Skip to content

Fixing Sales Training, Chicken Or Egg?

by David Brock on June 5th, 2009

I’ve been quietly following my friend Dave Stein’s posts, tweets, and rants about the state of sales training this week. I guess the ASTD conference set him off, but I’ve been quietly cheering him along.
Sales training seems to be one of those things people constantly complain about — management, sales people, training people — yet somehow we are content in not doing anything about it. Billions of dollars/euros/yuan are spent, with little impact; but those dollars will be spent next year (maybe a little less) and the same complaints will persist.
Where does the fault lie? I’m not sure, I’m not sure I care. Training is blamed a lot of the time, often justifiably, but often their hands are tied. Management is not engaged as they should be, but given their time pressures, finding time may be difficult.
I want to focus more on solutions, how do we break this conundrum. Some thoughts:
1. Nothing will be changed until sales management recognizes the biggest leverage to improving sales effectiveness and productivity is to make the development of their people their number 1 priority.
I’ve written a lot about management’s role in coaching and developing people. I continue to believe the highest impact management activity is actively engaging their sales people, individually and as teams, in developing their people.
Management — sales leadership is not about administration. It is an aspect of the job, but it is a cost driver not an enhancement of the sales function. There are increasing numbers of very powerful tools that can help managers do the administration. Sales executives must focus on business process simplification to reduce the time managers have to spend on administration.
Management —- sales leadership is not about being a Super Salesperson. Sales managers have to be strong sales people, but their job isn’t to drive deals or to swoop into save the day. If they were super salespeople as individual contributors, they probably were fully consumed time-wise. Giving them broader responsibility managing more people, a larger territory, provides no leverage on their time so expecting them to do more is unrealistic.
Management — sales leadership is about getting things done through people. Yet many managers don’t know this is their job, they don’t have the skills to do it, their performance is not measured on people development, and they may be afraid. Sales executives must realize their most leveraged activity is to set the a standard for people development, to hold their people accountable for it, to measure it, and to do it themselves—coaching and developing their own management team.
The bottom line here is: It’s simple, there is no more important or highly leveraged activity to driving sales results and effectiveness than developing and coaching your people–managers and individual contributors — to reach the highest levels of performance.
2. Sales training is too important to be left to the sales trainers. I’m not criticizing people in the training organization (well maybe a little), but we are asking them to step up to something that is beyond their experience base—and this is a management problem.
Years ago, when I was at IBM, high potential leaders always spent some part of their careers in training and development. Every sales training class I went to was led by someone who had been a sales person, the value of “been there, done that” is so important in driving relevance into training.
Moving high potential sales leaders into a training function also improves their ability as managers and leaders. To be effective in training, they have to learn how to be effective in coaching and development. They spend time in developing their skills on what will be the most important thing they can do in the future as managers and sales leaders.
We see many large companies doing this as part of their OJT management development and in providing relevant training to sales. Organizations that staff their sales training organizations with training professionals are disadvantaged — and it’s not the trainer’s fault. I think professional trainers are very good and make great contributions, but I think the contribution is improved my mixing the training organization with high potential sales practitioners.
Small and medium companies may not have this luxury, they may not even have a training department. This mandates that sales managers and executives take an active role in developing and executing the training programs. They must set objectives, they must evaluate alternatives, and they must make sure the training is integrated into their overall business management process. The process of doing this will both improve the results of training and will help managers develop their own capabilities.
Bottom line: Sales management has to own and engage in setting the training strategy and even in training delivery. It is a fast way for them to develop their own skills.
3. Training needs to stand up to sales management. Often, I see well meaning training professionals wanting to do the right job, but not feeling empowered to do this. Recently, I was involved (unsuccessfully) with the training organization of a large company. They had an impossible task.
Sales management had mandated some innovative training programs and dumped it in the laps of the training organization. The training department had real concerns about the programs. There were some budgetary concerns, but those weren’t central. The training organization had seen millions invested in training on these specific skills in the past, with no result. They were concerned about replicating the same thing. One of their tasks was to develop management coaching training. Yet, managers were not held accountable and many did not believe that coaching was part of their responsibility.
Bottom line: It takes courage, but training needs to stand up to management, forcing them to do the right thing, and to be engaged. Frankly, this is a matter of self preservation for training. If they don’t this death spiral discussion will continue.
4. Be careful how you are being sold—manage your vendors. My friend Niall Devitt has been having a very active discussion about selling sales training. Go to that discussion and learn from it. There are a lot of quality suppliers of sales training, but there are even more hucksters.
If you call a vendor in and ask them for training and the price, not letting them engage you, you deserve what you get.
Be careful of people talking about the silver bullet or focusing on the 10 clever techniques of doing something. If the vendor isn’t asking you a lot of questions about your markets, your sales processes, your people, the challenges, performance expectations, and so on–then they aren’t concerned about making a difference, they just want to separate you from your money.
Watch how you are being sold. Many years ago, I was EVP of sales for a large organization. I went through the final interviews of sales training vendors. They were basically selling the same thing– a process based, customer/consultative focus managing the complex sales process. At a surface level, it was hard to distinguish between vendors.
What I inspected was how they were selling me and how they had sold my people. Interestingly, of 4 major firms (big name companies) we considered, only one of the sales people was using their process in selling us. It caused me to think, “If their process wasn’t good enough for them to use, then why was it good enough for me?” I chose the one vendor who was using their own process in selling us. In working with our clients, a number of people have commented on the same—we use our process in working with them, many other don’t.
Bottom line: Be aware you are being sold — and sales people are susceptible to being sold. Perhaps paraphrasing the golden rule: “They should sell unto you, as you would like to sell unto your customers.” Hmmm-not sure that works, but you get it.
I’ll stop here, you know I can get into long winded discussions. What suggestions would you add so that we can break this death spiral on the effectiveness of sales training?
  1. Sales Skills Training permalink

