I’m sorry to do this, but the large grey animal with a trunk and tusks in the corner of the room needs to be addressed. I know the idea of reading yet more about Brexit is hardly likely to make your heart skip or to give your step an extra spring. But if you’re involved in developing commercial teams in your organisation, it can be ignored no longer. Brexit means…

Well, what?

The fact that I’m asking that question – and that none of us are able to answer it - is the issue. Despite the looming date of March 29th, we still don’t know in what shape the UK will be in relation to the EU by the time we open our Easter eggs (post-Breggsit, obvs). If the prospect of all that chocolate doesn’t make you sick, the fact that we may well be three weeks into a brand new post-EU world by then certainly causes most of us a degree of queasiness.

Now, this is not about whether you support no Brexit, no deal, a second referendum or an extended transition having sorted out the withdrawal agreement. I have my views but I won’t bore you with them.

This is about uncertainty and potential challenges which. Whether exchange rates change wildly, supply chains become blocked or share prices soar or fall off a cliff, we are in for a set of changes the implications of which many organisations cannot predict. Regardless of outcomes and impact, here are five things L&D teams need to be doing if they are to adequately prepare their commercial teams – sales managers, sales people, customer care staff and negotiators – to work in this unknown and uncertain future.

1. It's all about value

This seems self-evident, but if there are doubts about investments being made either side of Brexit, then business to business spending is reduced. Those organisations whose sales teams can help their clients identify requirements which are pressing - regardless of parliamentary votes - will be worth their weight in Euros.

Value = Benefit minus cost. In other words, the value you and your organisation’s services and products deliver to your customers is dependent on two factors - what your customers pay for your solutions and the benefit they derive. There really are only four things organisations are concerned about:

  • Quality,
  • Quantity
  • Cost, or
  • Time

In other words, what you do should help your clients to do things better; to do more things (for the same inputs); reduce costs or speed things up. The sweet spot is a combination of all four. I often argue that all business to business spend should be zero cost over the medium term. This creates blank looks, but if you think about it it’s a statement of the blindingly obvious. Businesses don’t simply buy things, they invest in plant, materials, equipment, skills, services and people. They expect a return on that investment.

In an uncertain environment, costs may change, benefits may take longer to realise. Your customers will need more persuading that - whatever happens - the investment you want them to make will be worth it. Your sellers need to have that commercial focus – whether derived from top class industry knowledge, sound business acumen, a depth of financial understanding (which is often sketchy), or – most importantly – a thorough understanding of their customer’s business. If your sales people can’t describe persuasively how their customers achieve a ROI regardless of what Brexit may bring, then you need to plug those gaps in their knowledge.

2. The shape of your pipeline may change

Most commercial organisations understand their conversion ratio. If you have, say, 100 enquiries, you may expect 30 to go on to a detailed discovery process and maybe 10 will actually buy in the next 3 – 6 months. As a commercial skills developer, you need to get close to that data. Are your current conversion ratios the same as they were six or 12 months ago? If they have changed, are your sales teams aware of this? What activities do sellers and their managers need to be involved in today to have a healthy sales funnel in three, six and 12-months time? Are your marketing team on board with this? This may not be universally the case, but whenever there is uncertainty, sales cycles tend to lengthen and - as well as taking more time to move from enquiry to purchase - more potential customers drop out between contact and contract. This changes what sellers need to do and what good looks like. Our job as L&D people is to help managers define what good looks like and provide appropriate guidance. L&D is about people doing things differently and doing different things. Managing their sales pipeline is one of the things people may need to do differently.

3. People may change

If there is a no-deal Brexit (or some flavour of hard Brexit) what impact will this have on your teams and on your customers? People buy people. One thing which sets a sales cycle back is often an unexpected change in personnel (on either side). So, how many of your key contacts within your customers are based in the UK but hail from another EU country? How many of your own sales staff are EU Citizens? Will they stay? Will they go? Will they have a choice?

Sellers would be well advised to deepen and broaden their relationships across the businesses they seek to work with. Knowing more people and understanding their requirements is never a bad tactic. Does your sales training process prepare people to build multiple relationships and extend their network amongst an organisation’s key players? If it doesn’t – it should.

From an internal perspective, how will you retain the talent you have already invested in? Even if your current staff are unlikely to leave for a less hostile environment elsewhere in the EU, many others already have. We are already experiencing some degree of labour market volatility and – as usual – the ambitious, bright and skilled will be the first to go. Having a talent retention process, based on enhanced skills and career development is not a nice to have in times of uncertainty – it is an essential part of the HR and L&D landscape.

If there are regrettable losses, what role does your L&D team play in ensuring the knowledge, contacts and nous which those individuals have doesn’t leave with them. It’s often a case that when sellers tell you they are leaving, their departure is hastened for fear of commercial information going missing. The real fear should be the haemorrhaging of knowledge and wisdom which accompanies any regrettable resignation.

4. If you ever wondered what VUCA was, you won’t soon!

For a long time, L&D conferences, HR publications and the general management press has been talking about VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Although the challenges are variously illustrated, the detail about what you actually do about these uncertain times has been a little thin on the ground.

We are starting to recognise that what really matters in navigating a VUCA environment is speed and agility. Quicker decision making, faster responses from managers to staff, from sales teams to customers, from colleagues to their peers. We have the technology to facilitate this, but still organisations can be bureaucratic and indecisive. Often, perfect is the enemy of the good. Your staff may prefer to defer a decision than be seen to be making the wrong one.
This is a cultural as well as a skills challenge for L&D. It is about the expectations we have of people and what behaviour is rewarded. If people are ‘punished’ for making honest mistakes, they will be risk averse. If errors are acknowledged and used as a source for learning, risk aversion reduces. Of course, governance is important and your teams will still need parameters within which to work. But keep those boundaries under review and don’t accept them being used as an excuse for dither, delay or poor service.
Agility is not an alternative to stability. In a recent McKinsey report, the authors identified that agility is only possible if there is real stability within the organisation which creates the freedom to think differently and act quickly.

5. Implementation matters

How often have you bought something only to be disappointed by the service received once the ink is dry on the contract? Sales people have been particularly prone to ‘throwing the deal over the wall’ to the customer service team or delivery team and rarely seen until the next time the contract needs renewing. One feature of a time of volatility is that contracts are shorter as people are unwilling to commit and customers expect to de-risk their decision by implementing pilot phases or limited roll outs.

Essentially, the final deal and the whole potential of each opportunity is likely to be contingent on getting the initial implementation stage right and sellers should have a role in shepherding the deal they have secured until it can be properly and appropriately handed over.
Do they have those skills? Do they have those roles in your commercial processes? If they don’t, they probably should and therefore they will need to have access to new models, skills and ways of working to enable them to do this. Guess what? That’s our job too!

In times of uncertainty, learning and development activities are often under pressure – perceived as a luxury item for more stable times. ‘We’re too busy coping with all this to go on courses’ they say.

Of course, whenever things are tough, whenever change happens, learning matters more than ever. And, yes, people will be under pressure and less prepared to devote time and energy to preparing for an uncertain future when they’ve got targets to meet and quotas to hit in a challenging environment.

So, one final plea to L&D teams. Now, more than ever, your creativity about how you build those skills and develop the people in your teams is needed. One size never did fit all so let’s not even try. If we want everyone else to be flexible, responsive and alive to new opportunities in a fast-moving, unpredictable world, we need to model the value-driven, flexible behaviours based on deep relationships which we so desperately need everyone else to adopt.