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The role of practice in sales rep performance and productivity: Part 1

Learn. Practice. Perform. No one argues with the sequence. And whether you’re a little leaguer just getting a feel for bat and ball, a newly initiated carpenter, a new mom or a freshly onboarded sales representative, the logic is inescapable: The more you practice, the better your skills will become. But, as important as it is, there’s a lot more to optimizing a sales force’s productivity than practice. Let’s go back a few steps.

The potential to truly maximize sales force productivity (SFP) is rooted in a fundamental change in the learning game. Although there was nothing wrong with the way we approached learning in the past, it was limited—by compliance tracking requirements, resource constraints, delivery mechanisms and mental roadblocks.

Some of those challenges are still there, to be sure. But our options for addressing them have improved and expanded dramatically because technology has grown into a game changer, a difference maker.

Today, the mobile devices sales reps use are tools with the potential to optimize their performance and productivity. As a result, mobile technology is achieving new gains in productivity and opening a whole new world of opportunity.

So let’s examine a basic framework for how to optimize sales force productivity that includes three essential pieces: alignment, content and continuous learning. Alignment refers to the coming together of the sales, marketing and training departments in a manner which allows them to see each others’ activities more clearly and to work together toward a shared goal—greater selling success.

A definitive content strategy will prep, aim and deliver information in the most useful way for sales reps to receive, consume and apply it. Continuous learning is iterative in nature. Think: process not event. Once these basic building blocks are in place, the framework can be applied.

So what are reps expected to learn and apply? Content, of course. Make no mistake about it, content is at the core of enabling your reps, and it represents a two-fold challenge: content creation-delivery and feedback-improvement.

Think of the first component—content creation-delivery—as a literal machine. It is the process, personnel and procedures any organization has in place to generate content in its various forms. In an ideal world, after this machine turns out content, reps receive it and provide immediate feedback.

Additional feedback from peers and other relevant communities, as well as prospective buyers and actual purchasers all flows into the iterative funnel and presto! Out the other end come new versions of the content, strengthened and improved by the various feedback streams. In the real world, it seldom happens so flawlessly.

Interfacing with content is at the heart of reps learning, and judging from research findings, there is ample room for improvement in how sales reps receive, consume and apply content. For example, according to a recent Cahners survey, 58% of buyers report that sales reps are unable to answer their questions effectively. Are they simply not learning? Or are they not learning the right things?

According to IDC, a staggering 90% of selling content is never actually used in selling. Worse yet, some studies, including one from MGI Research, have suggested that as much as 70% of the $10 billion invested in enterprise mobile software has been wasted.

Part of the reason is that sales, marketing and training departments are out of alignment, as we have seen. However, with technology-enabled alignment, things change. With the visibility that alignment creates, trainers have a better window into what reps need. They have points of connection that allow them to build, test and iterate.

An agile content strategy means you can fail fast and move on, building quickly upon successes. To be sure, agile is the core of continuous learning. To be agile (nimble, quick, responsive) is to be iterative in nature and continuously expanding reps’ abilities and confidence. However, without the learning component, a sound content strategy is little more than a good idea in search of a purpose.

In the past, restraints limited and slowed down learning, but technology has changed the game. It has made it easier to equip a training program for continuous learning. Mobile makes it constant, eliminating the intervals between formal learning “events.” Mobile technology makes learning a long-term fluid process because learners are always connected, and there’s no need to wait for anything to perform.

A good way to think about today’s mobile-enabled learning is a concept called 70:20:10. Developed by Charles Jennings, the idea suggests that 70% of learning happens through working, and 20% of it occurs with coaching and feedback. The remaining 10% of learning is the result of workshops and courses. Said another way, an astounding 90% of learning happens informally. That means 90% of learning depends on meeting people where they are—not in expecting them to meet you in a formal and often-contrived “place.” That’s a reality that meshes ideally with mobile.

In part two, we’ll examine another critical piece of the SFP framework. We’ll look at the science of practice, brain functioning and whether or not there’s any truth to the assertion that “Practice makes perfect.”

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