Reps Desperately Need “Top Gun” School

By March 16, 2018Uncategorized

This is the first of two posts centered on how Geoff Colvin’s book “Humans are Underrated” is a great blueprint for the future of the sales profession.

Key Skill Sets for the Future Are Not What You Think

A great book by one of the best business writers predicts that the skill sets great sales reps have – defining problems, collaborating on solutions, understanding other people’s motivations and behaviors, empathizing with team members and storytelling to guide and learn — will be the most important skills for success in the coming decades.

This point of view goes against the grain.  We hear more about the importance of being great at math, science and analytical thinking to have a successful career.

Geoff Colvin predicts in ‘Humans are Underrated’ that these technical skills are the skills that will be swallowed up by the unyielding increase in computing power that two decades ago beat chess masters and several years ago beat jeopardy champions.

The reason this book is so interesting for sales reps and sales leaders is that Colvin digs deep into situations where these skills have made a dramatic difference in performance.  In particular, two relevant themes for sales are practicing and storytelling.

Top Gun School – Practice and Understanding

The US Navy fighter pilots had a serious problem during the outbreak of the Vietnam war.  While their F4 Phantom Fighter jet was superior in every way to the Soviet MiGs that the North Vietnamese were using, they were still losing dog fights (air battles) 1 out of 3 times.

Their training was mostly passive, including classroom lectures, and their main directive during practice flights was “don’t crash – that thing is expensive!  And whatever you do – no dogfighting!“

The Navy realized it needed to dramatically change its philosophy and approach to training and practicing.  They made dogfights the centerpiece of training and recorded everything that happened in training to drive candid and detailed post-mortems (after-action reviews).

Making the training dogfights more realistic meant putting the navy’s best pilots in the ‘enemy’ planes, using enemy tactics and painting the planes to resemble the MiGs they fought against.  This meant better understanding the enemy’s behaviors, tactics and strategies. 

It worked.  The Navy increased its win rate to 12 out of every 13 dogfights.  That is a 700% improvement. 

The Airforce, which had a similar win rate at the onset of the war, kept to its original training approach, and finished the war still winning 2 of 3 dogfights.

Colvin uses this revolutionary training approach to illustrate how we can get better at the high value skills of the changing economy – including skills like the ability to better understand someone else’s situation well enough to anticipate what they might do next

How Sales Forces Can Leverage Top Gun School Insights

The parallels to scaling a sales team are clear.  The more a sales rep can understand and empathize with the prospect and the more a sales rep can simulate and practice the key activity in sales – the sales conversation – the better the conversations and the better the results.  The way to achieve these results is with structured and situation-like practice.

Currently, few sales organizations are systematically and continuously role-playing for the many and ever-changing situations they may encounter during a sales interaction.  Few are recording this ongoing training and coaching and doing rigorous post mortems and few are using their best sellers to train their sales teams.

In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Woman is Queen

Even though the state of sales training is 50 years behind the military (and 90 years behind civil aviation, read here), the good news is that the field is wide open to dramatic improvement using simulations and developing skillsets like empathy. 

Another human and critical skillset Colvin explores is storytelling, which we will cover in our next blog.

Until then, good selling and good storytelling!


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