Saturday, August 08, 2009

Diary: Training Sales People in India

While I am on the subject of Leadership Training, I had this interesting discussion about sales training in India with a friend. He was emphasizing the need of developing sales training modules specifically for India, and not rehashing the western modules available off the shelf. He also made the point that sales has a changing priority in India, because the new commercial frontiers are the villages and hitherto untouched customers for most industries. His point was - and he had been doing this for more than a decade - that the western models, if it ever worked in India, are losing their effectiveness in the context of this new marketplace.

Indian trainers, indeed, covet the western practises. This is primarily based on, I believe, the faith on the superiority of Western business culture. After all, modern business culture in India is deeply influenced by Western business thinking, passed on through customer interfaces and expectations, or through consultants and executives trained in the West. Besides, the benchmarks used in Indian businesses are mostly western, and the Indian business schools covet tie-ups with British and American business schools and follow their techniques and curricula.

This was okay as most businesses, especially the service-oriented ones, looked to Western clients and multinational organizations to sell their wares. Not all though, some successful businesses in India focused on the government business and they were culturally very different from those which sold abroad. The ones which focused on the 'Indian' consumer, the banks which extended their branches to the villages, Life Insurance Corporation, Indian Railways, were almost all monopolies, and they never felt the pressing need to sell, other than creating awareness. Suddenly, this market place has surfaced after the liberalization and economic affluence, suddenly the small town and rural India are attractive and competitive market places. Insurance companies, telecom providers, education providers, even recruitment organizations must now penetrate this market and compete. So, they need sales and service capabilities for this market, and alas, there is very little that is available which takes into account the particular dynamic of this marketplace.

Richard Gesteland makes this point in his popular Cross-Culture Business Behaviour, and recent analysis of Indian consumer behaviour brings this out too. There are some cultures, mostly Western, which are deal focused cultures. Here, you win business by offering the best deal, no matter what your relationships are. However, India and other Asian cultures lie predominantly at the other end of the scale - these are relationship focused cultures, where people buy from people they know, no matter whether there is a better deal available in the market. So, in that context, length and depth of relationships matter far more than the attractiveness of the deal, and this is missed out by most Indian companies while training their sales force.

To start with, a very popular sales training model in India [still] is SPIN, as popularized by Neil Rackham and Huthwaite. This is still used, though this is a bit dated now, and is normally seen as one activity that the organization should do to move their sales force from feature based transactional sales model to relationship-based benefit-focused competitive selling. I remember trying to adopt this model in our sales process while in NIIT back in 1998, and how we felt about it while practising the technique in student counselling and franchise sales. To start with, we felt the model is wonderful, not because it worked, but because it was superbly presented and offered us - for most, the first time - a structured model showing us how the customer should be led to the sales through a sequence of logical steps, while showing concern about his/her particular situation and connecting up the benefits of the product we have to offer to these requirements. But, back in real life and with the benefit of some perspective, this was more of a placebo than a method that worked - all of us soon abandoned all that we learnt and went back to what we did earlier.

Looking back, I can see some clear shortcomings in a model like SPIN. For example, it mistakes superficiality for relationship. It assumes, based on the predominantly western practise, that asking a few opening questions and showing some concern about the customer's background and particular situation allows one to win trust and build relationship. Not so in Asian cultures, where one has to spend a significant length of time and really connect to the customer to win that trust. On reflection, a model like SPIN may actually decrease sales effectiveness in the Asian context than enhance it, because it substitutes superficiality for empathy and thereby pushes the sales people to operate at a much shallower level of relationship than they should be doing.

Edward Hall, the well-known American anthropologist and popular writer, differentiates between slow and fast cultures, and an Western model, developed in the context of a fast culture may actually be quite unsuitable for a slow culture like India. [And one may add, when one goes out of Indian cities, and approaches Indian villages, everything gets slower] It is worth reproducing Edward Hall's examples of fast and slow messages here, for a better understanding of the point:

Fast Messages / Slow Messages

Prose / Poetry
Headlines / Books
A communique / An ambassador
Propaganda / Art
Cartoons / Etchings
TV commercials / TV Documentary
Television / Print
Easy Familiarity / Deep Relationship
Manners / Culture

I picked up this list from Edward and Mildred Hall's Understanding Cultural Differences. I use this list to explain various things, like why newspapers are dying in Europe while they are booming in Asia [though a more reasonable explanation is that print newspapers have a deep relationship with nationalism, and while they are losing significance in post-nationalist Europe, the Asian nations are reinventing their nationhood], but in the context of this discussion, I shall focus on the easy familiarity part. Edward Hall was describing not Asian cultures, but was essentially contrasting the French and American cultures here. Here is more on that point:

In essence a person is a slow message; it takes time to get to know someone well. The message is, of course, slower in some cultures than in others. In the United States it is not too difficult to get to know people quickly in a relatively superficial way, which is all that most Americans want. Foreigners have often commented on how 'unbelievably friendly' the Americans are. However, when Edward T. Hall studied the subject for the U.S. State Department, he discovered a worldwide complaint about Americans: they seem capable of forming only one kind of friendship - the informal, superficial kind that does not involve an exchange of deep confidences.

Conversely, in Europe personal relationships and friendships are highly valued and tend to take a long time to solidify. This is largely a function of long lasting, well established networks of friends and relationships - particularly among the French - that one finds in Europe. .. Nevertheless, many businesspeople have found it expedient to take the time and make the effort to develop genuine friends among their business associates.

The key point is that RELATIONSHIP as defined in a Western, particularly Anglo-Saxon sales model is not what Indians will understand by RELATIONSHIP. And, the prevalence of such models in sales training in India will render most of the training useless once it comes to selling to Indian customers, particularly in small towns and villages.

I know this problem is well acknowledged. I have come across a telecom company which wants to tap the rural customers and trying to recruit sales people from respective villages, take them through a training programme and let them return to their village. This inverted model gives adequate importance to village roots than 'product knowledge' and is likely to be more successful. There are some business schools which have started exploring the Indian reality, though, unfortunately, most of these explorations end in a superficial spiritualism, which is spatial and often not the answer. What I am suggesting a modern, scientific understanding of the Indian consumer in its own cultural context and sales [and sales training] models developed accordingly, and that's not going back to the vedic age.


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