At Capital Blue Cross, a leading health insurance provider in Pennsylvania, sales training is much like sales – fast-paced and relevant. In this episode of Powered by Learning, Capital Blue Cross Senior Talent Management Consultant Ryan Sweeney shares his organization’s secrets for successful sales training.
There are many important factors to consider when developing impactful sales training. Capital Blue Cross Senior Talent Management Consultant Ryan Sweeney shared these and other best practices.
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Susan: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning, I'm your host, Susan Cort. With me is d'Vinci CEO, Luke Kempski. Today we are going to talk with Ryan Sweeney, Senior Talent Management Consultant at Capital BlueCross about preparing everyone involved in the health insurance sales process to win in the marketplace. Welcome, Ryan.
Ryan Sweeney: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Luke: It's great to see you again, Ryan. I know it's been a while, but we've always had so much fun working together with you.
Ryan: Yes, it's nice to see you too, I'm pleased to be here.
Susan: Ryan, start off by telling us a little bit about your background and also your current role at Capital BlueCross.
Ryan: Sure. First of all, just thanks for having me, it's great to get to talk to everybody. My experience in training and development really goes back to about 2008 and my first foray into it was with New Holland Agriculture. That's an agricultural equipment manufacturer in Lancaster County. I did sales training there and the way that we did sales training at New Holland Agriculture was we had a dealership network of 1,300 dealers across the US and Canada.
We did a lot of product training and a lot of value proposition of the product and different things like that. I was there for a few years, really enjoyed it, had a lot of fun and from there I moved into a position with Members 1st. While I was with Members 1st, I focused a lot more on leadership development and more traditional classroom training around leadership development.
While I was there, I missed the sales training part. I like sales training. I like the urgency of it, I like the messaging around it and those types of things. So I moved into Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The way that that organization is set-up is we did business in 14 different markets. We did the training across those 14 different markets for roughly 600 plus salespeople across all of the segments whether it's government business, large group, small group whatever it was.
So we kind of touched all those different pieces and we focused a lot more on skills. Selling skills as opposed to product there. That led me into my position now with Capital BlueCross. I'm the Senior Talent Management Consultant here. What that means is, it's a combination of where my experience was in the past. My primary focus is really on sales training, but then I have a sort of a 1B focus on leadership development so for our new frontline leaders.
Luke: Most people are familiar with Capital BlueCross licensees and health insurance providers. Talk a little bit about the complexity of the products and how you go about getting people ready to communicate with potential customers and different people that they need to communicate about the products.
Ryan: At Capital BlueCross, the culture here is really about service. It's really about member service. It's about providing care for the member. It's about innovation and it's about delivering a best-in-class experience. Those are the things that Capital BlueCross really hangs their hat on. With my position and my focus on sales training, when I'm creating programs, I'm starting from that member focus. So for sales, it's really about understanding the needs of the market and addressing those needs directly. If that's a product focus that we need to have, then that's a product focus. Or if it's in this new world where we want to focus on how do we show our value or create value as an organization while we're also delivering that message virtually, then those are the things that we focus on there.
Our ultimate goal is really to just make sure that we make healthcare easier and talk about how our innovations provide that best-in-class member experience. To tie it back into the product discussion, there is complexity in products, but the reason that there is complexity in products is because it's designed to adjust the needs of the member. And so if we keep that as our north star, then the message that we deliver is going to be consistent across the board.
Luke: That's excellent, that focus and then using that to drive how you communicate. In your environment, are you taking people who know the products and teaching them sales, or are you taking salespeople and teaching them how to position Capital BlueCross in the marketplace?
Ryan: At Capital BlueCross, we have a pretty seasoned sales team here. We have folks who have been around for a while, they know the market really, really well. The institutional knowledge is really there. To answer your question more directly, it's really a combination of both. I draw parallels with sports all the time. It drives people crazy in my session. If we think of it in terms of sports, if we have one or two big plays a game, that's going to make a highlight reel, that's going to be on Sports Center, that's going to get the accolades and the shout outs and all that, but you're not necessarily going to win a game that way. You have to execute on all the little things to be able to do that.
When we build our curriculum, we start from a skills foundation and then we reinforce that skills foundation through product knowledge. If we're doing something like we're trying to create value or present a value proposition, we present that value proposition within the context of the product that we offer. That's how we blend those two things. Then we also make sure that we keep everybody up to speed on the basic blocking and tackling type of stuff, the industry trends, or the technology that they would use in our virtual world because all of those little things, like I said, that's going to add up to what the big ones really are. We try to make sure that everybody can, they have the highlight play in them, they can drive the lane, they can finish with a dunk, but they also have reliable mid-range jumpers as well. That's our role here.
