The sales training myth

Sales training doesn’t work unless you’re involved
Over small talk at a backyard barbecue, Al, a salesman for a large California technology company, told me that in the last six months his employer had spent nearly $1 million on sales training.
I asked if it did any good. His reply was blunt: “No, it was a waste of money.”
The content was OK, said Al, the instructors compelling, and the materials were professional. There were even separate programs to teach managers and executives how to reinforce the training for the troops.
The problem, Al said, was that no one knew how to make it come alive. They soon fell back into old habits, while senior management was under the illusion that the program was being implemented.
I asked Al why no one said anything.
“Are you kidding?” he responded. “Our vice president of sales had asked the president for a million dollars for sales training. Who’s going to stand up and say this was a wasted investment?”
I hear this lament from executives and business owners regularly: “We spend fortunes on sales training, yet our salespeople don’t improve. Three months after the training, our salespeople are still not selling value, they’re still not getting to executives, they’re still chasing bad deals, and they’re still getting stuck with gatekeepers.”
Sales training is a $100 million industry – and, as the example above shows, it doesn’t work!
You know the drill: Pull all the salespeople together with a high-energy instructor and a cheerleading speech from senior management, and send them off three days later with a bulging three-ring binder and an implementation worksheet. The evaluations that people fill out praising the trainer are a beauty contest – giving points for being interesting, not for meaningful content. Research indicates that, on average, 20% of training participants retain 20% of what was trained. That’s a 4% payback.
For specific skills such as presentation, writing or communications, traditional training is fine. But transforming the sales force from the Vendor/Problem-Solver level to the Business Resource level requires a radically different approach, not just improved selling techniques. It requires a complete change of mindset – in the sales organization and across the corporation. The problem with traditional sales training isn’t flawed content, it’s a flawed training model.
So what’s an executive or business owner to do? Here are six recommendations:
1. Start with the right raw material by hiring smart. A “salesy” personality and a lot of product smarts aren’t enough. Staff your sales force with people who demonstrate business acumen, organizational savvy, and the potential and desire to be executive credible. How confident are you that the training firm you hire can support your assessment efforts and assist in staff evaluation?
2. View sales as a core process in your company. Is your company’s success or survival inextricably linked to the effectiveness of your sales force? If the answer is no, and your sales force exists mostly to explain your products and services, then fine: pump your salespeople with product smarts and good communication skills. But if the answer is affirmative, you need to recognize selling as a core process – no different from manufacturing or distribution – from which your company derives significant competitive advantage, and invest in sales as if your company’s future depended on it.
3. Make sure the new sales methodology you’re considering is truly a process, deals specifically with the complex sale, and offers concrete how-to’s. Most sales training imparts concepts, techniques, even gimmicks to persuade a prospect to choose the salesperson’s product or service. Handling more complex accounts is usually an afterthought. So consider closely whether the proposed training content will truly reposition your salespeople as a business resource in your customer’s eyes. Does the material reflect a coherent process or merely a grab-bag of ideas, techniques and concepts? Does it address the complex sale? And are there process skills that fundamentally change the mind-set of your sales force, right down to the very words they use with customers and prospects?
4. Insist that the training firm go into the field to show your salespeople how to implement the process. This is perhaps the most radical departure from traditional training, but it’s an essential step if salespeople are to truly internalize the new methodology.
An illustration: When I made a joint call with a client salesman, Bob, we had planned to close the call by suggesting a meeting with the contact’s boss. Knowing this contact was a likely gatekeeper, we had crafted our phrasing carefully in advance to avoid triggering his gatekeeper instincts.
But when Bob phrased the request in his own words, the contact recoiled. “I would prefer that you wouldn’t do that,” he said. I quickly jumped in, used the exact wording we had worked out before, and managed to soften him to the point that he said it would be fine to contact his boss, but he couldn’t help us – which was the outcome we wanted.
A difference between the right wording and the almost right wording fundamentally changed the message – and the outcome. Yet when Bob and I discussed the scene later, he thought he had said essentially the same thing I had. If I hadn’t been on the call with him, he would have concluded the process didn’t work.
That’s why any training consultant should recommend implementing the new process alongside your salespeople in the field. Forget protests that the training company doesn’t understand your product or service well enough; they don’t need to in order to implement a true Business Resource-oriented sales methodology.
5. Take a hard look at your own internal cultural barriers to the transformation you want to make. The most prevalent barriers are incentive compensation and corporate America’s obsession with short-term results. Too many companies tell their sales forces to develop long-term strategic business relationships with large customers, yet turn the screws for quarterly, monthly, or even daily numbers.
Other barriers can include organizational structure or the way accounts are allocated. But few companies are able to diagnose their own cultural deficiencies. Size up the outside firm you’re considering to see if it has the horsepower to assess your own barriers, the guts to get in your face and tell you what they are, and the know-how to help you eliminate them.
6. Expect that some of your people will not survive the transformation to Business Resource selling. The kind of DNA-level change that we’re talking about does not agree with every constitution, and the required transformation is too dramatic for everyone to survive. As an executive or business owner, it will be your job to re-deploy those who aren’t cut out for it.
Jerry Stapleton is president of the IBS Group, a large-account sales consulting firm based in Brookfield. He can be reached via telephone at 414-784-0812.
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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