In 2000, a widely reported study by HR Magazine revealed that companies that invest at least $1,500 annually on training each of their employees have 24% higher profit margins than businesses that invest less in developing and honing the skills of their workers. A more recent report by Aberdeen Group also concludes: “Companies deploying formal sales training initiatives lead non-adopters in overall team attainment of sales quota (78% vs. 63%), customer retention (71% vs. 66%), the percentage of sales reps achieving quota (64% vs. 42%), and additional key business metrics.” Thus, the investment in sales training is a no-brainer for organizations. But to invest those resources effectively, and at a large scale, can be difficult.
Over the past two years, the team behind SAP Academy has sifted through more than 25,000 applications for a program that has a lower admissions rate than Harvard College, Princeton University, Yale, and Stanford. Since its inception, recruiters for SAP Academy have interviewed over 10,000 potential participants, welcomed 600 trainees, and graduated 580 students who have joined full-time roles at SAP. Through the Academy, young professionals are prepped for a career in one of two tracks: Sales or Presales.
A tale of two programs
According to Frederic Page, Faculty Lead of SAP Sales Academy, both programs take a holistic approach to sales training by marrying experiential classroom learning with on-the-job training.
For Sales Academy participants, the eight-month program includes:
- One month of orientation and onboarding in the candidate’s local SAP office
- Three months of classroom learning in Dublin, California
- Four months of on-the-job learning back at the candidate’s assigned office
Page shares that throughout the program, Academy Account Executives get to:
- “Drive software revenue to achieve business goals and sales quota”
- “Establish territory and/or account strategies leveraging targeted sales plays”
- “Identify opportunities with existing customers and/or new prospects”
- “Focus relentlessly on Demand Generation activities”
- “Lead a virtual account team”
- “Build relationships and networks internally, with customers, prospects and partners”
For Presales Academy students, the 12-month program includes:
- Six months of in-classroom learning in Dublin, California
- Six months of field practice at their home office
Page adds that four main responsibilities of Presales Associates are:
- “Supports the software deal process by providing product and/or industry expertise in all customer engagement activities including demonstrations”
- “Acts as a trusted advisor to the customer”
- “Helps design and explain the value of innovative software solutions”
- “Acts as a high profile member to the account team”
Assessing fit & recruiting the right talent
To identify and recruit hundreds of high-quality candidates, SAP takes a process-driven approach. The four major steps in the recruitment process, according to Page, are:
- “Corporate Culture Fit Assessment: Who is the ideal candidate for this program? Who would fit best into SAP’s corporate culture? We aligned candidate profiles to our criteria to determine the best fits.”
- “Situational Judgment Analysis: This algorithm-based questionnaire gave us insight into candidates’ critical thinking skills. How would they handle a situation? How did they position themselves within a team, and a company?”
- “Recruiter ‘Hangout’: Instead of formal interviews with candidates, we invited each candidate to have a more casual recruiting conversation or ‘hangout’ to hear about his or her experiences and understand who he or she was, as a person. We found that Millennials generally react more positively to these types of more informal and relaxed meetings, and feel freer to talk openly, which allows us to get to know them on a more personal level.”
- “In-person Boot Camp: This experience simulates a real-world customer interaction using a SAP-specific case study. The boot camp showcases a candidate’s ability across multiple competencies including critical-thinking skills, teamwork, communication, and ability to influence others.”
Obstacles & opportunity in onboarding Millennials
In an effort to empathize with the younger generation, the team behind SAP Academy regularly asks:
What do Millennials want?
Page knows, “Millennials are infamously known for having little loyalty to brands or employers, jumping companies as quickly as a Snapchat video.” The data, indeed, supports this notion. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, “The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.6 years in January 2014.” In the past, when pensions were a common employee benefit and professionals were happy to simply have a job, workers committed their entire career to a single employer. Today, Millennials, in some ways, are spoiled.
Despite recent economic woes, young professionals have limitless opportunities — you can easily start a business for under $100, you finance your passions with a part-time gig driving for Uber or you can network your way into your dream job. Furthermore, they have been conditioned into thinking any work relationship is temporary; internships, for example, unintentionally encourage workers to try different jobs in various fields and industries until they find a perfect fit. And, of course, there are practical reasons for switching jobs regularly too. Fast Company’s Vivian Giang makes the bold claim: “You should plan on switching jobs every three years for the rest of your life.” Giang writes, “Workers who stay with a company longer than two years are said to get paid 50% less, and job hoppers are believed to have a higher learning curve, be higher performers, and even to be more loyal, because they care about making a good impression in the short amount of time they know they’ll stay with each employer.”
Forward-thinking employers like SAP agree. Page believes, “[Millennials] also have strong values and traditional personal goals, and a company that can identify, understand, and align with those values and goals, and support Millennials’ ambitions and professional development can earn Millennials’ loyalty.”