Luke: Yes, that's great. Talk about the types of learning and development programs you're responsible for. What types of programs, their scope, what delivery methods you're using most often?
Ryan: In the context of this year, it's different. This past year, everything has been turned upside down and flipped around, everybody knows that. We've actually revamped our sales programs and our frontline leadership development programs. What we want to do is we want to focus a little bit more on what are the needs of the industry and of our teams now. We've done a lot of consulting with the teams. We are sitting with them, we're finding out what they may need to be successful, but also looking into the future.
When we go back to the office, it might not be a full-time going back to the office and so we want to make sure that if sales is out in the field, how are they out in the field? How can they present virtually? How can they still get all that messaging out and have some stickiness to it, so that folks remember what the presentation was, and it helps influence buying decisions?
The big thing is, the lessons that we're learning this year, I don't think that those lessons are going away anytime soon. Everyone wants to do well, but everybody needs help to get there. The focus in building our programs is basically boiled down to four specific needs. We want to make training that is accessible, so shorter sessions, simpler process. We want to make training that's specific. We want to make training that is usable, meaning that they can take that knowledge and they can start to implement those ideas immediately, that there's no a major up-skilling that has to happen. And we want to make training that's ours. We want to build around our goals and our needs and our specific gaps that we have right now.
When we think about sales programs, and I know this is a long-winded answer, but when we think about sales programs, our sales programs are geared around virtual selling and identifying the needs of the client, so that that messaging can be tailored to those needs. We want to know if we're talking to the right person and is the message focused on the things that they care about?
Our sales team traditionally is a very relationship-based sales team, but we can no longer just walk into a place and talk to a decision maker like we could in the past. We have to manage those relationships differently now. How do we go about doing that? Do we have the technical know-how to run the systems that are needed, to be able to manage those, make those sales presentations virtually? Those are all things that we factor in when we're addressing our sales training programs to make sure that they're ours, to make sure that they're specific and to make sure that they're usable.
And to the question around delivery methods and accessibility, we really just focus on being nimble. We're looking at delivering more training through non-traditional means, and we can't do the classroom stuff where I spend an hour in front of a class talking about these things. So how do we deliver bite-sized pieces and leverage a sales leadership as well to help coach the content, to get that buy-in from the top-down and reinforce that messaging all the way so that it becomes more accessible?
Luke: Do you provide opportunities for them to practice in the context of the training that you're delivering?
Ryan: We do, yes. What we're looking at is a traditional flipped curriculum. There's some self-paced learning, different things, blogs that they might look at, videos that we might share, podcasts that they might listen to, that share critical ideas and give the foundation of the information. Then we get together and we practice. It's not just us getting together in a virtual workshop and practicing, it also might just be practice for your manager. If what we're trying to do is deliver a message that creates value, is there a rubric around that? What are the checkboxes? What are the things that you have to check off to make sure that you're delivering that message? Then the manager evaluates that, sees where you are. Then we make adjustments to it based on that.
It really is about practice, and it goes into a larger thing I think with sales where there's an immediacy to it. It's, what am I doing? How am I going to be able to use this right away? What impact is this going to have in my day-to-day job? So that practices is critically important for that.
Luke: You've had training roles with salespeople and with other types of learners, what's different about training salespeople in general that you found in terms of their participation and engagement? Also, what motivates them and inspires them to really engage?
Ryan: I guess the core foundational things are-- Salespeople, so there's a competitive streak to it. They're going out and they're trying to drum up business, and they're trying to win business. That's literally the terminology that they use. How am I going to win this sale? So there is a competitive streak to it. I've had scenarios in the past where we've tried to leverage that competitive streak of sales. We've done things like activities during sales training where we use the audience response clickers. The audience response system would track everybody's scores on different things, we had them divided up into teams. Sometimes that competitive piece can go a little bit too far, because people were just taking people's clickers so that they couldn't answer questions.
There's that part, there's a competitive aspect to it. There's also a level of pride that comes with being a salesperson. You want to solve a problem. I know making money is a part of being in business and all that type of stuff. Our salespeople specifically at Capital BlueCross, they want to help solve problems. They're heavily relationship-based. In the past they've been able to leverage those leaderships in that service approach to gain market share year-over-year, that's how it's gone.
If we think about how we apply those strengths, when something like COVID happens and you have to rethink the way that you're doing business, you rely on your strengths. Our strengths here at Capital BlueCross are superior member service and it's that community involvement. We've taken more of an active role in things like waiving fees or participating in food drives, or helping first responders, assisting schools with any issues that they might have with caring for their students. Capital BlueCross is there every step of the way. Our salespeople were there every step of the way. I don't think that that's necessarily-- I think that that's a sales thing. We want to be able to help, we want to be ingrained in this community, we want to be part of it., and that's what relationship means.
