gap, one thing is clear: They need to move beyond the status quo.


Why Soft Skills Mean More Than Just Closing the Deal

The need for soft skills development extends far beyond the sales world. Automation is changing what the current and future workplace looks like in most industries. For example, the Word Economic Forum estimates that by 2022, machines will perform 42 percent of total task hours.

But with this shift comes opportunity. As machines take over many of the manual tasks that workers used to perform, new opportunities emerge for humans to work alongside technology and leverage their higher-order thinking skills to complete more complex tasks. Employees who possess soft skills—skills unique to humans—are essentially future-proofing themselves in the face of a changing job market.

Perhaps the most telling example of the shifting skills demand exists in the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2018, which notes that competencies such as critical thinking and analysis, complex problem solving, emotional intelligence, leadership, and creativity will be trending in demand by 2022.

Thankfully, the current workforce isn't blind to these evolving conditions. In 2016, the Pew Research Center's The State of American Jobs found that 87 percent of workers believe training will be essential for them to develop new job skills throughout their work life to keep up with workplace changes.

About the Author

Prior to becoming the CEO of Bongo, a video assessment and soft skill development platform, Josh Kamrath was an investor and account manager at several other leading software companies. As a thought leader in the ed-tech space for the past six years, Kamrath speaks at major education, assessment, and talent development conferences every year.

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