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Learning to Teach

By: Dave Brock


I’ve been writing about “teaching our customers” these days. Too often, what I see of teaching is a more advanced form of a pitch.

Rather than pitching our products, we are now pitching business issues the customer should be concerned about. Perhaps they are trends in the industry, opportunities they may be missing, opportunities for them to improve their operations.

I suppose there is some merit to this, at least we are talking about the customers’ issues and not about our products. But too often, they don’t translate to collaborative discussions, shared learning, and taking action with the customer.

It’s also curious, that we seem to be inventing teaching—at least in the context of selling—ourselves, rather than learning from the best practices of people who teach for a profession.

I was struck by a passage in Joe Nocera’s OpEd piece in the New York Times, Teaching Teaching. He has the following quote about great teachers:

“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told me recently. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes—how they think—so you can respond to that.”

It reveals so much of what we miss about teaching. Teaching is not about telling, teaching is not about the pitch, it’s managing a discussion—whether with a child, our customers, or within our own organizations. So the focus of teaching—and the focus of our skills development around teaching our customers—has to be on how to manage the discussion.

The second piece is not so subtle, but often missed when we try to teach our customers. We have to know the problems that are likely to get the lessons across. Great teachers know how to manage the discussions, and the learning of the student to achieve the desired outcome. Translated into “sales speak,”  we have to know the problems we are the best in the world at solving, engage our customers in teaching discussions, managing the discussion to an outcome which gets the customer to take action. Every lesson plan has specific outcomes and objectives. (OK, I’m taking some liberties with my interpretation of that sentence, please grant me some literary license.)

Finally, we have to understand our customers, how they think, how they make mistakes, and have the ability to manage the discussion in ways that achieve the desired outcomes. We have to be able to put ourselves in the customer’s position, understanding what drives/motivates them, what obstacles stand in the way of their ability to achieve their goals, how they get things done. Without this, we can’t guide the discussion to achieve its objectives.

So as we design our training programs, it seems we need to focus less on the teaching pitch, but more on managing the discussion.

There are some that worry, can sales people actually learn to teach? Nocera leaves us with great optimism on that:

Are these skills easier for some people than others? Of course they are. But they can be taught, even to people who don’t instinctively know how to do these things.

This article was originally published by Partners in Excellence

Published: September 16, 2014

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Dave Brock

Dave Brock is the founder of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a consulting and services company helping to improve the effectiveness of business professionals with strategy development, organizational planning, and implementation. Dave has spent his career working for and with high performance organizations, ranging from the Fortune 25 to startups, including companies such as IBM, HP, Nokia, AT&T, Microsoft, General Electric, and many, many more. The work Dave does with business strategies is closely tied to personal effectiveness of the people in the organization. As a result, Dave is deeply involved in the development of a number of training and coaching programs.

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