Chapter 6

Learning in the Flow of Work

Building Practical Skills for Sales Reps to thrive in the real world.

In the fall of 2011, fresh out of college, Shabri Lakhani joined Finastra as an inside sales rep. She was one of the first fresh graduates the London-based financial software company had hired—and that was a problem. “Even though I had done an economics degree, I remember struggling with the terminology and product,” Lakhani tells 360Learning.

To make matters worse, Finastra had just one onboarding course for all of its sales professionals. As an SDR, Lakhani received the exact same training as solutions architects, account executives and business development consultants. “The guy next to me had 25 years banking experience,” she recalls. “The training wasn't tailored whatsoever. It was, ‘Here's of all of our software solutions and here’s our sales process.’”

Despite her challenging start, Lakhani flourished in her role. By asking questions, studying how others worked, and simply learning by doing, she quickly became one of Finastra’s best sellers. But she never forgot the struggles she experienced while grappling with the vagaries of the company’s onboarding process.

Six years into her career at Finastra, Lakhani was handed the reins to the company's entire European sales operation. And one of the first things she did was to make sure to make the sales org’s onboarding program was supportive, tailored, and practical—so no one need feel like she did in the fall of 2011.

Welcome to Bootcamp

Lakhani rose through the Finastra ranks quickly. From her initial role as an inside sales rep, she was promoted to inside sales manager for the Americas. And from there, she moved to Dubai, to help build a new sales team for the Middle East and Africa. As she hopped from one role to the next, Lakhani observed how Finastra’s approach to both hiring and training was changing.

When Lakhani first joined the company, she was the only fresh graduate in her cohort. Everyone else had years of industry experience and already knew what they were doing. But the company’s executives realized they were missing out on a lot of talent by ignoring other candidates like Lakhani. So they switched to a hiring system that emphasized potential over experience.

A quote from Shabri Lakhani reading "We knew that if we give those people the right training, we could turn them into great employees."

This new hiring approach required new training so Finastra’s executives put together an onboarding bootcamp designed to turn blank slates into top sellers in just eight weeks.

Finastra split its bootcamp into three sections: people, product, and process.

The first section acted as an introduction to the company’s internal structures, departments, and teams. Representatives from sales, operations, marketing, and product would give talks and explain where they sat in the overall corporate structure. Trainees would learn who they needed to work with and how to interact with them.

Next, the bootcamp pivoted to products. In this section, new employees received a mix of talks and workshops from product specialists and sales executives. The product experts explained the nuts and bolts of each individual solution, unpacking all of their features. Once trainees understood how each product worked, sales executives showed them how to position it in the market.

Finally, trainees learned how to sell the Finastra way. “One of the first boot camps started off talking about go-to-market campaigns but we took for granted how much people knew,” says Lakhani. “So they did a section on what go-to-market meant and a section on go-to-market campaigns and a section on campaigns.”

The bootcamp largely ran behind the scenes and Lakhani, in her new role, which was focused on day-to-day sales management, had very little interaction with it. But in early-2017, that all changed. The company offered Lakhani the opportunity to take over the entire European sales org. With this promotion, she would be responsible for every single element of the team’s operation, such as hiring, firing, compensation, coaching, and, of course, training.

Lakhani gladly accepted the job, packed up her life in Dubai, and moved back to London. But with full control of the sales org, she was about to discover the drawbacks of Finastra’s onboarding bootcamp.

In London, Lakhani inherited an underperforming team. Compared to other regional sales orgs, Europe was especially challenging. Its team was scattered across seven or eight countries and revenue growth was sluggish.

Lakhani knew she had to rebuild her team from scratch so her first job was to investigate the talent conveyor belt, specifically whether Finastra’s onboarding process was actually preparing people for life on the frontline of sales. After sitting in on a few sessions, she discovered that it wasn’t. “At the end of week one, it was just blank faces,” she says. “I realized that we didn't actually cover anything around our industry so they didn't realize the challenges that they were trying to solve through the sales process.”

Worse, Lakhani realized that most of the onboarding process was just knowledge building. There were virtually no opportunities for reps to put the tactics, techniques, and strategies they had learned into practice.

To prepare her reps for life on the phones, Lakhani resolved to revamp Finastra’s whole bootcamp experience on two key pillars—industry knowledge and practical experience.

Illustration of the requirements to train the SalesWorks employees with an onboarding program

Industry Knowledge

To make space for improved industry education, Lakhani took an axe to the original bootcamp syllabus, cutting anything that wasn’t strictly necessary or which was better suited to on-the-job training.

“I remember standing by a whiteboard with post-it notes,” she says. “Each post-it represented a training topic and I was direct and ruthless.” Necessary post-it notes stayed stuck to the whiteboard. Unnecessary ones ended up in the bin.

At the end, Lakhani had cut her onboarding process from eight weeks to just three. The bootcamp still followed the same three-part process—people, product, and process—but now there was substantially less of each. And into the gaps, she slotted a handful of sections on financial industry education.

In one introductory module, for example, Lakhani laid out the industry basics. “We started with a simple question: what is a bank?,” she says. “Let's talk about a bank. How does a bank work? What are the different functions are there in a bank?"

