In his "Metaphysics" Aristotle wrote that we do not see in order to have sight but we have sight in order to see. Every capability exists solely for its corresponding activity. I would like to apply that truism to the matter of selling skills. Salespeople do not sell skillfully in order to have selling skills; they have selling skills in order to sell skillfully. Experience, both mine and that of other trainers, has taught me that too many sales systems stress the capability more than the activity. The trouble with such an approach is that the students of those systems do not end up with the capability, because the capability can only be used through repeated proper activity. For unlike our capability of sight which we first acquire and then practice, the selling skills must first be practiced in order to be acquired.
All teachers run the risk of stressing capability over activity. I was reminded of having done just that some years ago when I taught ancient Roman civilization. On the final exam the students were directed to state their impressions of the Romans. One student wrote that what he had learned from my course was that the ancient Romans were great at building ruins! My first reaction was one of amusement. But as I reflected on the student's answer, I painfully realized that he had actually commented on my failure to let those ancient mute stones speak.
I am afraid we sales trainers often commit the same mistake. At the end of our sessions we leave too many of our salespeople with the impression that our aim is to teach selling skills, and so our salespeople end up learning a lot about selling skills. The problem with all this is that they do not go on to acquire the skills by practicing them. They merely end up knowing about them. They know about open and closed probes, but they don't go on to use those probes when selling. The same holds true about supporting and closing and even the techniques having to do with greeting the customer. Our salespeople get to know that "Can I help you?" is an ineffective way to greet customers, but that's the greeting they continue to use. As long as our focus remains on the capability rather than on the activity, we will continue to have salespeople whose training never quite ends up with the capability. Stress the capability and you get little if any learning; stress the activity and you get the capability. The great American educator, Dewey, was well aware of this. His motto was, "We learn by doing." Fifty years of studying the piano without actually practicing on it will never give one the ability to play it well.
We must, however, add that merely practicing again and again is not enough. As John F. Lawhon has noted in his book "Selling Retail," to do anything well one must practice the right techniques. Lawhon draws an analogy to golf. He says that on any given Saturday you can watch scores of golfers on the driving range practicing the wrong techniques of swinging a club again and again. They merely get better at what they do badly. "Golf pros," he writes, "will tell you that the longer those folks practice the wrong techniques, the harder it will be for them to learn good ones." More than two centuries ago Aristotle made the same point when he wrote that the same causes and means that produce excellence can also destroy it. He went on to add: "Persons become both good and bad harpists by playing the harp. The same is true regarding shipbuilders: One who builds well will be a good shipbuilder, one who builds badly, a bad shipbuilder." Aristotle ends up with a thought that every sales trainer might take to heart: "It is no light matter which habits-this one or that-be developed in us from early childhood."
A further point I'd like to make is that owners are kidding themselves when they think that the choice is between having or not having sales training. Owners must realize that the choice is really between professional sales training and catch-as-catch-can sales training. The price of the former is greater; the cost of the latter much greater in lost sales. Catch-as-catch-can sales training leads to reinforced bad habits from the manner of taking phone calls to that of following up on sales. Owners can either opt for programming their salespeople to practice good techniques or allow their salespeople to program themselves to practice bad techniques.
Here are my suggestions to store owners who would like to implement an effective sales training program. One, become acquainted with what's available in sales training and then choose the system you feel is best for your store. Two, insist that the system you choose includes the concept of train the trainer. Outside trainers cannot be expected to provide the on-going training a store needs. Only an adequate in-house trainer can do that. Therefore, either hire an adequately trained person or have one of your own people adequately trained. If you opt to have one of your own people trained, see to it that he or she continues to be trained.
Finally, insist on lots of role playing. Role playing should be to actual selling what basic training is to actual combat with the reminder that our goal is to win our customers for life and not to defeat them. While neither role playing nor basic training is the real thing, one would be a fool, given the choice and the circumstances, to skip either one.
Remember Dewey's words, "We learn by doing." Remember Lawhon's insistence that we can learn correct techniques practicing correct techniques. Also remember Aristotle's principle about not seeing in order to have sight but having sight in order to see. Make sure salespeople acquire selling skills so that they go on to sell skillfully. Selling skillfully can only result from focusing on the activity and not on the capability. Between the capability and the activity lies the shadow. See to it that your salespeople do not end up with the shadow.
Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at email@example.com.