“Prove it!”

This seems to be the most common response from an executive asked to invest in a sustainable training initiative. Whether spoken or unspoken, the skepticism almost always exists. “Can you prove it? Will it work?” Those are tough questions to answer when so many variables ultimately drive results, but all of us who wear the learning hat face a common, sometimes insurmountable challenge: How do we validate the impact of our efforts?

I found the secret while taking a Sunday nap on the couch.

One day while dosing off to a golf tournament, I stumbled on a simple but profound truth. The problem with validating the impact of our training initiatives is the way competencies are defined and measured. This is not a problem in golf, and therefore, the need to invest in training and coaching is never questioned. Conversely, in sales, the connection doesn’t exist, and the need to invest in skills training is debated.

A golfer’s success is based on learning four core competencies: driving the ball, hitting irons, chipping and putting. No one argues that the better you are at those four competencies, the better your results are. Why? Because those core competencies are easily measured and easily tracked. Everyone knows if the ball lands in the fairway, hits the green or falls in the cup. And because these competencies are easily defined, they are easily measured. Anyone who wants to assess a player’s ability can look at the data: fairways hit, greens hit in regulation, number of putts, etc. Within minutes, the correlation of competency level to the overall result/score is crystal-clear: “Let’s see why you had a poor score today. You hit the ball in the fairway and consistently hit the greens in regulation, but you still struggled to make par. Let’s look at the putting stats. Oh, your putting stats are really poor. You need to work on your putting. You need putting training!”

In sales, here’s what a typical performance assessment might sound like: “You didn’t ask enough questions. And you focused on the features versus the benefits. And you really didn’t listen to the customer. That’s why the customer wasn’t interested in meeting again next week.” These are obviously extremely important behaviors, but are they quantifiable? Are they core competencies? Would you talk to a golfer about stance and putter selection without first establishing a putting problem?

If the outcome isn’t defined and measured, the “how” doesn’t matter. As a learner or investor in a training initiative, I must know I have a “putting problem” before I’m willing to invest the time and energy in developing the skills of putting.

What if the sales community adopted this same simple approach to the core one-to-one selling competencies (engage, discover, build value and advance)? For example, to measure a sales professional’s ability to discover needs, shift your focus from questioning and listening skills and the ability to acknowledge the customer to a focus on whether the rep uncovered the predetermined stated and unstated needs. Discovery is only measured by the percentage of time the customer reveals the desired information. If the rep consistently achieves this outcome, he or she is competent at discovery. The “how” really doesn’t matter. The skills are only important if the outcome is not achieved. When the destination is so clearly defined, the need to work on the skills becomes apparent to all.

Additionally, the “how” or the skills are difficult to measure and equate to the desired outcome (i.e., reps who don’t listen but close the deal). Therefore, we can lose buy-in from the executive. The attempt to tie soft sills like listening or questioning to sales results is a tough leap. But aligning the four core competencies to sales results is simple.

For example, pick a sample size of underperforming reps and high achievers, and measure the following four competencies by the percentage of time they:

  • Engage: gain permission to the discovery process
  • Discover: uncover stated and unstated needs
  • Build Value: embrace the recommended solution and are willing to advance to the next step
  • Advance: commit to a specific date and time

You will instantly see a correlation between competencies and performance. Once a tangible financial correlation is made, the need to develop those competencies and the return on that investment are obvious. By taking this approach, you narrow the focus from 50 or more behaviors to four simple competencies. Even the most jaded executive or resistant learner can’t ignore a “putting problem.”