Maintaining Sales-Force Fitness

Posted: 12/1998

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Maintaining Sales-Force Fitness

By Jonathan B. Haller

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts. Last month’s
article discussed the dearth of qualified telecom sales representatives. This month’s
column covers maintaining sales-force readiness.

There is a two-pronged challenge plaguing the communications industry. The first,
discussed in last month’s column, is that more competitors are selling more services to
more customers, creating an immeasurable market demand for qualified sales
representatives. The second is keeping new recruits and existing sales reps ready to meet
the market.

Why is sales-force readiness critical to a company’s success? Because no matter how you
slice it, sales–the ability to generate and grow revenues–is the lifeblood of an
organization. In such times, when it’s difficult to find qualified sales reps, companies
that learn now how to educate and maintain sales-force readiness will benefit from revenue
growth and build ultimate long-term competitive advantage.

How to Keep Sales Forces Educated and Ready

So what’s a sales director to do to train and "keep ready" their sales
forces? To answer that question, one only needs to look at some of the creative methods
that competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) and interexchange carriers (IXCs) are
using, or are planning to use, to train and maintain their sales forces.

The first step in correcting a problem, of course, is to recognize that one exists.
Surprisingly, the usual optimistic sorts that populate the sales groups of the CLECs and
IXCs have become quite pragmatic in their assessment of the situation. Most managers agree
that the problem exists and that inventive solutions are necessary.

Team Selling
One of the revealed truths about today’s sales-force readiness issue is that there
really is no Superman. Rick Buyens, vice president of marketing for AT&T Corp.’s
Mid-Market Services, says he prefers the "Batman-and-Robin approach" of training
sales professionals in particular skill sets, such as voice or data. "Although each
sales rep certainly is expected to understand both domains, there will always be
specialization," he says.

When one of their sales reps can’t answer a particular customer question, most CLECs
and IXCs effectively utilize a "cross-pollination" strategy in which team
members help fill the knowledge gaps. In addition, most service providers are backing up
their sales forces with sales support and customer service.

"You can’t teach one person everything," notes Roger Woodward, senior vice
president of sales and marketing for ITC Deltacom, West Point, Ga. "That’s why we’ve
designed the sales group as a team, where the sales contact is supported behind the scenes
by a staff of technical consultants, coordinators and customer support teams."

Computer-Based Training
Computer-based training (CBT) is another method that seems to be catching on with CLEC
and IXC sales groups around the country. Companies use computer-based programs for
initial, advanced and ongoing training, including product rollouts. Indeed, there is a
growing cottage industry of training companies that have customized their CBT platforms to
the telecom industry.

"Traditional modes no longer are appropriate or cost efficient, and a classroom
environment is not adequate anymore," says AT&T’s Buyens. In response, AT&T
substitutes classroom time with self-paced CBT available on CD-ROM or one of AT&T’s
proprietary websites. With the CBT modules, Buyens is able to maintain an individualized
training program even though the courses are not conducted face to face. He can track the
time that each sales rep spends on different areas of the sites and questions on the
exams, and thus identify individual training requirements and weaknesses.

You don’t have to be a sales rep at an international behemoth like AT&T to be
exposed to online training. At Level 3 Communica-tions Inc., Omaha, Neb., one of the goals
of training is to get the sales reps at consistent levels of understanding.

According to Rich Poskin, vice president of data services at Level 3, "We need to
float everyone’s knowledge to similar levels. With all of our reps, we use CBT as prework
on technology and basic product information. Then, in classroom situations, we’re able to
focus on selling skills, prospecting, applications and specific Level 3 solutions. We use
a series of CBT training and tests, from prework to basic to intermediate to

Sales-Force Automation
With CBT, and given the very nature of the companies we’re examining, it’s not
surprising that all the sales forces are using high-tech tools. Anurag Lal, vice president
of data and Internet product management for e.spire Communications Inc., Annapolis
Junction, Md., says his company augments two weeks of sales training with continuous,
ongoing sales-force education, including access to product descriptions and application
examples via its intranet and extranet. e.spire also uses e-mail to communicate with sales
reps about product launches and competitor activities.

