There are many parallels between the state of enterprise selling today and the state of civil aviation in the 1930s. Edwin Link invented the first flight simulator in 1934 and helped pull aviation out of its dark ages, when pilots were “winging it” and crashing and burning at an alarming rate. Understanding how he did it helps us see how we can pull ourselves out of our current selling dark age.
Edwin Link took his first flying lesson in 1920 when he was 16. His instructor was most likely a WWI ace who taught flying lessons and barnstormed (buzzing towns – a great lead generation technique – and landing in the nearest cow pasture to sell airplane rides if enough people came running).
Link, while scared to death, loved the flight. But when he got to the ground and realized he had never touched the controls, he concluded it was a lousy way to teach flying.
The common belief of the day was that pilots were ‘born, not ‘made’ and so thorough pilot training had not been developed.
But there was a problem. It was apparently hard to tell who was born to be a pilot and who was not. In 1923, 31 of the first 40 airmail pilots were killed while flying.
Link set out to fix this by using lessons he learned building player pianos at his father’s factory and developed the first flight simulator – the ‘pilot maker’ — in 1927.
Selling the pilot maker was tough to an industry that still felt pilots were born, not made. The industry deemed Link’s simulator a “toy”.
But Link was scrappy. In need of an income after the depression put the family piano factory out of business, he invented the “Electric Sky Sign” to display advertisements with lightbulbs on the bottom of his airplane’s wings.
To make the advertising effective, he needed to fly at night and at altitudes as low as 200 feet. He spent many hours evolving his simulator to include instruments for night flying and he spent hundreds of hours practicing on his upgraded simulator to learn how to fly safely at night.
By 1934 the US Army Air Corps had taken over the airmail contracts, but pilots continued to die. One particularly bad week saw 5 fatal plane crashes.
After FDR called his generals in and asked them what they were going to do to “stop killing my pilots”, the Air Corps started looking for better training solutions and requested a meeting with Link to see his simulator.
The meeting place was on a runway in Newark, NJ but at the appointed time, it was raining and the sky was dark and soupy. The Air Corps commanders, calling the conditions “unflyable”, turned to go.
They heard the sound of the engine before they could see the plane and as Link gradually materialized out of the heavy clouds, they were incredulous. They placed an order for 6 simulators on the spot, which turned into 10,000 orders by the time World War II concluded. By that time, over a half-million pilots, from thirty-five countries, owed their lives to preflight training on the Link Simulator.
What are the parallels between civil aviation in 1934 and selling today?
- There is a strong sentiment today that sales reps are “born”, not “made”.
- Sales reps “wing it” without practicing what they are going to say and how they are going to say it before they make sales calls.
- Sales reps “crash and burn” a lot (Forrester has a stat that says 91% of sales calls fail according to prospects buying enterprise technology).
- Management scoffs at practice like the Air Corp generals initially scoffed at the ‘toy’ simulator.
There is one big difference.
When a rep makes a sales call and “shows up, throws up and blows up”, no one actually dies.
But four things often happen over time that can create a serious drag on company success:
- the prospect locks the rep and her company out of the account for months or years because they have a negative impression of the company
- after months of these calls, the rep has a territory full of prospects that won’t talk to her and she gets “shot”
- sales managers pats themselves on the back for doing the right thing – after all, if a rep can’t figure out how to sell their stuff in 90, 180 etc. days, who needs them!
- sales management starts managing sales to successfully make a number, not to make the individual sales rep successful
This is where we veer off into the never-never land of large ‘over-assigns’, sales models that assume 30% turnover and sales quotas that half the sales reps miss.
The moment management abdicates responsibility for making individual sales reps successful – figuring out what a sales rep really needs to do and say to win – is the moment it steps off the path of building a world-class sales team.
So how do we evolve out of the dark ages of selling?
The first thing is to acknowledge that sales reps can be “made” and making it a management team priority to figure out what a sales rep needs to do and say to win.
Once the ‘what to do and say’ (sales process, playbook and stories) have been documented, the reps need to get time on the “simulator” so they know what to say and how to say it before they make the sales call.
Having the reps attend a few product classes and shadow a few sales call is not sufficient here. It is about as helpful as Link’s first training flight where he was suppose to learn how to fly without ever touching the controls.
The ‘what to say and how to say it” step is almost universally skipped because sales rep practice (primarily role-playing) is inconvenient and hard to scale. But it must be done if management is serious about making individual reps successful and breaking out of its medieval rut.
Just as Link’s simulator dramatically increased (and continues to increase) pilot quality, role-play automation systems can do the same thing to improve sales rep and conversation quality.
Only when management has truly taken responsibility for what to do and say to win and given the sales team a viable way to practice will the foundation to effectively scale a great sales team be in place.