“A dramatic change is taking place in the industry,” says Page. “In 10 years, the workforce will shift from 60% Baby Boomers to 70% Millennials. This shift requires a significant investment in training to ensure that Millennials, also known as ‘early talent,’ are prepared for leadership responsibilities. We look for hard-working self-starters who are passionate about problem solving and are eager to learn and grow in a rigorous and stimulating environment. This is the first time in SAP’s 40-plus-year-old history that global hiring has been conducted on such a massive scale.”
Of course, discovering how exactly to mobilize and motivate a Millennial workforce has not been easy. Fortunately, Page has summarized eight lessons he and his team at SAP Academy have learned about unlocking the Millennial’s full potential.
1. Hire diverse talent who can overcome adversity
“In our experience, organizations hiring Millennials must look for people with multi-dimensional experiences and backgrounds, and must find people who are resilient,” says Page. Thus, candidates should have experience studying or traveling abroad, or unique non-academic interests such as sports, music or philanthropy. Furthermore, Page adds, “Sales is a very demanding career with many highs and lows. People who have had to overcome obstacles and challenges are most likely to thrive in a competitive sales culture.”
2. Register cues from what they say and what they don’t say
“Observe them in action, and watch how they get things done,” advises Page. “Be curious and ask questions that go beyond the surface. This will serve managers well in learning how to work with them and get the best from them.”
3. Create an atmosphere that champions communication and transparency
Millennials do not bend when management barks out orders. “It’s in the nature of early talent to challenge and question,” explains Page. “When this happens, create an open environment of trust to both listen and understand their point of view. At the same time, managers must be clear about what is expected of them, and set clear boundaries around what works and what doesn’t work.”
4. Abandon any negative preconceived notions
“Recognize that they don’t fit into the traditional sales model or box.” Page points out, “They are sponges – they often see and understand much more than you might give them credit for. While they are inexperienced, their ideas and insights are valuable and relevant.”
5. Be authentic, constructive and honest
Employees now, more than ever, demand respect. “Due to its high level of media exposure, this age group is quickly able to sniff out the inauthentic and insincere,” says Page. They do not want to be lied to and they do not want to be fooled; they want the cold, honest truth. Page continues, “They respond well to direct and honest communication and feedback, which is like oxygen for them. Feedback is ideally timely (delivered within 24 to 48 hours) and very specific and actionable.”
6. Provide high-impact opportunities
Despite having a reputation for being privileged and selfish, many Millennials are actually altruistic. Page argues, “Most of them are highly motivated to make a difference for others. Take time to understand their motivations – professional, financial and personal.”
7. Choose your battles wisely
“Know when to be firm and stand your ground,” recommends Page. “Develop what is negotiable – open for discussion and compromise – and what is non-negotiable. Entitlement is a common Millennial stereotype. However, getting under the attitude – understanding what’s driving the feeling of entitlement – and dealing with the root cause often results in productive outcomes for all.”
8. Let them shine
Finally, Page insists, “Leverage their strengths and innate leadership abilities. Give them opportunities to be challenged and stretch outside their comfort zones, and be ready to lend a helping hand when they ask for it.”
Graduating talent & introducing future sales leaders
A testament to SAP Academy’s success is the following statistic:
95% of our graduates are still with SAP.
The curriculum introduces trainees to fundamental sales concepts and applies continuous learning and reinforcement. “Early in the program, our participants are assigned to a sales team in their Market Unit, and start generating pipeline, are involved in customer facing sales activities, presentations, discovery meetings, and demos,” shares Page. “After graduating from the Sales Program, they can expect to sell SAP’s broad range of business software solutions and services, as an Industry Account Executive (SAP Covers 26 industries), a Solution Sales Executive (HCM, Customer Engagement and Commerce, Procurement and Supply chain, Analytics, Office of the CFO solutions to mention some of them), or joining some specific sales teams (indirect sales, inside sales etc.). Associates also get paired with a tenured employee in our mentoring program. Most of our Graduates start working for the Market Unit where they were initially hired, and SAP also encourages their mobility at regional or global levels, giving them opportunities if they wish, not only to grow professionally but also move geographically.”
With SAP Academy as a precursor for some for full-time employment, many graduates experience better-than-average on-the-job performance. According to Page, “89% of our SAP Sales Academy Graduates have closed a deal, compared with 84% of SAP Experienced New Hires over a similar period of time. The average revenue generated being similar.”
For SAP, it may have been a huge risk to develop such a lengthy and thorough training program for hundreds of new recruits each year. Fortunately, the firm’s investment in developing top-notch talent has paid off. Although other companies may not have the same resources as SAP, every sales organization should allocate budget and energy towards building a system for getting new recruits onboarded and helping its sales talent learn and reinforce skills that may positively impact their overall performance.