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2 Techniques to Get Up to Speed Fast In a New Sales Job

Starting a new job is overwhelming. How can you hit the ground running when you don’t even know what you should be running toward? There’s so much to learn, and not a lot of time to learn it.

This is especially daunting for salespeople, who are expected to be experts on their product or service as well as the business issues their potential customers face. There’s nothing worse than getting on the phone with a prospect and feeling like you have no idea what you’re talking about. Before you can sell, you have to learn, and the week or two of training generally doesn’t cut it.

In this interview, Jill Konrath, author of Agile Selling, reveals two techniques that salespeople can use to achieve “situational credibility” at a new job in just 30 days. She also sets the record straight on common mistakes reps make when they’re just starting out, and explains why relying solely on company-provided training isn’t a good idea.

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In Agile Selling, you write that salespeople should strive for situational credibility in a new job in 30 days. What is situational credibility, and how is it different from proficiency?

Jill Konrath: Situational credibility is the ability to have a reasonably intelligent conversation with a potential prospect. You don’t have to know everything, but you do have to know enough about their business, their status quo, the challenges they face, and what their goals and objectives are relative to your product or service. You should know what questions to ask them and you should have some understanding of what their answers mean.

A salesperson should plan to learn for a minimum of 90 days, but it in many cases proficiency will take longer. Research shows that only at a minority of jobs can you become proficient in less than three months. For over 50% of jobs it takes at least six months to become proficient, meaning you’re able to meet quota on a regular basis.

What most reps don’t know is that there is a process to learning. They don’t map out what they need to learn and sequence it -- they just get overwhelmed and spend their time swirling. But this actually prolongs their path to situational credibility. It’s important to put together a learning plan for yourself rather than just saying, ‘They didn’t train me well.’ That is an abdication of personal responsibility for success, and we are responsible for our own success.

The first technique you recommend to get up to speed quickly is “chunking.” Can you explain what chunking is and why it’s so important?

JK: When people take on a new sales position they’re given a dunking in the first couple weeks -- here’s everything you need to know about our company, our product or service, how we sell, and our systems. But this typical onboarding system is massively broken because there’s no consideration for how people learn best. If you’re selling something new -- whether it’s a product or you’re in a new company or market -- there is a methodology to doing it.

It starts with breaking things down into chunks, or related topics. Your speed of learning and retention is much better if you focus on just one thing at a time versus jumping all over the board.

The brain is only capable of handling four chunks at a time. In a sales role, these are the four basic chunks: product/service, customer, sales process and your company.

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Then take those chunks and break them into sub-chunks. For example, in the product chunk, you’ll see market, overview, business case, and competition. These are all things that have to be learned to become proficient in your job.

It’s the first step in building your rapid learning plan to achieve situational credibility in 30 days.

What rapid learning technique comes after chunking?

JK: Sequencing. It’s a vital next step that’s often overlooked. It’s taking all those chunks and figuring out the best order in which to learn them. When you’re new in a job, you feel a real urgency to master everything at once. But it can’t be done. It’s too overwhelming. So you have to determine what you need to know from the get-go versus what can wait a few months.

In my work with salespeople, I’ve found they need to have a basic -- not deep -- understanding of the product or service to start with. Then they need to immerse themselves in understanding the customer -- their status quo, needs, issues, and decision process. Once you know that, you move your attention to the sales process focusing on figuring out the best strategies. The company chunk comes last. You can learn company-related things on as-needed basis -- like your CRM system.

Can you give a real life example of how chunking and sequencing work in a learning process?

JK: Let’s take a look at LinkedIn. The biggest problem I see with LinkedIn is it overwhelms people, and so they do nothing instead of anything. Because they have no plan to learn it, it just overwhelms them. They don’t even know where to start.

But if you invest some time learning about what you need to learn -- researching experts and reading articles -- you’ll find there are four crucial chunks to LinkedIn. One is personal branding, another is making the right connections, another is research, and the fourth is sharing insights.

Now that you’ve identified the chunks, you need to know where to start. Again, do a little research and you’ll find that the experts all say you should start with your profile -- your personal brand. Digging deeper into the topic, you’ll discover that you need to have a decent picture, write a good headline, and make your summary customer-focused, not written like a resume.

Now you’ve got the knowledge, it’s time to go into creation mode and do something with it. What you write on your profile probably won’t sound good at first, so show it to a friend to get feedback. Finally, post it, but don’t be totally done with it. Just get it up, and continue on to the next chunk. At this point, you have the foundation and you can move on to figuring out the various ways you can leverage LinkedIn for research. Again, it’s one step/chunk at a time. You just keep learning, building on what you’ve already mastered.

What are some common mistakes you see salespeople make in terms of their learning when they start a new job?

JK: Another key strategy for achieving situational credibility in 30 days is practice, which is the application of what you’ve learned to a real life situation. Most salespeople are really averse to role-playing and avoid it at all costs. If you want to be effective, you can’t do that. Essentially that means you’re practicing with your prospect and you’re virtually guaranteed to blow it. Anytime you’re selling something new, you need to practice your phone calls, demos, meetings, presentations -- the whole works.

Rapid learners practice, figure out their weak points, correct them, and try again. They want to make sure they maximize every single sales opportunity. They get feedback from others, too; nobody is a good judge of their own performance.

Lastly, a lot of people get discouraged because sales is a hard job, but I believe it’s essential to not allow yourself to feel like a failure. When you think you’re failing, you move into fear mode and your brain doesn’t work as well.

I learned this early on. In order to protect myself from myself I had to keep saying, ‘Jill, you’re not failing. This is a valuable learning experience. If it isn’t working, it’s not because you can’t do it -- it’s because you haven’t learned how yet.’

Saying those things kept me afloat and gave me more time to learn what I needed to learn. I honestly believe that mentality is as crucial as the learning itself. You have to keep fear at bay when you’re learning or you’ll destroy yourself.

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