    Today there is greater effort to maximize sales, increase revenue and protect margins. The ten calls that once generated two customers have increased to twenty. Farmers must now become hunters.

    Here are a few points that will help facilitate the transition.

    The greatest hidden asset in any company is the untapped potential of its sales force. The best investment opportunity available to any company, or salesperson, is to unlock that potential.

    Just as there are right ways and wrong ways to sell, there are right and wrong ways to teach salespeople how to sell more effectively.

    For sales managers to unlock the true potential of a sales force and optimize benefits to a company's bottom line, three things are required. They should always be present in sales-training situations, but rarely are.

    1. Teach a sales system that is genuinely more effective than what your salespeople are doing now. This should be obvious, but it isn't. Many courses teach selling as a collection of tips, tricks and techniques that might be helpful in various circumstances. Maybe they'll work for a short period of time – maybe not.

    To achieve dramatic gains in performance, salespeople need to master a systematic and superior approach to selling that has proven to work consistently in virtually any circumstance. Tricks and gimmicks won't cut it. Salespeople need a better way to sell.

    The system must be based on the way buyers actually behave and make decisions. And salespeople need to know not just what the system is but how to master and execute it – every step of the way.

    2. Teach skills that can be taught. A thousand traits and characteristics may contribute in some way to sales success: an outgoing personality, the gift of gab, etc. The trouble is, those traits can be talked about (and often are in training courses) but they can't really be taught.

    Research proves that improvements in only five critical selling skills translate directly into greater sales performance. These skills can be taught and improvements in them can be measured. They are:

    * Managing the Buyer/Seller Relationship
    * Sales Call Planning
    * Questioning Skills
    * Presentation Skills
    * Gaining Commitment

    Google "Action Selling" if you want to know more about those five sales skills, how and when to use them, and why they are so critical to unlocking actual potential to achieve measurable gains in sales performance. They also provide the following: a free sales skills assessment that determines selling skill strengths and how to improve in using these skills, a number of great quick-read sales books describing how and when to use the above skills (, sales training white papers and more.

    3. Train according to the realities of adult learning and behavioral reinforcement. Educational research has established a great deal about how adults actually learn and master new skills. Salespeople learn far more effectively when sales training adheres to proven adult learning principles.

    But teaching new skills is only half the battle. Sales performance can't improve unless salespeople actually use their new skills consistently on the job. Old habits die hard.

