The Sad State of Sales Training | Business LockerRoom

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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Mar 14

The Sad State of Sales Training

by Kelly Riggs

Let’s look behind the curtain for a minute.

Just between us…the vast majority of sales training is incredibly ineffective. Not because much of what is claimed to be “sales” training is actually just product training.

Not at all. Instead, just looking at actual sales training – that is, training designed to improve selling skills – the evidence is clear. It is enormously ineffective. That’s not only my opinion based on 25 years of observation, it is consistent with extensive research on the effectiveness of salespeople:

“…from evaluating and assessing more than 1,000,000 salespeople from more than 200 industries over the past 2 decades. 7% are elite, and there are 16% more who are strong. 77% are ineffective.”

Three-out-of-four salespeople are ineffective. Can you imagine?? Just consider transferring that level of proficiency into other departments in the company. From another perspective, at least 43 percent of all salespeople fail to reach their revenue objectives. Clearly, the process of training salespeople is falling far short of optimum.

The question is why? Why is sales training ineffective?

This is not a commentary on the trainers, consultants, or even sales managers who provide sales training, although, in some cases, the effectiveness of the sales trainer, or the quality of the content, is the reason for failure. However, although the capabilities of trainers and training companies may vary dramatically – from truly brilliant to a colossal waste of time – my assertion (that sales training is ineffective) has nothing to do with content or delivery.

Instead, the real truth is, the sales training “system” is broken (which I discussed in “Systemic Sales Failure – What is to Blame?”).

Instead of focusing on the trainer, let’s investigate the systemic reasons that most sales training falls far short of providing the desired results are as follows:

1). There is the one-off sales training event. The ever-present, one- to three-day event, usually at the beginning or end of a fiscal year, usually in conjunction with a new product launch, or an annual sales meeting, or some such thing. This approach to selling skills development is RIDICULOUSLY ineffective, easily deduced from this report by Learning Solutions Magazine:

“Research on the forgetting curve shows that within one hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50 percent of the information you presented. Within 24 hours, they have forgotten an average of 70 percent of new information, and within a week, forgetting claims an average of 90 percent of it.”

Still, companies persist in creating one-time sales training “meetings,” with little thought given to learning objectives, changing sales behaviors, or measuring the effectiveness of the training. Can training like this be useful? Yes. But not as these events are typically planned.

2). When salespeople participate in (some type of) sales training, they typically receive little or no reinforcement of the training, nor are they tested to ensure adoption or mastery of the training. Salespeople are not required to practice or role-play, nor do they receive coaching and/or observation with real-time feedback. Both are critical to changing behavior and perfecting skills.

3). Sales training is usually skill-specific; i.e., closing questions, handling objections, discovery questions, etc. The problem is this kind of training can actually make sales performance worse.For example, a salesperson might receive training in “closing skills,” but may lack a proven sales process for consistently creating viable, qualified sales opportunities. So, the salesperson focuses on “closing,” but continues to lose sales because the opportunity is a bad fit, or a decision maker is overlooked, or needs are not clearly understood, or a dozen other reasons.

4). Perhaps the biggest problem with sales training is the tendency for sales managers to be woefully unprepared for the role. When companies promote top salespeople into management, they typically fail to provide practical leadership training for the manager; usually fail to establish clear expectations for the role, which include training and coaching; and, zero emphasis is placed on coaching skills.

“Frontline sales managers are the most critical role in any sales organization. This role decides, based on an overall sales strategy, what salespeople sell, where they sell, to whom they sell, and even how they sell. Their span of control gives frontline sales managers the highest leverage effect in any sales organization. This role is where the rubber meets the road. Execution happens at the frontline, or not at all. But the frontline sales manager’s role is often poorly defined and enabled, even though an investment in a single sales manager can positively impact the performance of many salespeople.”

Source: CSO Insights 2016 Sales Enablement Optimization Study

So, to recap: 1) sales leaders are often ineffective as trainers/coaches, 2) salespeople are not required to practice, role-play, or prove proficiency in critical skills, 3) in many cases, salespeople don’t have a defined sales process or sales planning process in which they can put training into context, and, 4) salespeople typically forget most of the training anyway.

What could possibly be wrong with the current state of sales training?

Moving in the Right Direction

It is vital to understand that this is a leadership problem, from top to bottom.

It cannot, and will not, be remedied unless leadership takes an active role in the solution. Remedy will require a change in the sales culture, a strategic plan for training and development, an adequate allocation of resources, and the absolute requirement that sales managers become great coaches.

This last bit is critical since it is coaching that creates behavioral change. It is coaching that consistently and predictably improves skills. It is coaching that leads to attainment of revenue objectives.

[tweet_box design=”box_11″ float=”none”]”It is coaching that improves skills, not training. And #sales COACHING is what leads to improved #sales skills.” via @kellyriggs[/tweet_box]

The problem is that changing behavior is never easy, even when someone wants to change. It requires repetition and reinforcement, and without support and encouragement and accountability, behaviors – and, therefore, performance – will not change.

That said, here is an outline for improving your sales training system.

  1. Ensure you have a sales process in place, so you can put any training into a specific context.
  2. Ensure that each salesperson has a detailed sales plan to attain their revenue objectives.
  3. Ensure that sales leaders are focused on coaching, skills testing and reinforcement, and behavioral change.
  4. Before training, ensure that expectations for the training are clear: What will be learned. What will change. How the training will be reinforced.
  5. During training, ensure that each participant identifies specific opportunities to use the new skill or behavior. Create objectives, establish time lines, and schedule follow-up. Have the sales leader(s) involved, and ensure there is accountability to implementation.
  6. After training, ensure the sales leader(s) are working with individual salespeople (ride-along or observation), coaching and reviewing progress.
  7. Measure critical KPIs. Review often.

But, don’t forget, within 24 hours you will have forgotten 70 percent of this article.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”

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