Why GE doesn’t tie sales training to business results
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Why GE doesn’t tie sales training to business results

Even if your only exposure to GE’s corporate culture was watching Jack Donaghy head up East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming on “30 Rock,” you probably know that the company insists on one thing above all: measurable results. Every GE manager and employee knows the mantra by heart: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

So I was a little worried when I heard two GE Capital training execs admit to a crowd at this year’s ASTD conference that they don’t even try to show that their sales training has any measurable impact on business results.

At any moment, I expected GE Security to bust through the doors and hustle them away in an unmarked van.

But nothing happened, and so far as I know Patricia Fay and Rosemary Crawford have not yet been ranked or yanked for corporate heresy. And if they can get away with saying it, maybe you can too.

Measure, yes. But measure what?

Don’t get me wrong: These two training professionals are ALL about metrics, and they know how to wield a spreadsheet like a sharp-edged sword. For example, when they showed one manager survey data suggesting that reps weren’t getting enough coaching, the manager assumed the problem was with new reps: He’d recently hired a lot of them, and they needed huge amounts of coaching — far more than one lone manager like him could give. But a drill into the data showed that it was experienced reps who said they were being undercoached.

That created an aha moment for the manager — he’d been leaving the experienced pros alone, assuming they neither needed nor wanted coaching.

So with detailed data like this at their fingertips, you’d think it would be a simple matter to connect training activities with business results, right? If you do some training on sales skills and sales go up, it has to be the training, right?

Well, no. It’s nice when it happens, and it’s tempting to take credit for it. But it’s not the real story. Many, many factors influence sales, and in the real world you can’t isolate training and say, “This is what made the difference.”

Here comes the caveat

So did the training department just wave their hands in their air and tell top management, “You gotta believe”?

I did mention this is GE, didn’t I?

Of course they measured the impact of their training.

But instead of looking at business results, they measured sales activities (that is, behaviors). Sales activities are the the only thing that can be directed and managed, so that was their accountability.

Before the training ever happened, they sat down with the sales and business managers — the people who were ultimately accountable for business results. They asked, “To get the business results you need, what sales objectives do you need to achieve?” They got a list of things like “Increase share-of-wallet by X%” or “Retain Y new accounts per sales rep.” (I’m making these up; there’s no insider info here.)

Then they asked: “To meet these sales objectives, what sales behaviors do reps need to engage in?” And they came up with another list — for example, “accurately qualify prospects,” or “be able to read a customer’s balance sheet,” or “increase face time with customers by X%.” Those behaviors became the scorecard for the training.

But, but, but

I can hear the objections already. “But how can I be sure that a rep’s ability to read a balance sheet will actually bring in more sales?”

You can’t. That’s the point: It’s a judgment call.

It’s up to business managers to set strategy — in other words, to figure out how they’re going to get the results they’re responsible for. There are no guarantees that training will improve results, just as there are no guarantees that customers will like the hot new product, or that a promising market will pan out as expected. You take your best shot and see what happens. It’s risky. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.

Some managers will try to shift all of that risk onto the training function. Why not? If they get great results, they can take the credit. If not, well… they can always cut the training budget and look like they did something to fix the problem.

I suspect that this sort of finger pointing and blame shifting doesn’t fly at GE. Fay and Crawford pointed out that learning is a priority at GE. Even when business is bad, training budgets are protected. Which may be one reason — not the only reason, but one reason — why the company has endured as long as it has.

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