Sales: Hands-on coaching more effective approach than seminars

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For some time, Tom had been trying to transform himself from the traditional salesman that he has been into the model business resource.
He had taken to heart the importance of selling to executives, a key business resource activity. Yet as he moved from account to account, attempting to enlist the support of his contacts in securing a meeting with senior management, he repeatedly found that they blocked him.
Tom’s break came when he called on a contact at a large pharmaceutical company with which his employer hoped to do business. At the close of the call, thinking he was following the playbook from his training in business resource methods, he suggested to his contact, Bill, a meeting with the executive who was Bill’s boss.
"Do you think this would be a good time to get [the executive] involved in this decision?" Tom asked casually.
Bill bristled, shaking his head.
"No, that won’t be necessary," he said frostily.
This time, however, Tom wasn’t alone. He had his real-time coach with him – his sales manager – who had been well-steeped in the nuances of what Tom was trying to do. He jumped in to reframe the request.
"Bill, we recognize that you are the one who will make the decision," the coach said. "But I think you’ll agree that this decision represents an initiative that would take the business relationship between your company and ours to a whole new level, offering both great potential for your company but also involving some additional risk. I think we’d both benefit if [the executive] were more familiar with the direction we’re going together, so that she can more readily support us in the effort."
The frost melted.
"That makes sense," Bill said.
The sales training myth
Tom’s story shows a central truth about any attempt to ramp up the skills of your sales force to the business resource level: the traditional mode of sales training, the seminar, doesn’t work. The changes required to make the business resource transformation are so radical that they’re like recoding your DNA. And, the nuances in how the business resource implements the sales process are so fine that a classroom lecture can never head off all the potential missteps.
Just one hour of real-time coaching can be more effective than days and days of seminars.
Many who have been on the receiving end of traditional sales training programs know, or at least suspect, that they end up being a waste of time and money. But when management is so committed to its laudable goals and has invested so many resources, few are anxious to stand up and point out what a waste the effort really is.
There is a deeper problem for companies that buy into the myth that training is enough. When the class is over and the sales force goes back out into the field to implement the lessons they have learned, easily half don’t even get it right, and don’t know that they’re not implementing the training. The other half won’t admit it for fear they’ll be viewed as "not getting it."
A more effective model: Hands-on coaching
Think back to Tom’s near-blunder when he tried positioning a meeting with his contact’s boss. Without a coach (his manager) along, Tom might have been shot down yet again, just as he had so many times before, and never understood why his attempts to implement the executive access dialog had fallen short. Instead, he had a chance to see first-hand the profound impact of seemingly subtle differences.
Large group sales training seminars have their place. They can be used to teach specific, narrow skills, such as how to set up and run a PowerPoint demonstration. And they give an organization an opportunity to put everyone in the same room, build a team atmosphere for the challenges that lie ahead and set the direction for where the training is taking them.
But seminars aren’t enough – not nearly enough. To think that they are is like thinking that all it takes to send a football team to victory at the Super Bowl is a 15-minute pre-game pep talk in the locker room. We all know the true key to that prize: months of rigorous training, concentrating on the so-called little things that make the difference between a shiny new ring or a first-round draft pick next season. And it all happens under the constant eye of a world-class coach. The only difference between you and that Super Bowl coach is that you aren’t on the sidelines.You’re in the game with your team.

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

April 15, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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