Competencies aren’t Enough: How to Help Sales Reps Win

sales competencies

Early this year, I attended a conference for medical device sales training professionals. I expected to hear about innovative ways organizations are training their reps, reinforcing value statements and sustaining training after product launch events.

I was wrong!

Instead, I heard many sessions about competencies and competency modeling. Having the right competency model in place is critical for sales reps and account managers. Once the right sales competencies are in place, we can coach reps to meet these competencies, measure their performance against the competencies, spot high performers and identify weak ones. Competency models are hard to get right, so it’s no surprise that so many sales training functions spend a whole lot of time making and revising them.

Competency models are a terrific tool for hiring and firing. They are valuable to managers and they help stakeholders decide what training should be created. But they are not helpful at ensuring that training is effective. Let me explain.

Know, Do, Believe, Avoid



Let’s use the common sales competency new account acquisition as an example. Assume you are a sales training manager who must design and implement a program to help sales reps develop their ability to acquire new accounts. Where would you begin?

If your competency model is solid, you will have a precise picture of how new account acquisition should be done. You’ll even be able to observe reps (and look at sales data) to see who is strong in the competency and who isn’t. But this does not help low or average performers get from Point A to Point B.

This is where learning objectives come into play. For the uninitiated, learning objectives are statements that tell us what learners will know, do, believe or avoid after completing training. Rather than saying “This training will teach new account acquisition,” learning objectives force us to get specific:

  • Follow the 6 steps in the XYZ selling process.
  • Position ACME corp. products with new accounts.
  • Segment accounts by size, type and product lines used.
  • Demonstrate superior listening skills with new prospects.

Essentially, learning objectives drive the granular behaviors that someone must perform to master a competency. By deciding what learning objectives are needed to meet a competency, you can ensure that training covers the appropriate content.

But even if your learning objectives are solid and they support your competency, you’re still a ways away from true performance improvement.

Optimize the Learning Experience


This is why instructional designers (IDs for short) stay employed. They know how adults learn best and they tailor the learning experience so each learning objective is met. We call our IDs learning designers.

A good learning designer will:

  • Winnow your subject matter down to what is truly essential to meet the learning objectives.
  • Employ a variety of interactions, activities and modalities to present the training content in a way that is memorable.
  • Craft meaningful scenarios that provide safe practice opportunities for learners.
  • Break content into small manageable chunks (like microlearning).
  • Incorporate appropriate performance support and reinforcement tools into a training experience to extend the learning.

And with the broad range of learning technologies available today, a learning solutions company can take sound instructional design further by incorporating mobile apps, game-based experiences, custom videos and more.

Most importantly, learning designers make sure training is designed based on the science of how people learn and remember. They identify what behaviors sales reps will need to exhibit in order to reach your competencies and design learning experiences that make it stick.

So if you’ve just recently finalized your competency model for sales reps, that’s great! You have the foundation, but you’ll need effective training to take them from theory to reality.

Want to take your sales training further? Our Sales Enablement and Beyond webinar will show you how:

How to Close the Account Management Skills Gap

Account managers and salespeople play two important but different roles in the customer acquisition and retention life cycle. But at some organizations, you can’t tell the difference. Most of the training that organizations provide their sales functions is centered around front line selling techniques, product knowledge, features and benefits. Increasing a salesperson’s ability to immediately impact sales dollars is obviously an important objective to drive. In some industries, it’s the most important objective.

Want to learn more about sales enablement? View our recorded webinar: Sales Enablement & Beyond: Using Games and Smart Implementation to Drive Performance.

The water gets murkier when an industry is highly complex and heavily regulated. In the Fall 2015 issue of LTEN’s Focus magazine, Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D. described the challenge life science and medical device companies face:

Life science companies can no longer rely on the “one-to-one” or “sales representative to physician” model to drive growth. Treatment decisions are often made by various stakeholders across large and complex healthcare and government institutions. They face the challenge of improving patient outcomes while simultaneously reducing associated costs. Therefore, decision-makers need solutions that address quality patient care and broader healthcare outcomes.

Key Account Management (KAM) requires a different set of competencies and behaviors than that of the traditional sales rep. When the selling process within an industry changes from a one-to-one sale (such as sales rep to doctor) to an account-level sale (such as an account manager selling to the C-suite of a health system), the type of training and coaching required to equip learners also changes.

The ideal solution to this problem is often a blended learning curriculum that helps your Key Account Managers take the long view and differentiate their roles from that of frontline sales reps. Here are three areas of focus to consider:

1. Realign core competencies

“Selling” in a traditional sense is only one small piece of the strategic account management life cycle. The selling skills, product knowledge and features and benefits you previously focused on in training do not build the competencies a key account manager needs to build long-term, mutual value with a customer’s organization. Before you re-design training, a sound analysis should be conducted to assess needs and find the gap between existing competencies and desired competencies.

2. Redefine the Launch or POA meeting

For the organizations we work with, the product launch meeting, national sales meeting or POA (plan of action) meeting is usually the key event that will (allegedly) prepare sales reps and account managers to sell the “right” products the “right” way. Once you have re-aligned your core competencies to include key account management and selling, the learning solutions included in these meetings will also change. Consider blending online pre-work with interactive live events that incorporate gaming and roleplay. The learning content should focus less on features and benefits and more on identifying ways to create long-term value for an account and articulating that value proposition as a compelling story.

3. Extend the Learning

Because Key Account Management is a highly complex discipline, ongoing coaching and performance support is essential. Include in your plans a way to reinforce key learning objectives and remind learners to apply the behaviors they learned regularly. A mobile reinforcement app such as Knowledge Guru can be used to embed the most common customer stories into long-term memory.

Start at the Beginning

If your organization has been equating selling with strategic account management, you’ll need to realign your core competencies and behaviors before you jump to the solution. Dr.Heckelman’s article includes a chart with some example competencies and behaviors, and these are a great starting point. Our recorded webinar on analysis describes how to conduct an audience analysis and task analysis, two steps that can help identify what your competencies need to be and how to close the skills gap.