Sales can’t be taught in classroom

I admit it. Like many business travelers, when I fly, I operate under a guideline of, “How indifferent can I act toward my seatmate without violating the norms of civility?”
But it was different with Al, who sat next to me on a recent cross-country flight. This total stranger-turned-confidant is a salesman for a large, California-based technology company.
Al told me that in the last nine months, his employer had spent nearly $2 million on sales training.
“Did it do any good?” I said.
His reply was blunt.
“No, it was a waste of money,” Al said. “The content was good, the instructors were entertaining and the materials were professional. There were separate programs to teach managers and executives how to reinforce the training for the troops. And we bought the implementation software, too. But it wasn’t long before everyone fell back into old habits, while senior management was under the illusion that the program was being implemented because they were getting their reports.”
Rhetorically, I asked why no one said anything.
“Are you kidding?” Al said. “Our vice president of sales had just spent a few million dollars on this program. Who’s going to stand up and say it was a wasted investment?”
Senior management’s new clothes
Al’s right. Many employees are not willing to stand up and proclaim that the emperor is naked, especially when it comes to sales training. But that’s not the only problem. At most companies, virtually everyone who receives training that’s intended to transform the sales force is either unaware of the training’s lack of impact or is in denial about it. Half don’t even realize that they’re not implementing the training, and the other half won’t admit they’re not, lest it appear that they, “didn’t get it.”
There’s yet another dimension to this problem. Traditional sales training doesn’t require sales reps to change. We maintain that this is the very reason so many salespeople embrace such training. And it seems everyone in the chain, from the reps to the execs, has a personal incentive to believe the training is working.
The naked truth
According to most studies, upwards of 90 percent of learning from training is lost in one month. That’s the bad news. The good news is that most of today’s sales training is grounded in the old sales model. So, the rapid attenuation of that “new learning” can be a good thing because in so many cases it is teaching obsolete ideas and techniques. Let’s face it, selling has operated under the same basic set of rules for as long as any of us can remember. So has sales training, with its seminar format. Sure, in recent years, implementation software has been added to the mix, but the model has been essentially the same since sales training companies came into existence. Each company has a program for this and a program for that.
“Classroom learning doesn’t work,” says Rick Justice, senior vice president, worldwide field operations for Cisco Systems.
“We were pulling thousands of people out of their jobs, out of contact with their customers, flying them to different locations and shutting them in classrooms for days at a time,” said Tom Kelly, Cisco’s vice president for worldwide training. “It made no sense.”
A study conducted at North Carolina State University and reported in Fortune magazine concluded that, “people can learn just as well with their PCs as they can by spending hours in the classroom.”
And a recent headline in USA Today read, “Big lesson, billions wasted on job skills training. New studies show most learning happens outside a classroom.”
Lead by mentoring
Most sales force change initiatives fail. It’s an empirical, and unfortunate, reality. Why? It’s not only because companies put too much stock in the impact of a classroom session or two. It’s also because senior management is told that they need to promote the change, and sales management is told they need to reinforce it with the troops.
The reality is, sales force change initiatives will succeed only if senior management leads the change and sales management mentors the troops.
Any executive certainly knows the difference between promoting and leading an initiative. Promoting means giving a five minute rah-rah speech at the training’s kick-off session, and then leaving. Leading means giving that same speech, and then staying for the session.
For sales managers, reinforcing means asking how the new training worked when salespeople return from the trenches. Mentoring means going into the trenches to show salespeople how to use it.
Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at (262) 524-8099 or on the Web at
August 6, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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