• International Workplace
  • 7 March 2017

Repetition: the key to learning sales success

Perhaps in more than any other business discipline, being ‘good at sales’ is often considered to be a skill you are born with, rather than something you can learn. But is it true? David Sharp asks Caroline Robinson, Director at Sandler Training in Cambridge, who specialises in helping individuals and organisations to improve their sales performance.

Caroline Robinson is a former pharmaceutical strategy consultant who has swapped life on the road for a career in sales training and consulting. As someone who’s put in the ‘hard miles’ herself, that poacher-turned-gamekeeper approach gives her a really good insight into what it takes to be successful at business development. And there are some interesting lessons for anyone in learning and development.

Caroline runs Sandler Training in Cambridge, a franchise of what describes itself as a global leader in sales and development training. Founded by David Sandler in 1967, Sandler has 250 offices around the world, providing more than 450,000 hours of training in 23 different languages.  It is the the methodology behind the ‘Sandler Selling System’ and the importance of reinforcement training to the model that have led me here today.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: are sales skills innate, or can they be learned? Caroline is quick to reply:

“Successful sales people are almost always made, rather than born – especially in the area of high value relationship selling that we operate in. It’s true that some people do have an extra ‘edge’ by virtue of their character, but much of what makes business development professionals successful can be taught.”

A fundamental principle at Sandler is to spend time working on attitude. Because if you don’t have the right attitude, you won’t be receptive to learning. And if you’re not receptive to learning, you won’t achieve substantive change and lasting success. Caroline uses the terms ‘rocks’ and ‘sponges’, metaphors created by former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward. Sponges have open minds; they soak up learning and are eager to improve. Rocks have closed minds; they are resistant to learning and reject change. For any business discipline, you need to be a sponge rather than a rock – perhaps even more so in high value relationship selling.

How does this work in practice?

“We regard attitude as one of the three key elements that make a successful salesperson (the other two are behaviour, and technique) because it is the driver of performance. I’m sure this applies to any area of personal development, not just sales. If you have an attitude that makes you open to learning, and you are tenacious, that helps take you a long way to being successful.”

"But the reason I can say most good sales people are made, not born, is because through training and development we can help them improve areas: attitude, behaviour and technique.”

The emphasis on what Caroline describes as ‘reinforcement training’ is key to embedding changes in these areas, something that struck me immediately as in tune with a recent blog I wrote about microlearning. I referred to it there as “small chunks [of information], delivered continuously over longer periods so learning is constantly reinforced … on the principle that it’s easier to take in small pieces of information and refresh your knowledge of them regularly than it is to learn a big chunk of information in one go, which is then all too often readily forgotten”.

It is interesting to see how Sandler has been applying this approach to developing individuals’ sales performance for a number of years, long since before the trend towards bite-sized eLearning took off. In Caroline’s case, this means spending time at the beginning of a new client relationship teaching the principles of the Sandler Sales System – but after that spending a large amount of her time on reinforcement, delivered through regular workshops, role plays and one-to-one coaching.

All very personal: creating the right physical conditions so that people feel safe to practice and make mistakes; picking up on nuances; providing emotional support and boosting confidence; and perhaps above all, policing learners so that they keep on track.

Bearing in mind just how much individual attention learners need to be given, I ask whether she sees the growing use of eLearning for reinforcement training as a threat or an opportunity.

“I think eLearning will play an increasingly important role in sales training, but it’s impact to date has been fairly limited. I’m sure it’s an unstoppable tide – Sandler is launching its new online learning platform imminently – and the beauty of it is that it allows you to gain insight from a wide range of experts and absorb knowledge in your own time. So I can see that it will be increasingly beneficial for improving sales technique.

“But I do feel that in sales training, especially where the psychological aspects of attitude and behaviour are concerned, there will always be a need for human input if we are to be successful in embedding change. You can learn the theory, but you will always need to practice in person if you are to be successful in the real world.”

One development where these boundaries become blurred is of particular interest to Caroline, however, and that relates to gamification. With a keen interest in the parallels between elite sporting performance and business performance, she’s mentions real-world games such as the Footbonaut and Neurotracker that are designed to improve reaction speed and train behaviours through constant repetition.

She says:

“Identifying what are the key skills that are fundamental for success within a particular sport – or any area of business – and working out how you can train those skills in a condensed, repetitive manner. So you are either getting to mastery of a skills more quickly, or you’re raising the performance bar of what is possible.

"I believe there are some really good lessons from sports psychology and neuroscience that can be effectively applied in the sales environment. There has been an explosion of interest in the sports arena in working hard to improve mental strength, that has historically been overlooked at the expense of physical strength.”

While she divides her time between training and consulting, to improve both individual performance and organisational processes, it’s clearly the people side of her job that Caroline takes most satisfaction in.

“It’s very, very satisfying to see the growth in individuals in terms of the changes in attitudes and behaviour and the results that follow off the back of them. It is immensely satisfying to do.”