Rep Engagement: A Top Priority for Sales Leaders in the ‘New Normal’
In March 1922, when the Ford Company (as it was then known) was planning to reduce the workweek from six days to five, The New York Times quoted Edsel Ford (Henry Ford’s son) as saying: “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation… We believe that in order to live properly, every man should have more time to spend with his family.”
And that, famously, is how Ford began the five-day workweek, which has been a near-global standard for the last 98 years. Paring a day off the workweek was not a completely altruistic act, however. Ford had cut its shifts from nine to eight hours in 1914, and saw productivity and profits increase. The company believed, correctly, that shaving a day off the workweek would also make workers more engaged and productive. The proposition was a classic win-win: workers gained valuable family time and balance, and Ford gained more productivity.
Today, nearly a century later, we’re also seeing formerly entrenched work processes being reshaped and reimagined. COVID-19 lockdowns have shattered many of the assumptions around the workday and workweek as a whole. For example, working eight continuous hours per day is simply not possible for many people shut in their homes – due to childcare issues, the activities of roommates who also are trying to get work done, and other responsibilities and distractions for men and women alike. (Unlike Edsel Ford’s era, women now make up more than half of the workforce). What’s more, with each generation, home duties become more shared. So, while men had few, if any, day-to-day child rearing and domestic responsibilities in the early 1920s, today there is greater gender equality among young families – men and women are often both attending to childcare and home duties alongside their work.
Implications for Sales Teams
In the context of the lockdowns, sales organizations and companies at large have no choice but to accommodate these non-work-related demands on employees. This is no longer a matter of work-life balance; it’s a matter of work-life integration, and in that context, work must fit into the lives of sales reps and other employees – not the other way around. For employers, this means employees are often working in fragmented bursts rather than discrete blocks of time. This changes the management imperative from how and where things are getting done, to what’s getting done.
For today’s sales leaders (among others), there is another dynamic at play. Sales reps in their 20s and 30s, who tend to have more of these work-life balance issues due to being in the “young family” demographic, also have career growth requirements. As a result, sales leaders must find new ways to give reps the knowledge and training they need to progress in their careers, without the use of traditional, in-person onboarding, sales kickoffs and training sessions.
Fundamentally, creating this new paradigm boils down to driving engagement digitally: how can managers keep remote-working reps plugged into the company so they can continue to master new skills, advance their careers and generate strong results?
Lessons from the Younger Generation
Over the years, there has been much discussion – and sometimes derision – around the “millennial work ethic,” where having a clear career path, gaining attention from senior leaders, working for a purpose greater than profits, and prioritizing work-life balance are among the most important job components. Previously, these values often did not mesh easily with traditional top-down office environments, where employees were expected to show up on time, work a full day and keep their personal lives separate from their professional ones. Elements like work-life balance, autonomy over one’s schedule, and career paths were the employee’s problem, not the company’s.
But, as older millennials enter their mid-30s and their values (and those of the digital-native generation behind them) move from minority to majority status, workplaces were beginning to change even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When work-from-home requirements came into play, these changes accelerated – and now the values of the younger generations have, in many ways, become standard operating procedure. When entire sales teams (and employees at large) have to work from home, companies have no choice but to trust employees and give them the flexibility to get their work done on their own terms, so employees also can attend to the requirements of their private lives. And to keep these reps and client-facing employees productive and progressing, senior sales leaders also must create engagement strategies that foster a virtual-team atmosphere that keeps reps learning what they need to learn, and progressing down desired career paths.
The irony in all of this is that, in many cases, the pandemic is forcing executives and sales leaders to truly focus on areas that they may have taken for granted in the office environment. For example, when employees are settled into their desks at the office for an eight-hour day, it is easy to assume that employee engagement is “just happening.” When they are all at home, however, it becomes clear that employee engagement requires concerted outreach and elements of mutual trust.
The most obvious indicator of this renewed focus on engagement is the explosion in the use of synchronous and asynchronous video tools and conferencing technologies for sales learning, coaching and meetings. And, because people in lockdowns actually crave some human interaction, many people turn on the video for their conferences, rather than just participate by voice. This has also created an interesting dynamic, where even though people are working from home, many still get dressed and prepared in the morning in a similar way to when they went to the office – because they know at some point during the day, they will likely be on video and need to look professional. Other collaboration tools, such as Slack, also keep employees engaged in a virtual work environment throughout the day.
For sales leaders, one of the most challenging aspects of work-from-home mandates has been maintaining effective sales training and coaching for reps when in-person training and exercises are no longer possible. The key part of the technology stack for accomplishing this includes tools for quickly creating, sharing and updating online content, which can be used for both formal learning and peer-to-peer knowledge exchanges. This class of tools enables the digital transformation of several traditionally “in-person” sales functions, including:
- Sales Kickoffs: Organizations are reimagining and digitally implementing their sales kickoffs and many of the learning, coaching and certification processes that are typically part of them. Many of the new processes can actually be more effective than they were in the typical “three-days-drinking-from-the-firehose” kickoff meeting. When liberated from an artificial “beginning” and “end” of a kickoff, sales leaders can orchestrate learning to occur in gradual, bite-sized chunks over an extended period of time. This can greatly improve rep knowledge retention and create much better sales readiness across the entire sales force. It will be interesting to see what happens with sales kickoffs once the current crisis passes – many sales leaders are likely to preserve these more-effective digital learning processes and keep physical sales meetings shorter and focused on social and team-building activities.
- Rep Performance Management and Ongoing Readiness: The most effective way to measure rep readiness and performance now is through modern, digital skills assessments. These assessments can identify areas reps need to strengthen, so that digital coaching and training programs can be customized to reps’ needs. The use of video plays a major role in this process, and modern video-analysis tools are becoming more widespread. Technologies like these often enable reps to record themselves for managers’/coaches’ review (i.e., giving a new product pitch or delivering key messaging) and can even incorporate automated, artificial-intelligence (AI)-driven feedback. AI-based evaluation of video submissions can serve as a “virtual screener” for sales managers, so they do not have to review every video from every rep practicing, for example, a new product presentation. Instead, the technology identifies videos that require further scrutiny, so sales leaders can home in on only those reps requiring supplemental coaching. Additionally, today’s digital “scorecard” technology enables sales managers to identify, at a glance, how individual reps compare to the rest of the team, so they can correct skills deficiencies before they impact quarterly revenue. Scorecards are also a valuable tool for onboarding – providing valuable insight into each rep’s journey from initial activity to full productivity.
- Onboarding: As with kickoff meetings, the COVID-19 crisis has made it impossible for companies to hold traditional new rep onboarding meetings. And similar to sales kickoffs, this has also presented the opportunity to actually improve the onboarding process through the use of digital technology. Rather than having new reps sit through a marathon of presentations, sales organizations can implement digital onboarding sessions that take place in a more incremental fashion to increase knowledge retention and skills mastery. This “agile onboarding” approach uses online content, eLearning, video and web conferencing to sequentially prepare new reps for various career milestones (first prospecting call, first discovery call, first presentation, etc.). Managers can also use assessments and scorecards to ensure new reps are achieving and maintaining mastery as they progress to full sales readiness and productivity.
Much like Ford paradoxically made employees more productive by decreasing their workweeks and hourly shifts, sales leaders can do the same for their reps by letting them work on their own timetable and increasing their level of engagement in a time of social distancing. This is all made possible through today’s powerful array of digital tools – and many sales leaders will discover that this “forced march” to digital processes actually generates results that are superior to doing things “the way we always have.”
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