I think at Capital BlueCross it means a little bit more, because it's not just calling on an old friend when it's time to make a decision about what your coverage is going to be for the new plan year. It's showing up all the other times. My shameless plug would be that, I've worked a lot of great places, and I've had a lot of fun in a lot of those previous jobs, but the advantage of working at a place like Capital BlueCross with our sales team the way it is, is that we can have an impact every single day and that's exciting.
Luke: It's a highly competitive marketplace that you're in. Talk about how, and the relationships are really key, but the expertise that the salesperson brings to the customer, and their ability to consult and help them make decisions, how does training fit into that? How does what you're doing to support that process fit into that?
Ryan: I think we can help, in training we can help our salespeople to understand the markets, but really that's going to be their experience. The more that they're out in the market, the more that you're dealing with people, the more that they're going to understand what the unique needs are. Where training does actually help is, when we deliver sales training, I mentioned that there's a bit of an urgency to it all. It's all about what do they need to know? And they only want to know the things that they need to know and they want to know specifically how that's going to benefit them and their next sales call.
The other thing that salespeople do is that they connect those dots and they draw those parallels to their unique situations automatically. They're taking the things that they know from their experience about the marketplace and the needs of their consumers, and they're turning that into, "Okay, now how is this training applicable to my situation?"
But they also spot nonsense right away. If you're delivering a sales training, and you start trying to get in what some of the market nuances are and things like that, and you don't have an adequate understanding of that, they're going to pick up on that right away, and they're going to know. Then the rest of your sales training then is going to go out the window because they're going to have this built-in perception.
How we tie all those things together is it's-- you got to make sure that you're prepared, which goes without saying if you're delivering training anyway. But you have to be prepared to go in a bunch of different directions, and almost treat your training like it as a sales presentation, because they want that behavior to be modeled.
Luke: I would imagine when you're working with a group, you want to get them to educate each other, that they have knowledge and skills that they can really share and that's an opportunity for them to do it in a training session. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Ryan: Absolutely. At Anthem, that was a big thing that we ran into a lot. Where would get into, we would purposefully set up our workshops to allow for a lot of information sharing. At Capital BlueCross, I'm seeing that as well, that there's a real partnership of the sales team. When we get into these sessions and we have everybody there, and we're talking about whatever the message is that we're talking about, virtual selling, inevitably somebody will raise their hand and they'll say, "Hey, I tried this, it works really well." Then it just becomes this group thing discussion. And that has a real lasting impact.
Again, I mentioned it's Capital BlueCross, the sales team is heavily relationship-based, they know each other, they trust each other. When they hear that message from a peer, it resonates a lot more than if they just hear it from somebody as part of the regular content. So it's been really, really effective in that way.
Luke: In your environment now, are you doing anything to measure the effectiveness of the training to evaluate the training?
Ryan: Yes, we're launching a bunch of new programs and a bunch of new approaches. Because we're launching those programs as new, it pushed us back into level one, level two, Kirkpatrick. How we deploy those evaluations is fairly standard. The big thing that we've shifted to is focusing more on collaboration as a means to design and evaluate the training. We've done things like, on the sales training side we're developing a sales training council. That sales training council is going to be made up not only just of representation of sales, but also of marketing and of product.
The point there is basically that as we're building and evaluating content, we want to make sure that the messaging is the same across the board. Obviously, a marketing team has a lot to do with how sales go to market. Product, the same way, they design their products to address the needs that they're seeing in the marketplace, sales have to go out and sell that then.
If we have everybody at the table, we can share all those different lessons learned. We can use things like class feedback, those level two evaluations that we get back. We can use that data to develop what the next step is going to be to gain buy-in around the possible changes to the content and just to make sure that everybody's speaking the same language when we go to market.
Luke: Great. You mentioned that you're rolling out newer initiatives, any kind of components of those newer initiatives that you want to talk about that maybe are different than what you've worked with before?
Ryan: I referenced it a couple of times, but the working in a virtual environment. I think if we think of our major initiatives for 2021, it's broken down into two categories. The first is, how do we provide support for a virtual workforce? Then the second is, how do we support and reinforce a culture of coaching because that's a major point of emphasis for us for this year?
We are a traditional training organization; we do a lot of face-to-face training. That's the way that we've always done things. We've really had to rethink how we're doing things and using the shift and approach to also revamp our courses as part of that. We've been completely rethinking all of that and we've been paying a lot of attention into deploying more of adjusted time type of learning, looking into being more innovative in our approaches. Really, I think the methodology that we're using is that we want to fail fast. It's not necessarily a specific curriculum, but it's just in general, we want to try things, see what sticks and build on those things for the future.
