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The After Action Review and Your Sales Team:
A Great Match

By Bryan Feller

The problem with many sales organizations is not laziness, lack or selling skills or the myriad of other issues CEOs point to when sales are down. The problem with most sales organizations is the inability to learn from experience. Sales people are knowledge workers. Knowledge is their most valuable asset. Yet most sales organizations have no viable way to harness or exploit the knowledge gained everyday from their salespeople.

Good knowledge management (KM) holds the key to breakthrough performance for many sales teams, however, KM has had mixed reviews by managers ever since it came on the management scene. Managers love it and hate it. They love it because it offers easy-to-see benefits by leveraging what’s in peoples’ heads. They hate it, because most KM initiatives are expensive and take too much time to start showing results.

Without question, leveraging knowledge is a powerful performance improvement tactic. The faster you can capture information, turn that information into knowledge, and get that knowledge into the hands of the people who can use it in meaningful ways, the faster you will see results.

What’s needed is a “quick and dirty” KM approach that is easy to implement and that doesn’t require complex systems or processes.

A quick and dirty KM program for a sales organization has two parts: a technical part and a people part. The technical part is a simple, accessible, and easy to use web-based information repository. The people part of the program is the After Action Review, or AAR. This tool can be the single most important sales performance enhancer that you implement.

The US Army first developed the “After Action Review” as a learning methodology in the 1970’s. Its purpose was to create a structured means to facilitate day-to-day learning from combat training exercises. The reasons for success or failure in combat training exercises are often not clear. AARs were designed to tease out the learnings from such exercises. After Action Reviews are now used by many companies in a number of ways. When conducted properly, the AAR serves as a post-event debrief that generates specific actionable recommendations (SARs) for immediate use. It also creates an environment in which sales people can identify real mistakes, learn from them, and make immediate adjustments, rather than get bogged down in blaming the market, the prospect, or the competition.

In a business setting, an AAR is a team-only discussion after an event or activity—to start with, perhaps, a sales call, presentation, or phone meeting. As the team becomes adept at conducting and leveraging their AARs, their use can extend to larger activities such as lead generation events, networking initiatives, and trade show exhibit participation.

The purpose of the AAR is to identify one or two specific actionable recommendations (SARs) focused on improvement that can be acted upon immediately. Key characteristics of the session are:

  • Short-term, in a small group

  • By the team, for the team

  • Takes about 15 minutes

  • Makes learning conscious

  • Can make learning explicit

  • Builds trust

An AAR consists of four deceptively simple questions asked in succession:

  • What was supposed to happen?

  • What actually happened?

  • Why was there a difference?

  • What have we learned?

The only acceptable climate for an AAR is one of openness and commitment to learning. The objective is to improve performance, not assign blame for something that isn’t working. AARs are not critiques; more important, they are not personal performance evaluations or even a part of the evaluation process. Nothing kills an AAR effort more quickly than using it for any kind of management evaluation.

Each member of the discussion is on an equal footing, with one member assigned the role of facilitator. The facilitator’s job is to keep the conversation factual and free of blame, and to present supporting questions (specifically, “whys” and “hows”) to capture more information under each main heading. The manager or leader of the team should not be present if their participation will inhibit honest or open communication. In these cases, the facilitator can provide the manager with a summary of the AAR that has been shared with all team members beforehand.

The final result of an AAR is the identification of SARs; that is, specific statements of actions to take to improve the outcome of the next similar event or activity. Other than instances where a manager summary is written, AARs are not usually formally captured in written form. During the discussion, each member takes notes. However, this is not written in stone; you can elect to have a written record of AAR activities on the team’s online system, with proven SARs converted to best practices and included in the Sales Standards.

KM doesn’t have to be complex and expensive. By simply putting AARs into place, you can implement a quick, dirty, and effective KM component to your sales team for far less time and trouble than any packaged KM solutions currently on the market. Not only that, you will see far more meaningful results from a quick and dirty KM initiative than any training program you have considered trying. When you combine the technical and people parts of a quick and dirty KM system, the result is greater than the sum of the two parts. In addition to providing a repository for sales and business intelligence, your online repository can hold the results of AARs, so that as SARs arise from the debrief process, they can be recorded and then refined as they go through further AAR processes.

Over time, as team members comment on SARs recorded on the site and their results in the field, some of these learnings will evolve into best practices. When best practices are noted, codifying them into your department’s Sales Standards is the next step in performance enhancement.

Read other articles and learn more about Bryan Feller.

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