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Great Sales and Service People: Nature or Nurture?

When I encounter abominable customer service I can’t help thinking, How did this person ever get hired for this job, let alone pass their sales/service training course?

And that gets me thinking about something our clients often ask us: “If we want our people to have great sales and service skills, should we just search for “naturals” – people born with the disposition and ability to sell and serve skillfully?”  It’s the old “Nature or Nurture?” question.

Yes, you should keep a sharp eye out for naturals.  But I would add, “Good luck with that!”  Experience says you’re going to stumble across that miracle type only once or twice in your whole career.  Because think what it means to be a “natural.”  Courageous, or perhaps fearless.  Personable.  Persistent.  Attentive.  Thoughtful.  Conversational.  Positive.  Logical. And on and on.  Really, what are the odds?

But if you find such a rarity, by all means, grab him (or her), give him whatever he wants, and count your blessings.  Then go back to finding people with enough of the right disposition that you can nurture them into great sales and service.

And when you find these “nurtures,” here are seven useful tips for ensuring their success. (I know they are useful because our company—Cohen Brown Management Group—teaches them to organizations around the world.):

Tip #1 –  Don’t ask the naturals to tell you how they do it or teach the nurtures.  

I promise you, the naturals don’t know how they do it.  They’re mildly surprised that others need to be taught.  If they offer you explanations, you can count on hearing some oddball theories.  “I pretend I’m talking to my best friend.”  “I just keep talking – eventually it works.”  “I just launch myself into the zone, where everything is clear and easy.”

Not exactly trainable tactics!

That’s not because the naturals are not smart or reflective.  It’s because you’re asking them to explain something that just unfolded in nature.  You wouldn’t ask them how they get their hearts to pump or their hair to grow.

So leave your naturals in peace.  But make the most of their talents by carefully but quietly studying them, discerning their best practices and coaching others on them.

Tip #2 – Find out what the nurtures need and tailor your training accordingly.  

Nothing undermines learning like being taught the wrong stuff.  If you teach what they already know, they tune you out because it’s patronizing.  If you teach sophisticated techniques to people who don’t have the basics, they tune you out because it’s beyond their reach.

Instead, find out where they are in terms of current capabilities.  And not just capabilities but current practices.  If they know how to do something but they aren’t doing it, that calls for training, too.  Only when you have done this assessment are you ready to construct your training around their current capabilities and their gaps.

Note I did not say, “Pull out the closest training modules.”  Otherwise why bother doing the assessment.  Instead use tried and true training solutions but tailor them to the specifics you learned in your needs assessment.  It’s amazing how attentive a class becomes when you teach them exactly what they know will fill their gaps.

Tip #3 – Surface fears to overcome them. 

You hear it all the time from sales trainees:  “What if the customer doesn’t need it?  What if they think I’m too slick or pushy?  What if I’m catching them at a bad time?  What if I don’t explain things well?”

There’s a single subtext to all those what-ifs:  I am afraid.  I’m afraid they might object.  And if they do, that’s like rejecting me.  I don’t want to put myself in that position.

Of course customers will object.  Birds sing.  Bells ring.  Customers object.  But, trainees must learn, objections are not objectionable!  The first buy sign of a prospect is an objection – or as I put it: “Objections are the royal road to closing a sale.”

So get your trainees to voice their fears so that you can teach them how to overcome them.

Tip #4 – Make employees clear, capable, and motivated.

This is what we call the Success Triangle.  People need to first be crystal clear on what is expected of them.  Then they need to be capable – that is, equipped with the skills, equipment, scripts, documents – everything.  And then they need to be motivated to do it.

Success Triangle

Sometimes when I speak or write about the Success Triangle, I think, “Isn’t this too basic and obvious to even mention?  I mean, how could anybody possibly send their sales or service people out to interface with the customer without making sure they are clear, capable, and motivated?

But often people tend not to see those three virtues as a single unifying whole.  In large companies, different people are responsible for different aspects of the triangle.  There’s IT training here, there’s Rewards and Recognition over there, the Compensation people handle this, the Sales Training people handle that, and then it’s on to Product Training, and so on.

So you get sales and service people who know exactly what they are expected to do, but nobody taught them what to say or how to do it.  Or you get people trained to perfection but with no idea how their duties fit into the overall scheme and so they have a great deal of reluctance to stick their necks out or make the effort.  You get others brimming over with eagerness to do it, but so poorly equipped for the effort that they are quickly discouraged.

Employees will not succeed if they are missing one edge of the Success Triangle.

Tip #5 – Training is essential, but it’s the beginning, not the end. 

Imagine a professional athlete heaving a sigh of relief on making the big leagues:  No more two-a-days for me.  Done with all that!

Excellent performers get that way because they work on their craft all the time, their whole career.  If you’re in charge of sales professionals, you know that some aspects of training “take” with some people, not so much with other people.  So after training you observe them.  And you coach them honestly and specifically on what you observed.  Not in a general way (You need to sound more personable.) but with detailed specifics:

I want you to use the customer’s name at the beginning and end of every conversation, slow your rate of speaking to a more conversational pace, and inject enthusiasm into your voice, and smile while you speak.

Tip #6 – After training comes embedding and up-skilling. 

Have you ever fretted, “They know what to do – so why aren’t they doing it?”  More than likely it’s because there was no concerted effort to embed desired behaviors.  Training, sure.  But practicing, observing, monitoring, refreshing, accountability?  Not so much.  So the new behaviors lasted until the first moment of stress or pressure, and employees revert back to the old.

That means it’s time for you to work on embedding:

Okay, let’s role play, you start – Wait now – first let me see that smile so I can hear that smile.  Let’s do it again, but remember, don’t let your enthusiasm flag as soon as I ask a question. Tell me you’re happy to answer my question but also sound that way.

If they are doing all they were taught, consider taking them to the next level by up-skilling.

You’ve done well with the new customers.  Now I’d like you to step up to taking long-time customers who call to cancel their service.  Let’s talk first about the reasons they might do that, and then talk about scripts for leading them to a different decision…. 

Tip #7 – Give them the gift of time. 

Open office plans have taken the business world by storm, and with good reason.  Eliminating walls lowers costs and facilitates collaboration and observation.

But let’s not pretend those walls served no purpose.  We need to be honest and admit that tearing them down has the potential to exacerbate one of the biggest challenges office workers fight: interruptions.  Our research routinely shows that when workers calculate it, they find they lose three to five hours a day to interruptions – and most of them from their colleagues.  Imagine how much more work your people could accomplish if you taught them how to protect their time from interruptions.  It would be like doubling your sales force, but at no added cost!

So teach your people how they can protect their own time by preventing interruption – by retraining their “Time Bandits.”  Interestingly enough, this draws on many of the same skills taught in sales training, especially overcoming objections, and it also teaches them how to Time Lock and Focal Lock.

Even better, teach them how they can help make their fellow employees more productive, by showing them how the can reach Mutual Time Lock Agreements so that all employees have a chance to work uninterruptedly as needed.  It’s a gift of time to the whole group.

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About Edward G Brown

Edward G. Brown had no time to write this book, which is exactly why he wrote it. Bronx born and bred, he co-founded the #1 firm in culture change management consulting and training for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group, now in 50 countries and 12 languages. Its past and present clients include…