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We Have It All Wrong When We Think About Sales Training

by David Brock on November 6th, 2009

A colleague was recently sharing research on how people learn.  The data was very interesting and, perhaps, explains why we don’t get the results we expect from sales (or other) training programs.  She shared this data:  10% of learning comes through formal training programs, 20% comes through observation and feedback, and the remaining 70% of learning comes through real world experience.

Interesting stuff!  As I reflected on the challenges we face in sales training, it would seem we focus too much time and too many dollars on the part of the issue that has the smallest impact on learning.  I get into discussions all the time about training.  When we work with people on training programs, we spend a lot of time discussing the role of managers in providing feedback and coaching.  We ask the client, “What are you going to do to make sure people apply, practice, and improve their capabilities following our training program?”

To be fair, we get some good answers and people are always interested in coaching, feedback, and follow up—but attention shifts quickly back to the “event.”  We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the training program itself.  Based on the numbers my friend shared, we invest most of our time talking about 10% of the problem and too little on the other 90%.  What would happen to the results we produce if we shifted our time to focus more on what happens after the training program?

If we really want sales training to have an impact, then we (the industry, training vendors, and management) must focus on two issues:

  • How do we get the skills embedded into everyday practice, so that sales people can truly learn from their experience in applying the skills?  The answer to this is not to add refresher training courses over time, but to integrate the skills into our business and selling processes, to set expectations and metrics that show that sales people are using and learning how to improve their execution of the skills we have invested in through the formal training program.  There are some exciting things going on, where the tools people use every day force people to use and further develop their skills.  I think those trends are great, but not having those tools is no excuse for not assuring our people are executing what we have taught.  If we have taught people a new “selling process,” then we must talk about that process in all our deal/opportunity reviews with the sales people to make sure they are using the process in executing their sales plans.  If we have taught them how to make sales calls more effectively, then we should be looking at their sales call plans or reviewing the results of calls.  If we are developing their key account planning skills, then we want to make certain they are putting them to use by developing and executing their key account plans, updating them as they go along.  Without practice—disciplined, focused practice, we never develop our capabilities to the fullest.
  • The second area is how to we observe what they are doing and provide feedback or coaching?  Management engagement in the learning and development process is critical.  Without ongoing feedback and coaching, the development of sales people is not going to happen at the pace needed.  Too often, managers spend too much time administering, or too much time focusing on the transactions, and not how the sales people are producing the transactions.  Or, they are out there doing the deals themselves, sweeping the sales people aside, leaving them to do the “to-do’s.”  The feedback and coaching that managers provide sales people is critical to improving their ability to sell.

Athletes, musicians, performers all improve the most with constant and disciplined practice.  The best of these, always make certain they have outstanding coaches providing the feedback to make certain they achieve the highest levels of performance.  Let’s do the same as we seek to improve the performance of sales professionals.

Let’s reexamine how we do training, let’s spend more time looking at 90% of how people learn, develop and perform.  For buyers of training, make certain your vendors are talking to you about these issues, not just the great event they are proposing.  Look at the tools they supply to help embed the training into the processes and ongoing practices used by the sales people.  Make sure they have a plan to develop the coaching skills of managers.  For trainers, you want your customers to produce real results from the programs you deliver.  Make certain you are adivsing your customers on how to coach and provide feedback, makes certain they are embedding what you are training into the fabric of how they execute.

If we don’t do this, both customers and vendors, we will forever be spending billions on nice events that produce no enduring results.

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  1. David,

    I think you are not only right, but right about a very important subject in sales training (training in general, for that matter, but let’s leave it at sales).

    I’m not sure anyone has nailed the answer down just yet, but let me share what we at Trusted Advisor Associates have come up with as partial solutions to the problem of post-event ‘mental muscle memory.’

    1. Coaching. Especially coaching by people whose primary qualifications lie in sales, not in coaching; and,
    especially coaching one-on-one, not group; and,
    especially coaching that is just-in-time, not scheduled months-in-advance.

    2. Time-staggered learning, with time for real-life practice between formal training events.

    3. In-room use of real-life examples, not cases or historical examples.

    4. Role-plays, especially those where participants have to play their own actual potential or current customers.

    It’s an important issue, and I’d like to hear from others willing to share their best practices.

    Charles H. Green

    • Great comment Charlie. On top of what you’ve highlighted, I think too often we view training in isolation, creating an event, then people go back to do their jobs. We need to view training as a component of the overall sales/business ecosystem. Each part impacts the other, and they must work in concert. Strategy, priorities, programs, etc. all impact what should be trained and how to reinforce training on an ongoing basis. (and vice versa).

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