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How handicaps can bring a new edge to company training schemes

Hybrid teaching that can mix classroom theory with what really happens in business life

Published: Aug 11, 2014 06:09:22 AM IST
Updated: Aug 1, 2014 12:23:52 PM IST
How handicaps can bring a new edge to company training schemes
Christophe Carpinelli, head of Innovative Learning Solutions, Audencia Nantes, France

A scratch of the head may reveal doubt. Touching the nose could mean a lie. Those versed in client negotiation are trained to take note of non-verbal signs and to use them to help achieve the best results. But what if these visual clues simply were not there? Firms are always looking for new ways to boost sales performance, but one area that has perhaps been neglected in the past is that of non-visual communication. While sales team are versed in the right things to say perhaps they neglect to listen in the way they really should.

A new slant on this sort of topic changes not just the way we think about improving sales staff skills but also the notion we tend to have of business education and handicap.

To most of us, when the word handicap is linked to teaching or training it either means that the people learning are handicapped or that the instructor in question has a  handicap and is employed as part of a drive for positive discrimination. But, what if the experience of certain handicapped people could be used to boost creativity in company training?  

This idea is perhaps not as off-the-wall as it may at first seem. Today, with well-known management training methods being used by all, the firmly established ways of doing things are in effect losing their value. As a result, firms gain no real advantage over their rivals and tend to leave those learning a little cold.

Increasingly companies are searching for hybrid teaching that can mix classroom theory with what really happens in business life. What emerges from this mix is an approach that puts the accent on active participation by embracing both cognitive neuroscience and a new take on teaching. Out of this sort of fuzzy logic comes a breed of company training schemes like that developed for a real estate group using the premise of a blind business coach.

This novel approach concerned more than 400 sales negotiators from French real estate giant Lafôret who benefitted from a training course given by a blind business expert. The aim: to use the coach’s handicap as an added value that would help the Lafôret personnel to recognise the sort of patterns and signs in a client’s speech that until then had escaped them.

Hired and coordinated by Audencia Nantes, a French business school, the blind expert ran 26 training sessions for the firm in all the country’s major cities. Himself, a management school graduate, he combines the knowledge of business life with the unique aspect his handicap gives him. In this way, sales staff learn how to listen as never before and also to put their own point of view in the best possible manner.

The impact of such a departure from normal training programmes can be great. On one level, the firm involved needs to place its trust in a provider who believes in a new and perhaps untested way of doing things. On another level, those taking part can find the approach almost uncomfortable. However, moving out of a certain comfort zone is vital in order to raise the right questions about long-accepted techniques. In the case of the Lafôret training scheme, participants often found themselves deprived of their own sense of sight. Given that vision is by far the ‘king’ of our senses in that it takes up half of our brain’s resources, it is little wonder that losing this sense leads to disorientation.

Training schemes were far from new to the Lafôret negotiators. As with any modern sales force they had already mastered a battery of techniques designed to help them   seal their deals. These include the best way to express an active interest in a client, when to alternate closed and open-ended questions, how to fit client answers into a pre-defined evaluation table, etc. However, despite these ‘classic’ methods, the company felt something was needed to give their salespeople an extra edge.

The logic behind the move came from the firm’s market position and image. Lafôret’s network is perceived as being strong in terms of its proximity to customers. Indeed, this closeness to clients is seen as a unique selling point and as such is at the heart of company strategy. In order to be close to customers the ability to listen is key.

It was with this need in mind that the real estate firm asked Audencia to propose an innovative answer. The solution was to turn a handicap into an advantage by drawing on the heightened senses a blind person can develop in those who can see. The training scheme therefore embraced a new image of the place those with handicaps can occupy in companies. Rather than turning to someone with a handicap simply to respect quotas or to display a responsible approach, the aim was to show that someone who does not possess all five senses can bring a new ‘vision’ to executive education. From this desire was born a scheme whose official title says it all: ‘Listening outside the box: how a sixth sense can boost sales, or how to develop better listening skills’.

From the very start, the participants are made aware that this training session will not be like others they have followed. The work begins with the traditional round of presentations so everyone gets to know each other. The difference is that each person presenting his or herself in turn with the whole class blindfolded. The simple fact of covering the sales staff’s eyes is enough to change the perception of those listening. Here, the aim is not to show that we hear better when we are deprived of sight. Instead, the coach seeks to make the participants aware of the importance of each sense and how we tend not to use them in the most effective way possible.  

Another activity designed to shake up the sales staff’s perceptions is that of being guided and informed by a colleague while wearing a blindfold. Far from simply echoing some sort of children’s party game, this exercise is in fact a concentration of the relation between client and company negotiator. Sometimes even finding themselves without sight on the pavement among the public, the salespeople were no longer able to play an active role and so had to make a concerted effort to understand the words of their guide.

An adept of theatre, the blind coach also throws down improvisation challenges and teaches concentration techniques. Whatever the method chosen the desired effect is always the same: to learn how to open up to another person in order to grasp his or her universe or way of thinking.   

Some may see this kind of approach as just one more gimmick to sell in-company training. However, the on-the-spot reaction from participants seems to show that to pass such a judgment would be to dismiss the innovation too lightly. When asked what they thought of the scheme Lafôret staff spoke of being able to find a new route away from standard behavior. While some participants did indeed find the approach quite disconcerting, most of them liked how it pushed them to ask key questions about the very basis of client relations.  

Lafôret is pleased with the positive response from its teams, but for the firm the main aim of the training scheme is not that clear cut. In a market where the relationship between customer and company is a key part of doing business, a programme with a difference such as that which involves the blind coach could have a long-term effect which is as yet difficult to measure. It is felt that by offering another angle on how to listen and respond to clients, the firm is in the process of making stronger still the sort of relationships on which its business has been built. The awareness developed on the scheme will have every chance of raising the standard of client contact and of boosting confidence. In theory, a rise in profits will be the direct result, but only time will tell.

Whatever the long-term effects one thing is certain: the initiative shows that calling on people with handicaps for staff training can offer a new take on tried and tested methods. What is needed is the imagination, and sometimes the courage, to adopt an approach that can surprise as much as it can seduce.

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