Because product-based training is largely dependent on new products, it’s important for companies to use any respite as an opportunity to advance and improve a sales staff’s skills, as Steelcase did just a year ago.
“Last year was not a big year for new products,” said Ken Dutkiewicz, director of global learning and development for Steelcase University. “When I sat down with the vice president of sales, we looked out three years. When we looked at the last fiscal year, we saw there was not a lot of new product, but the year after we’re going to be introducing a lot of new product. So he said, ‘I need to get the skills of my sales force better so that they can better implement the product when it comes to market.’ We knew that [the] lull in product gave them an opportunity to build skill, and we really think that’s going to pay off for us.”
The abeyance in new products allowed Steelcase to take a step back and look at the broad picture to see where its sales staff was strong and where it needed help.
To do so, the company surveyed its management and sales force to identify the biggest deficiencies. The sales employees responded with three critical skill sets: financial acumen, ability to negotiate and account planning. The company then made a fairly large investment in training to develop those capabilities in its sales force.
The next step was to assess the sales management and its coaching abilities. Dutkiewicz said he found that these skills were not consistent from sales manager to sales manager.
“The reason we’re looking at this as a project is we didn’t think we had it nailed,” he explained. “We had people who were really good coaches; we had people who were so-so coaches. We had people who said: ‘Gosh, I’m so busy I don’t know if I have the time to coach.’ If we’re going to be consistent and we’re going to get the maximum out of the investments we make in learning, we have to coach to the things that we build.”
After recognizing that, Dutkiewicz said Steelcase now is closing the training loop by reinforcing the sales staff’s skills through structured coaching to ensure what was taught in the classroom happens in the field.
“We’re going to [take] all of our sales managers through a coaching program,” he explained. “We’ve decided that in order to get the maximum lift out of any training we do, there has to be a strong coaching component. As a matter of fact, coaching may get you more than the actual learning event. We’re really putting some pressure on our managers to coach to the things that we’re training on.”
Product-based training, like any training, needs to be proactive instead of reactive. Learning executives need to assess new product schedules several years ahead and allow for skill-augmenting sessions during years when few new products are rolled out. In addition, companies need to provide an oft-forgotten layer to their training programs: coaching.
“Our sales leader has been adamant about the fact that you can’t miss coaching opportunities,” Dutkiewicz said. “Over the last six months, we’ve really put a lot of emphasis with the sales leadership team in making sure they understand their responsibility from a coaching standpoint; it’s not just about learning, it’s about the overall performance you get. It doesn’t make sense to just stop at a training session. You’ve got to have your management team prepared to coach on how well they are using those skills.”