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Sales Training–Sustained Performance Or The Sugar High?

by David Brock on June 13th, 2011

Every year, US companies invest $4-6 Billion in training (From a person who really knows, Dave Stein, CEO of ESResearch).  This includes internally developed training as well as that procured through the training companies.  It’s a huge amount of money, yet most of that money is wasted, Dave Stein would say, the ROI of training is negative–that is it costs more than the value we get from it.

It’s those darn sales training vendors!  Well actually, probably not–responsible training companies and trainers are doing a lot to measure the impact of their training programs and are producing very important results.

The problem, I think, has more to do with how we, within our organizations view training.  Too often, we view training in isolation from everything else.  We spend lots of money, sales people come to some central location, spend a few days getting training inflicted on them—and then they go back and do their jobs.  Often, I think of training as kind of a sugar high—after eating a few candy bars, drinking a few soft drinks, we get a momentary burst of energy–the sugar high.  Briefly, it feels great–but then there’s the crash.   A few sales people may apply some of what they learned immediately after the training, most don’t.  Come back a few months later, the training program is a distant memory, people are doing what they have always done.

Training is important, we need to continually invest in developing the skills and capabilities of our people and our organizations.  But we need to do that in a manner that produces sustained results.  So how do we do this?

First, sales training cannot exist in isolation with everything else we do in selling.  To be effective, the training must be reflective of  your strategies, priorities, leadership style, culture, and processes.  It must be integrated into your systems, tools, and coaching.  Training must be tied directly to the key performance issues you are trying to address in the organization.  Training has to reinforce everything you do in the organization, and these must reinforce what you are trying to achieve in the training.  Without this, people won’t see the connection, they won’t understand how it fits into everything else they are asked to do.

Second, training has to be relevant.  It has to deal with the realities the sales people face everyday.  It cannot be based on an idealized model of the way things should work, but fit into the messy reality sales people deal with every day.  It must be based on our customers and how they buy, our competitors and their strategies to compete, our organization’s solutions, strategies and processes.  Ideally, the training is built on real case studies from your own organization-both good and bad. One of the great ways to increase the relevance of the program is to make your top people part of the team selecting the vendor or reviewing the program design–they’ll make sure it’s relevant.

Third, training isn’t an event–it’s a process, it requires reinforcement on an ongoing basis.  Managers are critical to this reinforcement.  The new skills need to be integrated into the conversations, reviews and coaching sales managers do.  It must be integrated into the systems and tools that we expect our sales people use.  Sales people must see ongoing reminders of what they learned in the training program–the same terms, models, and concepts must be integrated into the fabric of the business.

If you design your training programs internally, it should be pretty easy to  design the program to be well integrated into everything else you are doing.  If you are buying programs from a vendor, make sure they take the time to adapt their program to your requirements, are helping you integrate the program into your systems, tools, and coaching.  They may charge you more for that–but it’s a good investment.  If you don’t do that, you will be throwing your money away.

Training is critical.  It’s one of the best ways to help accelerate change and develop new skills.  But make sure your training program produces results.  Are you going after sustained performance improvement or a sugar high?

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  1. Robert Koehler permalink


    You make very important points regarding a sugar high that has been going on for a very long time. Effective, results oriented training is integrated into the strategy of a continually reinforcing organization, it’s relevant (and engaging) and it’s a process.

    Krauthammer International, a European based training, coaching and sales consultancy did an extensive research study based on thousands of interviews with sales reps on ‘the top three factors that makes sales training effective’. Here are their top three factors:

    1. The involvement of their sales manager BEFORE the training to show them WHY they were undergoing this specific training and HOW it connected to their critical development needs to help them become WHAT better…

    2. The fact that the trainer adapted whatever he/she trained them on to their business context and did not deliver a “canned” approach – what he/she trained them on D day was not even relevant…

    3. The follow up of their sales manager AFTER the training to inspect how they apply whatever they learned on Training day on a daily basis

    This supports your point on relevancy and highlights a key tactical step in ensuring training is integrated into your sales organization: getting the buy-in and participation of your front line sales managers and executives.

    Since effective training is a process, we need to be building systematic programs rather than one-time events. I prefer to look at things through the lens of a sales performance consultant where training is just one tool towards solving a challenge. In this context face-to-face training is one of the most time consuming, expensive tools you can employ so you better use it wisely. Additional research shows that lack of performance is typically 70-80% due to environmental factors such as information, resources or incentives, yet most of the time we focus our time, effort and intervention (typically training) on fixing the individual rather than the environment.

    Thank you for continuing to lead the charge for improvement.


    • Robert, thanks for the comments–you add a lot to the discussion. The key thing we both believe is that training cannot be an event–it has to be integrated into everything we are doing.

      Thanks for the great observations!

  2. Hi David,
    totally agree with your comments.
    It’s not just selling, people all over the world attend courses and then never do anything with the information they have acquired. They even have a name for it, it’s called the knowing-doing gap.
    Back in the 80s Neil Rackham (of SPIN Selling fame) even said 80% of training is gone after 6-8 weeks if there is no follow up. He even indicated way back then that coaching after training is a necessity.
    top athletes all have coaches, why should professional salespeople be any different.

    • Greg, thanks for the comment. It’s amazing the Billions we continue to waste my not integrating training into our processes and coaching. To some degree, I think it’s done so that managers and others can “blame” the training when results aren’t achieved, rather than taking personal accountability—maybe I’m being a little too cynical.

      Thanks for the comment.

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