How Two Former Oracle Leaders Dissected Sales Skills vs. Behaviors


In part 1 of our interview, we spoke with Drs. Tom Tonkin and Mark Tuggle of the Sales Conservatory about their role in developing comprehensive sales skill and competency training programs. Both Tom and Mark worked previously with Oracle’s Sales Performance Team, and later co-founded the Sales Conservatory. Part 1 covers the concept of sales skills versus sales behaviors, creating reps that take lasting abilities away from training and can adapt to any situation.

The Sales Conservatory creates reps that act like entrepreneurs, learning key skills that they can take and apply in any situation. Skills differ from behaviors – you can apply a skill in any situation, whether selling or in real life, but behaviors only apply to specific situations. By teaching reps the right skills, they can take themselves into any selling situation and make an impact.

CommercialTribe: Looking at the Oracle Sales Performance Team, you created a progressive, customer-centric program. What are some of the core themes that you hoped a rep leaving sales training would actually absorb?

Dr. Tom Tonkin: I want to make sure that we distinguish skill versus behavior. It’s the idea transcends behaviors through context. With the ability to have the skill to do something, I should be able to do it anywhere. Behavior has context – if I’m measuring a behavior, I have to behave in a certain way.

A great example is a guitar player – I can be taught to put my fingers on the right strings and strum at the right place, and I look like a guitar player, but I have no skill.

Dr. Mark Tuggle: The self-efficacy, the belief in themselves that they have the skill that transcends context, so that they can feel confident going into any sales conversation, is key. Their behavior isn’t dependent on it looking a certain way, but having the skill to adapt to any context. We want them to walk away with is the confidence and belief in themselves that they can do sales successfully in whatever account they walk into.

CT: It’s interesting that the first focus isn’t just on the employer, but on creating a person that you can fit into any puzzle.

TT: Exactly the case. The idea here is that, while there is a flavor to what we train, when we talk about skill, we’re creating methodology that is transferable to the company.

First, it’s very effective – we call it encoding the process. My ability to finish training and get up and use the skill gets encoded. We also moved from a corporate-centric view of training to a rep-centric view because we wanted reps to know that we were investing in them as individuals. Organizational commitment and job satisfaction rise, and therefore we know that your performance and longevity will rise as well. The cost of ramping goes down, because the turnover isn’t there.

CT: The process flips the normal arrangement of sales kickoff and onboarding.

TT: Exactly. Usually, it’s “let me beat you over the head with the company mantra and mission and objectives.” When we came into this, we said, “we want to make this rep a better rep.” Obviously, product and company knowledge are in there and are vital, but we wanted to focus on making “you” a better you.

MT: We go so far as to tell reps that we’re not giving them sales skills – we’re giving them life skills.

CT: We call this “practice to performance,” tracking how individual abilities tie into greater sales KPIs and goals. Are you hoping to connect the skills and behaviors to performance?

TT: That’s what we did – we actually designed from the bottom up to be able to do that. These skills are not exactly willy-nilly, not something that we think all sales reps should do. What are the skills that you as a rep, at Oracle, need to have to be the best performer?

CT: When do you find these key skills to be critical to an organization? Teams will often note a lack of budget for training or no desire for a formal program. When does it become crucial for a company to invest in a comprehensive training program?

TT: It happens when there’s a need – you’re not performing, or we’ve missed numbers, or attrition is high. One of the challenges from the training perspective is that, even though we believe that you should start training people when things are good, it often starts when things go bad.

One of the challenges continues to be, “how can I quantitatively measure success?” Am I actually moving the needle based on training? That’s what the Sales Conservatory does, helping to find the key competencies that move revenue.

CT: What do you personally see as the measure of success? Is it revenue, performance, something else?

TT: Because your funders are usually senior management, it’s going to be an aggregate of revenue, with attrition, because that quickly erodes margin. If you take a look at rep training, over 3-5 years, it’s usually front-loaded. The idea is that you spend all of that money up front, but need reps to stay as long as possible and produce.

The attitude is that managers believe that they can know what their reps can and cannot do. The problem is that, after spending all this money up front, they can’t even adjust anymore.

The last one that we were measuring is the idea of time to revenue. The philosophy we took isn’t revolutionary, but we didn’t just come out and say, “you’re going to be a great rep in 3 years.” We took it further and said, “you’re going to be a great rep in a year and a half.” It’s called time compression – the ability to reduce time to revenue.

MT: If we’ve got an onboarding program where, nine months into the first year, reps are already hitting quota, that’s time compression.

TT: If you can scoot that extra into the same fiscal year, you can actually see that revenue being creating. You don’t have to negate the first 12 months of the year to see revenue gains.

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