NATS - Sales Without the Bite

Huthwaite International Helps National Air Traffic Services Sell with Integrity.

The knowledge and expertise of National Air Traffic Services (NATs) may be very specialised, but its challenges are similar to many other former government organisations that now compete as commercial businesses.

For example, how can it sell, with integrity, services that are essential for the safety of hundreds of millions of people each year? And then, how does it change the mindsets of highly skilled and technical professionals, so that they are comfortable with the idea of selling?

NATS – or the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as it was then – was partly privatised ten years ago. The government still owns a stake in the organisation; the rest is owned mainly by a consortium of UK airlines. It is principally responsible for managing aircraft travelling through UK airspace, as this remains a ring-fenced operation with no commercial element. However, other services such as the managing of departures and landings and aircraft movement around airports is now open to competition from other providers and airport owners themselves.

This works in two ways for NATS. On the one hand it has to bid for work that was once given automatically, but on the other, it can sell its services around the world. These now go beyond air traffic management to include engineering and consultancy. For example, it helps airport operators, governments or engineering firms to specify, design and install air traffic management or radar tracking systems. It also provides guidance and advice on areas of expertise such as safety management.

With many countries developing new transport infrastructure, especially in the Middle East and Asia Pacific, this presents a major business opportunity. Consequently, over the past couple of years it has renewed its commitment to expanding its international footprint and put rigorous growth targets in place. 

As Simon Leary, NATS international accounts director explains: “We recognised that to reach our business development goals we needed to encourage our technical teams to gain new skills and that we needed expert help from outside the organisation to do this.”

“Our relationship with Huthwaite International goes back to the days of CAA and since then it has maintained its reputation for high-level, research-based sales training. It seemed the obvious place to go.”

Huthwaite’s engagement with NATS began with an executive briefing of senior personnel to ensure key staff had a good understanding of what training entailed and to get their views on the process.

NATS’ brief to Huthwaite International had several layers. Primarily it indicated the need to mentor NATS on how to help the team develop consistent selling techniques and appropriate competencies. As part of this process a new value proposition to customers was generated.

Steve Thurlow, Huthwaite’s business director adds: “An outsider could immediately think of passenger safety records as being a deciding factor in any deal in this business. However, this isn’t open to competitive point-scoring. Absolute safety is a given and nobody could survive in this market space without a cast-iron track record – so it’s a level playing field on this front.”

“So although safety is of overriding importance, it’s not a commercial value proposition.Instead the team was encouraged to think about the efficiency of their operations; how they get aircraft down and onto the ground with little or no delay to minimise costs and environmental impact. The UK is a hub for air travel between the US and Europe and our airspace one of the busiest in the world, so being able to manage high intensity operations efficiently here is a good recommendation.”

This all helped Huthwaite International trainers dismiss the idea that selling involved foisting an unwanted product or service on a gullible buyer. By recognising the wealth of experience and knowledge they could offer, NATS personnel began to identify the value they could create for their customers. “We could show that they didn’t have to depart from their ethical standards to sell,” says Thurlow.

To do this Huthwaite rolled out its renowned SPIN® Selling course to the NATS salesforce. This focuses on training staff to get to know exactly what is required to help a customer – what Huthwaite calls their Explicit Needs. This is achieved by asking structured questions, listening carefully and identifying and developing value through solutions that solve the problem and ultimately help the customer’s organisation to realise its desired business outcomes.
“We’re very good at what we do,” says Leary. “However, the training is helping the team engage the customer and apply their knowledge to what a customer needs – instead of automatically suggesting they do it ‘the NATS way’. The course was exactly right for us.” 

He adds: “The role play was especially valuable in getting sales people to think differently and equipping technical and operations staff to work well with customer facing scenarios that they may not have been exposed to before. For instance, they learnt how to unlock problem situations and how not to jump to conclusions but to take time in assessing a situation.”

The initial sales force training has now been complemented by awareness sessions for other client-facing staff so that the entire organisation presents a consistent face to customers. There are also plans for coaching sessions for managers so that they can reinforce lessons learnt and bring new staff up to speed. 

NATS’ evaluation processes have shown positive feedback from those taking the course: “I have a so much better understanding now”; “Highly practical techniques” and “Amazingly powerful tools” were typical of the delegates’ comments.

Leary has noticed a shift in attitude. “We’re all talking a common language now. I’m also hoping this is going to have an impact on our bid process. By listening to the Explicit Needs of a customer early on in the process, we plan to bid less and win more.”

“NATS experience is typical of many operations – not just those formerly in the public sector. Sales teams and technical staff used to be a breed apart, but increasingly their roles have merged. The way to make this work is to recognise that good selling is actually the best form of customer service there is,” concludes Thurlow.