Sales: Rethinking sales training

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

I admit it. Like many business travelers, when I fly, I operate under a guideline of, “How indifferent can I act towards my seatmate without violating the norms of charity?”

But it was different on a recent cross-country flight. As it happened, Al, a total-stranger-turned-confidant, was a salesperson 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 asked.

His reply was blunt. “No, it was a waste of money. The content was good, the instructors were entertaining, and the materials were professional,” Al said. “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?” he replied. “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 people aren’t 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 drive real change in 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 even 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, an insidious one: Traditional sales training doesn’t require sales reps to change. I maintain that this is a big 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.

First, kill all of the PowerPoint shows

“Classroom learning doesn’t work,” Rick Justice, senior vice president, worldwide field operations for Cisco Systems, said in a recent issue of Sales and Marketing Management. Echoes Tom Kelly, Cisco’s vice president for worldwide training, “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. It made no sense.”

A study conducted at North Carolina State University and reported in Fortune concluded that, people can learn just as well with their PCs as they can by spending hours in the classroom. Big lesson, billions wasted on job skills training. New studies show most learning happens outside a classroom. 

A common-sense solution

First, we have to change the paradigm wherein senior management believes that they need to “promote” the change and sales management believes they need to “reinforce” it with the troops. Sales training will work only if senior management leads the change and sales management mentors the troops. “Leading and mentoring”—very different from “promoting and reinforcing.”  Regular readers of this column recognize this exhortation as something of a Stapleton mantra.

Second, harness technology. I believe that the most effective way to foster learning in a sales force is through the use of online tools combined with real-time, real-life role-playing. This is the formula we’ve been employing at Stapleton Resources for some time now and the results have exceeded our expectations (“What, you mean they didn’t want to hear me go through a two-hour PowerPoint lecture in the classroom?”).  PowerPoint, audio, video, case studies, demonstrations…exercises of all kinds, can be rolled up into an online curriculum that the sales force must go through before stepping foot in the classroom. That way, salespeople are coming into the group session “ready to rock.”

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