US LEC Corp., Charlotte, N.C., also uses sales-force automation tools, including online
training. According to Vice President of Sales Jeff Blackey, the US LEC sales force uses
"automation tools for just about everything, including client sales presentations,
access to bid and competitive win databases, access to pricing information and e-mail for
product updates."

Other CLECs and IXCs also are committed to sales-force automation. For example, Level
3’s and AT&T’s sales forces utilize laptops to identify prospects, input customer
orders and communicate with sales-team members.

Online Competitive Intelligence Tracking
Because competitors and products are changing almost daily, telecom service providers
also are beginning to track competitors using online tools. Although some companies still
rely on their internal marketing groups to keep tabs on competitor activities, many CLECs
utilize outsourced competitive intelligence firms to monitor industry events and
competitor activities. Vancouver, Wash.-based Electric Lightwave Inc. (ELI), for example,
tracks competitor activities using competitor intelligence hot links. US LEC uses a
"smart-build strategy," which combines outsourced competitive data with local
data collected from sales reps and managers.

Solutions Selling
Although the concept of "solutions selling"–identifying how to view and
address a customer’s telecom needs holistically–isn’t necessarily unique to telecom
service providers, some are making good use of the idea. For example, as vice president of
retail sales at ELI, Mike Daniel focuses on the solutions philosophy.

"Our philosophy is different than some other CLECs," he says. "We expect
our sales reps to understand how different technologies can be applied to customer
situations. We don’t expect all of our sales reps to be able to technically answer every
question, that’s what our teams are for."

Daniel discovered that the philosophy works particularly well when sales forces are
structured along vertical markets, where knowledge of an industry and particular solutions
can be applied across multiple customers.

Stick to the Basics
Regardless of how sales forces use technology for training and to provide current
analysis of competitor activities, most of the managers stress focusing on the traditional
keys to success, including:

  • Effective compensation plans;
  • Positive working environments, including rewards and recognition; and
  • Personal and professional growth plans, including continuing education.

Woodward of ITC Deltacom explains it this way: "Technology is changing so rapidly.
It is difficult today to find people that have strong sales skills with strong work ethics
and a desire for technical knowledge. The industry is evolving so quickly that companies
that were selling just long distance and/or access have found themselves thrown into local
and data. As an industry, we’re challenged not to lose focus. Our approach: Stick to
basics and fundamentals. That means good field managers, with good sales reps, willing to
burn shoe leather."

Senior Management Commitment
Usually an afterthought in discussions regarding sales-force readiness, senior
management’s commitment to identifying, hiring, training and retaining quality sales reps
is more important than ever before.

This commitment could mean tweaking expectations about compensation because the laws of
supply and demand dictate some amount of wage inflation in today’s market, at least for
the next year. It also could mean support for innovative training methods, including
online and technology-based training or outsourced analysis of competitors. It also may
mean giving quota relief to sales managers for a short time period as sales reps get up to
speed on technologies and solutions.

What Will the Future Hold?

Unfortunately, the market structure isn’t going to change quickly enough over the next
several years to alleviate today’s problem of finding sales reps that have experience
selling integrated communications products.

However, most CLECs and IXCs realize that their sales forces could be leaving lots of
money on the table because they’re just not prepared to identify all of a customer’s
opportunities, including local, long distance, data and Internet services. Many telecom
service providers are beginning to invest in additional tools, such as online training and
competitor analysis.

But the basics haven’t changed: Train the sales force to listen to customers and put
processes in place to bring about change faster than competitors. If constructed and
executed correctly, effective sales-force readiness can bring long-term competitive

Jonathan B. Haller is principal analyst, network services, for Current Analysis
Inc., an online competitive intelligence and analysis firm based in Sterling, Va. He can
be reached via e-mail at

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