Spencer Wixom

Skill reinforcement and skill application are both necessary if you want to sustain new sales behavior. Reinforcement (in the form of e-learning, follow up classroom days or group discussions) is important and should be a mandatory part of a behavior transformation. But can you similarly “mandate” sales people’s daily habits in using the skills they’ve learned?

Become the Architect of Skills

The answer is No. You can’t. Unless you want to constantly peer over their shoulders as they work, psyching them out in the process. In reality, each sales person retains individual choice of which habits/behaviors to exhibit. Leaders in any sales organization would instead be best served to play the role of “Choice Architect”, gently nudging their sales people toward correct habits and new skill application.

This idea was defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, “a choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” They don’t force decisions, they can’t force them, but they establish a situation where certain decisions are made easier and they… Nudge the sales force in the right direction.

In this blog, and others to follow, I’d like to explore subtle tactics to nudge the daily habits of sales people. These are simple ideas that help big capability investments better stick. They take effort to make happen, but they have been shown to work.

Tactic One: Follow The Natural Leader

The tone from the pilot is so common it’s become cliché. The voice on the intercom is a relaxed southern drawl. “Hey folks, we’ll be taking her up to thirty-five thousand and swing her down over Austin on our way to San Antonio.” Why do pilot’s voices sound so similar, so folksy, so relaxed? Not every pilot hails from the same rural corner of West Virginia. No, but one very important pilot did and, as a result, a simple habit spread far and wide.

His name was Chuck Yeager: World War II fighter ace, test pilot and breaker of the sound barrier. This is how Yeager spoke in the cockpit radio. Whether natural or intentional, his voice represented confidence, calm and comfort and he was so revered by fellow pilots in his squadron that his style quickly caught on. Members of that squadron then moved to other jobs and other places, and you can imagine what happened next.

A positive role model

In his book, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe explains the phenomenon, “Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

This tactic has two parts. Pilots followed Yeager’s style because (1) they saw him as a role model and (2) what he did seemed to have a positive effect. The communication was clear (slower, more pronounced) and it put people (those in the tower, or inside the plane) at ease.

Every sales organization has a few sellers who are its Yeagers. They are confident, successful, admired and talked about. They have a style that works. We found just such a style in our original Challenger study. Challenger is a set of behaviors naturally occurring in many high performers who seem to engage more naturally with customers regardless of economic circumstances.

Who’s Your Yeager?

When transforming the sales organization, the key is to find your Yeagers as early as possible, and profile the specific ways they use the behaviors you want to embed. The more you highlight these case examples to the broader organization, the better your chance they will naturally catch on.

You can’t directly control the daily decisions across your sales force, but you can nudge them effectively if you have a well-promoted Yeager on your side. The admired sales person with the right stuff; that’s the natural leader others want to follow.

At Challenger, we’ve developed a framework for thinking about critical behaviors to look for in your Yeager.  This is part of the strategy for providing an uncommon customer experience.

Spencer Wixom

Spencer Wixom

Spencer is Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.