The big area of focus outside of sales, even within sales actually, but a big area of focus for us at Capital BlueCross is on coaching. I summarize again, going back to my sports fanaticism, I summarize this by, if you look at Gregg Popovich, so Gregg Popovich is the coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He's somebody that I personally really admire. He uses something that's called, it's considered magical feedback with his team. Essentially, he's saying that there is a standard that he sets and that when he gives feedback, he's giving that feedback because he has high expectations, but that he believes that each player on his team can reach those expectations.
At Capital BlueCross, when we think of creating a culture of coaching, that's exactly where we want to go. The people that we have, the employees that we have are members of this team, this team is special and growth is going to come from raising expectations, so we also have to believe that people can meet those expectations. And where talent management fits and where training fits into all that, is that we help to build and reinforce that belief. Coaching is a major component of that and that's where we're really going for this year.
Luke: It also sounds like while you're definitely in a competitive marketplace when it comes to competing for customers, I would imagine you're also in a competitive marketplace when it comes to talent, especially on the sales side, and that part of the way to retain that talent is in how you develop them. Do you want to talk about that a little?
Ryan: Absolutely, yes. We're undertaking a couple of initiatives now that are built specifically around that. They're going to be launched later in the spring, but it's basically about what does our succession planning look like? Where do you want to go within your career? Can we provide a pathway to be able to do that? I will say, at Capital BlueCross, it's been eye-opening to me because the amount of just development opportunities that you're given.
Everything from a tuition reimbursement program, which is one of the more generous ones that I've seen at any of the companies that I've been at, the whole way down to just what courses do we make available through outside vendors for people to be able to upscale on certain specific things. Like whether it's communicating to a C-suite executive or building new relationships or fostering innovation or any of those types of things? We make all those things available to everybody within the organization, and so there's really tons of opportunity and that's what makes people want to stay.
I know for me personally, that's what makes me want to stay, is where am I going to go? Do I have a ceiling here or not? I think at Capital BlueCross we've set the stage that we don't have that ceiling. That you can develop into what you want to develop into. The tools are there for you, it's just taking advantage of those things.
Luke: Yes, I think that's probably a good place for us to wrap up, Ryan, it's a really good summary to basically take the connect, the training and the development with employee retention that makes you more competitive in the marketplace, the whole value chain right there and your role in supporting that. Certainly we wish you the best in taking that to the next level as you continue your journey there at Capital Blue Cross.
Ryan: Well, thank you very much, it was great to speak to you.
Susan: Thank you, Ryan. What a great conversation we had with Ryan. Luke, what are some of your key takeaways from your interview?
Luke: Yes, Ryan, he began with how Capital BlueCross emphasizes member service and member focus and member wellness and their overall community involvement, and he wants that emphasis of a carry through in the training so that that also carries through in what the salespeople are learning so that they can make that part of how they talk to and build relationships with their customers.
He also talked about, when you're developing training for salespeople, you need to make it really accessible, have to make it short. In a lot of cases, they have self-paced content that's then followed with the opportunity to apply that learning in conversations and in practice sessions that they have, and to share that learning across the different salespeople and share their experiences with each other.
Also the importance of positioning everything in terms of immediate applicability, that's really important, again, for all adult learners. But I think even with salespeople, it's a more of that urgency. They have that let's go, let's go, let's win, let's win, and to feed into that and make the training have that same pace and that same application to do what they do every day.
Also, certainly, virtual presentations and building relationships without being in-person is a big topic across a lot of different training these days, but everything related to sales has been disrupted. I think there's a recognition that there's going to be a lot more of that happening in the future even beyond the current environment, so that being able to do virtual presentations and to build relationships without actually being in-person are skills that they're training they're now, have become more important and will continue.
The last thing that I thought was really important that he mentioned was the sales council that they set up, which is really allowing other groups that sales interacts with a lot to be part of a group together, to be able to share learning, and share best practices and share what's next so that they can all work together cohesively and collaboratively.
Susan: We've heard from others and certainly know the importance of that connection between training and marketing and other departments to really make that training more impactful, so I was glad to hear that they're doing that a Capital BlueCross too. It just seems too that they are really listening to their learners and being able to pivot whenever needed and being very agile, not just through this time of the pandemic, but throughout all of their training that they're making sure that they're doing that listening that's necessary to make sure the training they're delivering is really hitting the mark.
Luke: Really good point, Susan, and we certainly will continue to hear that from a lot of our future guests as well, I'm sure.
Susan: Thanks Luke, and many, thanks to Ryan Sweeney from Capital BlueCross for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about, you can reach out to us on d'Vinci's social channels through our website, d'vinci.com, or by emailing us at poweredbylearning@d'vinci.com.
Announcer 2: Powered by learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than twenty-five years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d'vinci.com.