If you ask an L&D professional what they have in common with their colleagues in Sales, you would probably expect them to say, “Not much.” Yet, even though Sales and L&D have different goals, motivations and pressures, they share the same need to sell. Salespeople identify opportunities to create value for customers and support and influence complex decision-making processes in order to win deals. L&D professionals identify opportunities to create value for the organization and support and influence senior leaders in order to gain budget approval for learning initiatives. Both groups face the same “do nothing” decisions, deferred investments and fuzzy attention spans. Both parties need to sell to GTD (get things done).
Unfortunately, that’s often where the similarity stops. There’s a major imbalance in how the teams are equipped to tackle these obstacles: Salespeople often receive extensive training in how to identify and pursue opportunities. L&D staff do not.
This difference is problematic. Like salespeople and account managers, L&D professionals need to build long-term, consultative and trusted relationships with senior executives and other influential stakeholders. In sales, we often assess where teams sit on a spectrum from transactional to transformational behavior, and L&D professionals can use the same thinking. Take a look at the graphic below, and ask yourself whether your L&D team is acting – and perceived – as trusted business partners.
At the bottom-left of this grid are pure administrators (or order-takers), who deliver limited results and are not considered trusted advisers by their internal or external customers. In the top-left corner are the “pushy” types, who may achieve short-term wins but not in a sustainable way. There aren’t usually too many pushy L&D professionals, but there are lots of people in the bottom-right quadrant: the “friendly helpers.” These people lack some of the skills, confidence and/or domain knowledge needed to act as proactive partners with their own leadership teams. They execute well and build good relationships, but they are not transformational.
World-class L&D teams – as with world-class sales teams – aim for the top-right corner. They challenge their internal clients to create disruptive value and are viewed as proactive business partners. The difference between being a friendly helper and being a business partner isn’t about how well you understand business or even L&D. It’s more about how well you can sell and build trusted senior relationships.
The full range of sales skills is outside the scope of this article, but let’s look at one of the foundational skills behind any successful sale: the ability to build trust with senior stakeholders. In David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford’s excellent book “The Trusted Advisor,” they define trust as follows:
The trust equation indicates that trusted advisors have three main characteristics:
1. Credibility is the customer’s perception of your expertise, clarity and honesty.
Tips: Know your subject. Give advice when you’re asked for it. Don’t exaggerate. Be passionate.
2. Reliability is how dependable and consistent customers think you are.
Tips: A reputation for reliability is slow to create and quick to destroy, but you can make a strong start by under-promising and over-delivering. Always do what you say you’ll do, in the time you say you’ll do it.
3. Intimacy is how strongly the customer feels you’re emotionally engaged with the issues they face instead of just seeing them as a source of revenue or work.
Tips: Be curious and an active listener. Uncover what people are measured on and what they see as their challenges and their wider goals. Remember and link your recommendations back to them.
The equation also shows that trust is dramatically reduced by self-orientation, or the extent to which the customer perceives that you’re focused on your own targets, fears and desires rather than his or hers. The perception of self-orientation can result from small behaviors, such as interrupting and finishing the customer’s sentences. It can also result from bigger issues, such as recommending something without linking it to organizational needs or, worse, talking about why you need it to happen.
This equation suggests that suspending your own agenda is the quickest way to build trust. In L&D, this means putting your stakeholders’ and buyers’ concerns first. It doesn’t mean you can’t have your own goals, but it does mean that only by truly understanding and meeting your stakeholders’ needs do you have the best chance of achieving them.
The trusted advisor approach is just one sales tool or methodology that L&D teams can find helpful. There are many more. Sales teams are routinely taught subjects that range from interpersonal skills like listening and questioning and emotional intelligence to strategic skills like needs identification, behavioral science, stakeholder management, competitive positioning and risk alleviation. These skills can be equally helpful to L&D teams as they look to achieve their objectives more effectively.
The next time your organization invests in sales training, ask your provider to include your L&D team. Even better, ask them to deliver a module demonstrating how the strategies, communication skills and methodologies employed by the best salespeople can really help L&D to GTD.
Use the tool below to assess how your main internal client sees you. Add the scores you earn on the credibility, reliability and intimacy metrics, and divide by your self-orientation score. Send this tool to your L&D peers, and let them assess how their main internal client sees them. Understanding where the problems lie is the first step in the process.