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Stop Wasting Your Money On Sales Training!

by David Brock on September 8th, 2014

This title will draw several immediate reactions.  There’s probably a round of cheering from those who’ve been subjected to bad sales training programs.  Simultaneously, there are a number who will be saying, “This is absolute heresy, how can you say this?”

Both reactions are probably right on target.  Every year, billions are spent on various types of sales training.  Some of it is internally developed, focused on product skills or other topics; some is purchased from vendors of very high quality programs.  But too often, the training doesn’t achieve the expected goals.

Of course there are some poorly designed and executed training programs.  But that’s probably in the minority of reasons sales training fails.

The major reason training fails—as well as any number of potentially great sales initiatives–is that we treat sales training in isolation.  We don’t look at all the elements critical to making an initiative successful, instead we isolate each, treating them individually, expecting each to stand alone, and by themselves drive miraculous results.

Unfortunately, things don’t work that way.  We can’t isolate an initiative, hoping by itself, it will have an enduring impact.  Performance improvement in any organization requires attention to all the interrelated components:  Strategies, Processes, Systems, Tools, Training, People, Leadership, Coaching, Metrics.  To maximize the impact of any initiative, whether it’s sales training, a new tool (eg. CRM system), a new process, or anything, we have to look at all the other components and how they reinforce and leverage each other.

We know sales training doesn’t work without the right reinforcing mechanism:  It’s integrated into our strategies and priorities.  It reinforces and is reinforced by our sales processes.  It’s integrated and reinforced by our tools and systems.  Managers coach and reinforce the training on an ongoing basis, and on and on and on…..  But this is not just an issue for sales training.  The same things apply if we are implementing new tools/systems.  Or if we are implementing new business strategies, or if we are changing metrics.  As much as we may want to, organizational performance cannot be isolated to one element, but it is a dynamic system impacted simultaneously by lots of things–and to get the best results we have to look at everything, balancing them to get the results we expect.

Responsible suppliers and vendors of these programs, tools, training will call this to management’s attention.  Some will supply services to help tailor and integrate what they are doing into the other things that make their programs, tools, or training have a sustained impact.

Sometimes managers don’t get it–even though they have experienced the problems of treating these programs as standalone solutions–and been disappointed because the results can’t be sustained.  Sometimes, the think, “I only have budget for the training program, I don’t have budget to make sure the training is aligned to our strategies, priorities, processes, tools, and metrics.  Sometimes they don’t know how to coach or don’t take the time to reinforce.  If management doesn’t do this (and if vendors don’t take a strong position advocating this), it’s probably best not to do it in the first place–the initiative will not be sustained, it’s very unlikely to produce sustained results.

If you are a buyer of these tools, products, services; challenge the vendors on how they can make sure what they deliver is integrated into and reinforced by everything else you do.  If they don’t provide leadership in helping you do this, you may want to reconsider whether they are the right partner.

If you are a seller of these tools, products, services; don’t shrink away from making sure your customer knows they aren’t just buying what you are selling, but if they want sustained results, they need to consider all the other elements of the sales system.  Help them identify how to do this–you will set yourself apart from everyone else.

Sales training is too important for us to be wasting the opportunity and money.  Let’s make sure we treat it that way and maximize the impact of training.

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  1. Before we run Sales Training are we NOT obliged to conduct a Sales Audit. Or, is Sales Training just like opening the cereal pack at breakfast, just add milk and eat!

    Great Post, Dave! Hope you can hear my trans-atlantic cheer:

  2. Absolutely true. And I love the way you “call ’em like you see ’em.”

    Two other BIG problems I see with sales training that I mentioned in a blog post earlier this year are:

    TRAINERS ARE NOT NECESSARILY SALES PEOPLE– especially good ones. As I have entered my second career in “sales training” I have been shocked at how little actual sales experience many trainers have. A background in adult education and instructional design/delivery is great (I certainly wish I was better versed in these areas), but it is no substitute for the “been there done that” credibility of having been everything from a bag carrier to lead negotiator on $150m deals.

    SALES TRAINING TEACHES YOU FROM THE “WRONG” SIDE OF THE TABLE– I’m talking about more than being “customer-focused,” I’m talking about BEING THE CUSTOMER. Way too few sales trainers know what it is like to be an actual BUYER.

    As always, great work!

    • Kurt, your comments always add to the quality of the post. Both the problems are key. We need to design training programs based on the customer point of view and experience. Then any sales trainer who hasn’t carried a bag…… well I’ll stop there, before I get myself into trouble.

      • Gents, let me offer a flip side to that coin.

        I’ve seen plenty of SMEs (subject-matter experts… people who carried a bag or sales experts) in front of a class, who were horrible facilitators, and tried to just get people to do what they did (whether or not it was right for everyone else). They also lacked the instructional, facilitative, or especially proper coaching and feedback skills to excel in the role.

        I’ve also seen sales trainers who haven’t carried a bag personally, do an extraordinary job in a classroom, because they had become a student of the field, rode with plenty of reps, studied the sales profession, and brought the platform skills, instructional skills, professional facilitation skills, coaching/feedback skills, and program management skills to the experience, that were needed.

        Does it help if the trainer carried a bag and had sales management experience? You bet. I’d prefer it, too. But only if they also bring the instructional skills required. Otherwise, I’d rather have a phenomenal instructor with the required classroom leadership skills, either who studied the profession and gets it, or is paired with a co-trainer from Sales.

        My two cents. Great training, is not the same as having an expert stand up in front of people talking at them. If you want to talk about how to stop wasting money on sales training… this is a key factor.

  3. Solid post, Dave. This is a big problem in the training industry and in business in general.

    In my experience, when sales training fails:

    – We’re trying to solve the wrong problem
    – We’re trying solve the right problem with the wrong solution (training only really solves knowledge and skill gaps, although can help influence attitude or mindset as well)
    – We have a content problem (right problem, right solution, but wrong content)
    – We’re targeting the right problem, have the right solution (training), and the right content, but have ignored the need for a systems approach to change, rather than some training event.

    For anyone interested, I’ve detailed some of this in my own post of the same title, which provides a framework for getting it right (when you know training is the right solution):

    I’m planning a post on how you know when training is the right solution, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

  4. Natalie Brown permalink

    Bravo Dave. well said.
    I got the image of a carnival juggler with spinning plates on sticks, on chins, on feet…how does sales management choose what to include in training when it is all important?

    Every organization has multiple areas where training could help. Some people have a gap in product knowledge, some people have a gap in strategic planning, some people have a gap in hunting prospects and some have a gap in using the tools. Some people have overlapping gaps…!

    Include various personality traits, goals and experience with training on the management team and it can be really hard for the organization to focus in on what training should be and what skills gaps to prioritize. What is the ROI? How do you decide where to put your limited sales meeting dollars?

    Don’t interrupt me…or I will drop the plates!

    • 😉 Natalie, it’s great to see you here, I’ve missed you! I think the key issue with training is, consciously or unconsciously, it’s treated as a stopgap or band aid. Instead it should be part of sustained performance improvement and learning. But to sustain its impact it needs to be integrated to our strategies, priorities, processes, programs, tools.

      Do this well, and it makes all the spinning plates more manageable.

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