It's a common exchange but a recent conversation with a new client about sales training sounded like this, "Look, people here have a bad taste about sales training," he said. "It doesn't stick," he continued. "I know it could make a big difference, but we need a program that fits our business and that the sales team will embrace." Then he asked, "How do we get past flavor-of-the-month and get our people to want to improve so we can grow our business intentionally?"
Setting aside, for a moment, all of the details of the prescribed action plan for them, there are seven key factors to a successful sales training outcome that I shared with my client and I'll share with you now. It's in rough sequence to how you might think about rolling it out. Then I'll tell you which single factor gets overlooked the most but plays an outsized role in the success or failure of the program. Amazingly, it gets missed most of the time.
For sales training to be super effective, failure to account for these Top Seven Sales Training Factors will make success more elusive. Addressing them properly, by contrast, will guarantee success!
Top 7 Sales Training Success Factors
- Pre-evaluate the sales team, systems, and processes
- Formal, staged, milestone-centric sales process
- Trainable sales team
- Trainable and coachable sales managers
- Training the managers before training salespeople
- Salesperson training with sufficient time scale
- Sales leadership accountability
Here's a short explanation of why each of these factors matters:
1. Pre-evaluate the Sales Team, Systems, and Processes
In a well-received and timely white paper on Sales Force Excellence, Dave Kurlan's research showed that of the companies that saw "significant sales increases" due to the adoption of a formal sales process, 73% of them had evaluated their teams. A sales force evaluation should answer these four fundamental questions:
- Can we be better?
- How much better can we be?
- What will it take to be better?
- How long will it take?
Companies must find out why pipelines aren't full, why sales cycles are too long, and why closing ratios are low. What skills are they missing? What are the hidden weaknesses preventing salespeople from executing those skills that they do have? And how is management impacting their success?
An evaluation is interesting by itself, and is most useful when combined with the actions taken based on the findings. If you want to explore this idea for your team, click here.
2. Formal, Staged, Milestone-Centric Sales Process
It's an interesting statistic that 68% of the companies surveyed claimed to have a formal sales process. Yet, when tested, only 9% of salespeople actually follow a sales process. Further, and this data is available in the same white paper mentioned earlier, 75% of companies reported an increase in sales as a result of adoption of a formal sales process. The sales process becomes both the basis of training and the backbone of ongoing coaching.
3. Trainable Sales Team
To be trainable, there must be a sufficient number of factors that support training. Often, people use the word "grit" to describe someone who has what it takes to succeed, but regardless of what you call it, these factors must be related to sales as distinct from other roles or social contexts. These would include desire, commitment, outlook, motivation, and a willingness to toss aside any excuses for their outcomes. There is a range of trainability, as you might imagine. The more trainable the person, the less time it will take to ramp them up to a high achiever. Here's a fun and informative tool that lets you explore the 21 sales core competencies and provides a way for you to compare industry averages with your team.
4. Trainable and Coachable Sales Managers
Many sales managers are former successful salespeople who were promoted precisely for their selling skills. The assumption is that they will have no trouble explaining to others how to be successful, just like them. And while that's helpful, it doesn't correlate to their ability to recruit and ensure they are hiring the right people, to coach their team, to motivate them, or to hold them accountable. These abilities require different skill sets than selling. For managers to improve, therefore, they also must be trainable as described above so that they will learn the skills that the best managers use to create the most successful teams.
In addition, if they are not already "killing it," then they must also be coachable. If you happen to have (or are one yourself) a super-genius who needs no help from anyone, ever, and has a high-performing team who exceed their numbers every quarter, then don't worry about whether your manager is coachable. If not, then this could be a reason why training fails. Beware the manager who knows-it-all already, and even more so, beware the manager who is in the role for herself or himself, as they will be unable to foster an environment of constant improvement. Assuming the other factors are in place, managers who relish the improvements of others will help your sales training program succeed.
5. Training the Managers Before Training Salespeople
Before training the salespeople, and this is critical, it is important to train the managers first. When the salespeople start scratching their head, we don't want them to turn toward their manager and find them looking just as perplexed. It doesn't instill confidence and leads to a "Here we go again," mantra. For sales training to be successful, everywhere the salesperson turns within the company, they should find supportive language and attitudes related to the training. When asked, "why are we doing this?," the sales manager should not say, "I don't know. Let's see where this goes." Rather, they should say, "I've looked at this and I believe we're all going to get a lot out of it. I'd liked to see all of us get even better and hopefully watch our incomes improve."
6. Salesperson Training with Sufficient Time Scale
Everyone has heard of, or experienced the one-and-done training course, long on entertainment and short on staying power. "We laughed, we cried, no one remembers a thing." While day-long kickoffs are often required to introduce the material, the most important factor in retention is the amount of time spent reinforcing the material and allowing for practice, correction, and follow-up. For sales training to be successful, the concepts should be simple and easy to follow, and doled out in bite-sized steps that people can go try in the field and experience their own success with it. The steps should build on each other so the logic is obvious as the sales process unfolds and becomes ingrained in our everyday sales conversations.
7. Sales Leadership Accountability
Though the titles given to the role are wide ranging, there is usually of head of sales at the company. It's commonly understood that this person with their "head of sales" title is in charge of the entire sales organization. But that would be wrong. The chief executive of the company is in charge of sales. If you own a company, or are a shareholder in the company, are you going to listen to a CEO who blames the lack of sales results on the Sales VP? It turns out, that CEO (or equivalent) has the most important role to play in a successful sales training outcome. It doesn't have to be a time-consuming role, though it is necessarily the most important.
The primary role of the CEO in the context of the sales organization is that she or he holds the sales leader accountable for the output of the entire team and for maintaining a team of people capable of producing that output. The corporate leader's insistence on sales improvements ensures that sales leadership follows through on initiatives like sales and sales management training and coaching.
My favorite example of how this works is from a client in the broadcast media business. The CEO wanted to position the company both for growth and for eventual ownership exit. It was clear that the entire team had to improve, quickly. The path forward included embracing a common sales process across the organization and training the managers how to coach to it. And it included training the general managers on how to read the reports and advise the sales managers.
To be successful throughout an organization spread across the entire country, the general managers had to be unified in their approach and ensure that sales managers developed enough coaching skills to make real improvements. I asked the CEO, "Are you ready to roll up your sleeves, read the reports yourself, and insist on consistency through the sales organization." He said, "yes," and he meant it. For an entire year, he read the reports and commented back to the general managers. His comments often got back to managers and even individual reps. Everyone knew he was reading the reports, so no sales manager could get away with taking a half-hearted approach. It worked. In an age of declining "old media," within a year, the company grew and was successfully sold.
Sales Leadership Accountability may be the last item on the list of the Top 7 Factors to avoid sales training failure and ensure success. Yet it is by far the most overlooked factor due to a common failure to see the role of the executive team and indeed the role of the chief executive as crucial roles within the sales organization. Getting this right almost guarantees success, however. When the entire organization knows that the exits are blocked when it comes to the sales training program, they embrace it. Once leadership proves it's for real and here to stay, the team has no choice but to make it work. What are you willing to do to provide that much clarity to your team so your investment in training pays off for everyone?
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