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This post originally appeared in Forbes on March 28, 2018.
If you’re like me, you travel from time to time for business, perhaps spending a little too much time on airplanes. Imagine on your next trip, you’re walking up the jetway to board the plane, and you’re greeted by the pilot at the entrance. You engage in some small talk, and she shares that this is the first time she’s flown this particular model of airplane. Registering some alarm in your face, she adds, “But don’t worry -- I had to pass an extensive written exam and was cleared to fly it.”
“Passed a written exam?” you think to yourself. “How ready could this pilot really be? Am I ready to literally put my life in her hands to find out?”
Fortunately, this scenario would never actually happen in real life. Commercial pilots receive weeks, if not months of rigorous training when learning to fly a new type of plane. They’re also required to spend many hours in a simulator, being assessed and coached by an instructor. They will then spend hours in the air, again being assessed and coached, until they’re deemed certified to fly solo.
When it comes to B2B sales -- while there may not be life-or-death stakes -- sales enablement leadership can take a lesson from the airline industry when it comes to training. Too often, sellers are asked to complete courseware that requires assessment only through quizzes and tests -- then are sent out ill-prepared to engage with buyers, ending in meetings that, at best, never quite take off. Experience may be the best teacher, but in sales, it’s not the most economical. Allowing sales reps who aren’t ready to “practice” on buyers will cost you real revenue in terms of lost deals and will damage your brand.
Shift To An Assessment-Centric Approach
For years, traditional learning and development departments have taken a consumption-centric approach to employee learning. Using the traditional learning management system (LMS), the focus is on whether or not employees completed the learning (e.g., Did they take the course on corporate policy? Did they take the course on IT safety?). This approach might be fine for many rank-and-file employees, but it falls short when it comes to sales. With sales, it’s not whether reps have completed the course that really matters. It’s whether they can demonstrate proficiency and readiness to engage buyers.
Case in point: You’re launching a major upgrade to a core product in your portfolio. Would it suffice to have the reps consume the learning content, take a quiz or test at the end and then send them out to the field to start selling? No. In this case, without a deeper assessment, you’re guessing or hoping they are ready.
[Related: Why Sales Content Alone Won't Cut It]
In contrast, an assessment-centric approach doesn’t emphasize whether reps have consumed the learning. You only care that they can pass your assessments (which will likely be impossible to do without reviewing the learning in the first place). An assessment-centric model better engages reps in the learning process -- that is, when reps know they’ll be observed and assessed, they’ll pay better attention.
Importantly, your assessments need to be designed to ensure reps are truly ready to engage buyers before they ever actually engage one.
Use Three Levels Of Assessment
When creating assessments, you want to think about them at three levels:
• Knowledge-checks: These are typically delivered as quizzes and tests that are embedded within learning content. Knowledge-checks may also include periodically and unexpectedly sending questions out to the field after learning has been consumed -- think of it as a “pop quiz” -- to check on retention. An example would include assessing reps’ knowledge of a certain product or whether they have grasped the concepts of a new methodology. The focus here is simply to answer the question, “Did our reps master the concepts we need them to master?”
• Simulation: Going beyond mastery of concepts, simulations assess reps’ abilities to apply what they’ve learned. They give reps the opportunity to practice in a “safe” learning environment before engaging with buyers, subsequently receive coaching and ultimately be assessed for field readiness. Traditionally, simulations have meant structured role-playing. Today, they also include the ability to use video coaching and assessment tools -- where reps record themselves doing a product demo, delivering a pitch, etc., send that video to a manager and/or coach and receive an assessment and feedback. In the next decade, as with flight simulators, we’ll see AI-powered sales simulators too -- where avatars simulate complex buyer interactions. While knowledge-checks simply let us know whether reps grasp concepts, simulations assess reps and answer the important question -- are they ready?
• Observation at the point of engagement: As its name would suggest, level-three assessments involve actually observing a rep engaging with a buyer. This could encompass managers reviewing reps’ email conversations, listening in on phone conversations or recordings (check your state’s privacy laws) and/or observing a sales meeting in the field. So while simulation tells us if reps are ready, level three shows if they can actually apply what they’ve learned with a buyer. It is the ultimate assessment and typically will be done by a sales manager or coach, who should use a structured assessment guide.
Are Your Reps Ready?
Whether you’re onboarding new reps, launching a new product or transforming your sales organization to have different buyer conversations, sales enablement must answer important questions for their sales leadership: “Are our new reps really ready to engage with buyers and do battle with the competition?” “Are our reps ready to sell our new product and help accelerate time-to-pay-back?” “Are our reps ready to engage in the new conversations we need them to have?” Without the three levels of assessing, you truly are just guessing. You may hope that reps are ready, but you really do not know. As the late, great sales consultant and trainer Rick Page wrote, “Hope is not a strategy.” When it comes to determining the readiness of your sales team, assessment is the only reliable strategy.
READ MORE: Want to ensure your sales reps are prepared for any situation? Download a free copy of our eBook, The 4 Pillars of Sales Readiness, to learn more!