This may seem ironic and possibly self-defeating coming from someone who makes a living selling training to organizations, but if you’re in sales and depend on your employer to be the principal source of your sales education, you may be in serious trouble.
You can be a good salesperson with the training you get—maybe even very good. But you can’t be exceptional, and you definitely can’t be great, if you don’t take charge of your own education and lifelong learning. It’s pretty simple: if you’re getting training that your employer provides, so is everyone else.
I had an interesting discussion with Anthony Iannarino yesterday, and coincidentally his article this morning reinforced an idea that came into my mind during that discussion. We were talking about our shared passion for military history, and one of the points that came out of our talk is that most if not all of the great generals and leaders were self-taught. Marshall and Eisenhower and Patton were sent to professional schools throughout their careers, but they also read incessantly, and they studied military history, taking careful notes, visiting battlefields to see for themselves how and why those who came before them made the decisions that they did.
Salespeople also need to study their craft and their profession. When was the last time you read a sales book? If it was recently, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. When was the last time you took careful notes, maybe compared what you read to a different book, and applied what you learned? And, it’s really not about just sales books. When was the last time you read a business book, or any other book that expanded your horizons just a little bit, maybe helped you to spot a new way to approach a particular sales opportunity?
When you attend a training class, does your workbook join all the others you have packed away somewhere gathering dust, or do you personally take charge of applying one or two or more nuggets? If you paid for a golf lesson, you know it would be wasted if you didn’t go out and practice the new skill immediately and consistently, yet so many salespeople treat the training they get as an event that is over when it is over.
We’re told the best salespeople bring fresh insights to their customers. Guess what: if everyone is getting the same training in those same ideas, how fresh are your insights going to be?
What does self-education do for you? It can make you better at your current position, but what it really does is prepare you for higher positions. It will give you the knowledge and confidence to interact with higher level people in the customer’s organization, or even in your own. It will mark you out for advancement. In the 1890s, British military officers posted to India led a relaxed life: a little training in the morning, polo in the late afternoons, and alcohol and naps during the hottest hours of the day. Except for one young subaltern, a recent graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Knowing that his education was woefully deficient, the young officer sent his mother a shopping list of books, books which he studied during those afternoon hours when everyone else was boozing or sleeping. He didn’t let his studies get in the way of everything else that mattered; he was one of the stars of his regiment’s polo team, and he certainly was not a teetotaler, but Winston Churchill had other plans for his life, and he knew that he had to take charge of his own education if he was to rise above his ordinary career prospects.
Of course, the 1890s were different than today. At that time, the world was about to change dramatically in ways that people could not foresee. Change was the order of the day, although folks back then really did not know what was about to hit them. Today, change is still the order of the day, and the only difference is that we know that next year, or 10 years from now will be very different than today. So, we have even less excuse to avoid taking responsibility for our own education. As Tom Friedman says in today’s New York Times column, in today’s hyperconnected world, “…the old average is over.” Things you take for granted become obsolete faster, so what you learn early in your life and career is not enough to last your lifetime.
Does self-education matter? Hell, yes, it does! When everyone else has great products and slick materials, the only differentiator that you can control is your knowledge and skill, and that’s the differentiator that customers will pay to get. What are you doing to add value to yourself and your customers?