    What to teach and how to teach it are important issues. But, "How will we reinforce the new behavior on the job?" is critical. Reinforcement must be an integral part of the training plan, right from the beginning.

    If you select the right system, based on the right skills, then get the teaching and reinforcement right, you'll have taken a huge step towards unlocking the true potential of your sales force and reaching new heights of sales productivity.

    To Your Success

  2. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Thanks for your comment. I wouldn't disagree that strong process or systems based training that is pragmatic is critical. Ongoing coaching and reinforecement is also critical.

    The challenge is, what you suggest— particularly from the point of view of coaching and reinforcement isn't done. This causes great sales training to have a very short life and reduced impact.

    I think we are saying very much the same thing in different ways. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  3. Niall Devitt permalink

    Dave, as always, thanks for your support. Cheers, Niall

  4. Don Mulhern permalink

    Right on David!

    I’m amazed that so many sales executives view sales training as an event instead of an important element in a transformation of how they sell and how they manage sales. They invest significant amounts of money in a training initiative but don’t reinforce it with their messaging and behaviors. They keep doing all the same things and unrealistically expect the “training dip” to improve results. No wonder there is so much discontent with training outcomes!

    Both the senior sales executive(s) and front line sales managers need understand, embrace and then put into action THEIR behavioral changes necessary to encourage and support (if not require) sales teams to exercise the skills and disciplines taught during training. But so often it seems that the training event becomes a vague memory with perhaps a few tidbits picked up by a few of the reps.

    Often prospective clients will present with “we need sales training”, as if they are seeking to purchase a product. But I believe training is a “solution sale”. Yet many training organizations jump right on the product pitch bandwagon, making outrageous claims without really understanding the clients real needs. A more effective approach that can produce real and lasting outcomes is to sell the way you teach (or should be teaching), to your point. The response to the “we need sales training” question should be another question: “Why?” Which should be followed by more relevant questions that guide a dialog that gets to the real root problems or opportunities. That way training can be developed that addresses those real needs as opposed to the “one size fits all” approach of so many training vendors. Also, often the “why” question and ensuing dialog uncovers other needs besides training: people, process, organizational, incentives, et. al. So training is sometimes an important part of the solution, but not the entire solution.

    This speaks to your point about selling our services the same way we teach in our programs. We’ve experienced this firsthand also. One large client chose us over a handful of big name training organizations and offered that in addition to seeing the value in our approach, we were the only ones who sold using our own methodology. He could clearly see it (we never mentioned it – he brought it up)!

    Alas, as you say, there are many “good” one out there, but also many that are not so good. It seems these organizations are aptly described by the old adage, “if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail!”.

    Sorry to run on so long, but as you can probably tell, this is a pet topic of mine!

  5. Great post David:
    AS you know I train Sales Teams and Sales Management both domestically and Internationally.

    I believe ( feel free to challenge me on this if you like) based upon what I have seen and experienced that the reason sales training can and does fail is: There is a distinct lack of reinforcement on a continuing basis; Sal;es Managers need to be trained to train and coach and they must WANT to and Commit to the training.

    When I am training a team or teams both small and large I REQUIRE THAT SALES MANAGERS BE IN THE ROOM WITH PHONES AND ;APTOPS OFF.. When training is complted I then meet with Sales Management to discuss the training and gain feedback and commitment from them.. Senior management is in that room as well because I want them to commit as well otherwise they are throwing their hard earned dollars away.

    I also build in my own reinforcement and am back every other quarter for a year although I am in direct contact with the client monthly..

    • Norman, sorry for the slow reply. You are right on target. The absence of a reinforcement plan, the absence of integrating training into current processes, systems and tools, is a huge problem. It’s why training doesn’t stick and most of the investment in training is wasted.

      Vendors would do better adopting your practice. We are similar. We insist that managers participate, in fact we give them some role in delivering the training (what better way to learn than to teach). We also embed reinforcement into the contract, primarily helping the managers coach and reinforce. It is non negotiable. As you might expect, people trying to reduce cost, try to negotiate it out. We take the position that if they aren’t doing this, then they are throwing away their money and simply not do the training. Thanks as always.

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS