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Lessons learned: When training RSAs, stay out of the shadows

August 19/26, 2019: Volume 35, Issue 5

By Tom Jennings

 

A common mistake many companies make is transferring the responsibility of training a newly hired employee to an existing salesperson. This practice is referred to as “shadowing.” You may recognize the scenario: “Just follow Susie this week and watch how she does things. She writes good business, and you’ll be well served learning her ways.” Does this sound vaguely familiar? Likely so, as it happens in our industry every day.

Several probabilities will come from this method of training—none very effective. First of all, this method isn’t training at all—it’s an attempt to clone. Ask yourself how many skills you have mastered by watching a professional operate at full speed. For example, I have observed excellent pianists at the keyboard yet struggle to play “Chopsticks.” Why? Because I was watching a variety of individual behaviors woven into a seamless pattern. No one explained to me why the left hand was doing this while the right hand was doing that, not to mention simultaneously operating the pedals. While some people may be motivated by the possibilities of achieving similar skills in time, even more are discouraged by what appears to be a daunting task.

Another problem is oftentimes no salesperson is good at every skill. Consequently, no one sees a complete picture of what the most successful methods are when only one method is observed. There is a reason the field of education moved from the one room schoolhouse many years ago. A student is considered much more likely to have a better education when exposed to a variety of teachers with different perspectives and areas of expertise. When this much is known, why should training a new staff member for your firm be considered differently?

Also, remember to never confuse product knowledge training with sales skills training. The industry is full of people who know product but struggle to be really successful, because they lack both the knowledge and skills to communicate effectively on the customer’s level.

Above all, you are assuming Susie wants her shadow to succeed. In reality, she may view the rookie as an intrusion at the least, or even as a potential threat long term. Do you really believe she’s going to share all her trade secrets completely? And is it really even fair to expect her to? Remember, Susie’s interests don’t necessarily align with yours. Lastly, even with a proper attitude, there is no reason to assume that Susie is skilled in coaching. This is an entirely different skill set than performing. How many times does a star player on a team go on to become a great coach as well? Almost never. Too many skills come almost innately to them, so they don’t know how to break down each individual process. As a result, they often lack the patience to work at the learner’s pace. In my experience, the best performers I ever worked with were almost universally bad teachers. When possible, they’d prefer to just perform the task themselves than to take the time to explain the process.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that shadowing is a complete waste of time. Just think of it as one tool in a larger toolbox. There are many skill coaching opportunities available today, whether it be in-person training sessions or online courses. Seek them out and use them to your advantage. To be as effective as possible, new hires must be exposed to the processes that are required to achieve success, not merely shown the desired result.

 

Tom Jennings is vice president of professional development for the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA). Jennings, a former retailer and sales training guru, has served in various capacities within the WFCA.