Although banks are institutions everyone uses almost daily, Lakhani says few trainees could actually articulate what they were and how they worked. That knowledge deficit is important because if reps didn’t understand the industry, they couldn’t hope to put their sales skills into action. Or, as she puts it, “business action adjoins business conversation.”

Beyond simple introductory modules, Lakhani offered more advanced ongoing education. All her reps are enrolled on the Investment Foundations® program from the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute.

With the knowledge foundations laid, Lakhani turned her attention to her second pillar—practical experience.

Reinforcement Exercises

The most significant change to Finastra’s bootcamp was the introduction of exercises to ensure trainees learned how to put the theory into practice. “We didn’t want everyone leaving at the end and not really understanding,” she says. “We wanted to build in an element of watch, learn, and do so trainees learned knowledge and consolidated the skills.”

The first tactics Lakhani implemented were two quick pitch exercises.

She placed the first exercise—an elevator pitch—at the end of week one, shortly after trainees learned about each of Finastra’s products. Trainees had to pretend they were in an elevator with the CEO of a target bank and pitch them one of Finastra’s software solutions. “We were looking for proof they understood all the things they had learned that week,” she says.

Another exercise was a talking circle, which she used during classroom sessions. After each teaching each topic—say, a primer on a particular persona or a demo of a product—Lakhani threw a ball to one of her trainees. As soon as they caught the ball, the trainee had to pitch the product or persona back to the room. It ensured everyone was constantly processing information and working out how they would present it back. “It was important to have an element of consolidated learning at all times,” she says.

Both exercises mimicked real-world interactions reps could expect with prospects. Say, a conversation unexpectedly pivoted from one product to another. The sales rep had to be ready to pitch a brand new product immediately—and pitch it well. “Quick pitches were always good because, as an SDR, you often have 60 seconds on the phone with someone,” says Lakhani. “You don’t want to spew out your elevator pitch for 60 seconds. You need to deliver short concise messages.”

But these reinforcement exercises weren’t just about practice. Lakhani also recorded each pitch and watched it back with trainees later, picking out their strengths and weaknesses. Pitch by pitch, trainees refined their skills and improved their performance. “It’s a great feedback mechanism,” she says. “We watch their video and ask, ‘What did you do well? What did you do better?’ It’s a particularly powerful tactic.”

Illustration of the 3 weeks SalesWorks onboarding program

The Final Challenge

Although practicing specific skills is important, Lakhani knew it wasn’t enough to prepare trainees for life in the real world. Successfully landing a sale is a long and complex process, involving dozens of different skills. And just because a rep can perform each individual skill in isolation is no guarantee that they can put them together in an actual sales situation. That’s why she implemented a final two-day war game exercise named the Final Challenge.

During the Final Challenge, Lakhani and her managers play prospects, decision-makers at large banks or financial organizations, and it’s up to the trainees to turn them into happy customers.

The Challenge itself is split into three parts: brief, process, and close.

During the briefing stage, trainees get a dossier on their prospect, providing high-level information on who they are, the bank they work for, and other background information. Trainees need to take that information and enter it Finastra’s CRM. “What this does is recap the process side of pipeline generation,” says Lakhani. “It tests them on what kind of fields they should fill out, what important is most information, and how to actually convert a lead into an opportunity, which is one of the most important things from a process perspective for that role.”

Next, trainees must use Finastra’s sales methodology—the Nine Box Model—to move their prospect towards conversion. They must uncover pain points, write cold emails, make cold calls, and run basic discovery sessions. “The objective was to get a follow-up meeting with the prospect,” says Lakhani.

Finally, during the second day, trainees have to run their follow-up meeting and, ultimately, land the deal. “We review people on criteria, such as building rapport, ability to uncover pain, ability to get to the next step, and so on,” says Lakhani. “They’re assessed over about six or seven different areas.”

The Final Challenge is tough. Over the two-day exercise, Lakhani and her colleagues don’t act as themselves. They play hard nosed financial executives with precious little free time and little interest in sales reps. Trainees need to fight to earn their attention and must implement Finastra’s sales strategies perfectly to land a deal. Indeed, a significant number of trainees don’t make it through the process. Lakhani estimates she had an attrition rate of around 20%, although some of those drop-outs came before the final exercise. “If anything, the Final Challenge probably confirmed some of the presumptions we had,” she says.

While challenging, the Final Challenge had a huge impact on Finastra’s onboarding process. When Lakhani’s new reps graduated from the three-week onboarding process and hit the phones, they were primed and ready to go because they had already practiced their role during training.

Invest in Training

Lakhani says Finastra was exceptionally good at investing in training for its staff. During her early years, her managers sent her on dozens of different courses, seminars, and workshops. But like many training regimes, Lakhani identified a key problem—implementation. “People would go to Paris for training for two days but they wouldn't necessarily do anything differently when they came back,” she says.

For training to be worthwhile, Lakhani realized it needed to be practical. When she took control of the European sales org’s training program, that’s exactly what she focused on. With a few tweaks and changes, performance skyrocketed. “It’s about actually getting salespeople to actually practice,” says Lakhani. “Our reps were coming out with the tools and confidence they needed to be successful on the phones the week immediately after bootcamp.”