By Jim Pratt
Most business leaders accept that improving their firm’s products or services can increase their market share. But a company’s continuous forward advance shouldn’t stop there. We need to be aware that each day we are losing business simply because the professional skills of our salespeople are not as strong as the capabilities of our competitors’ sales reps. Ongoing advantages are gained by companies whose leaders understand that their future success depends on the skills they build in their sales teams.
Working with companies in numerous industries, both nationally and internationally, keeps showing us that a firm’s ability to sell depends mainly on the quality of sales leadership. A lack of leadership is usually first revealed by recruiting the wrong people and that problem is then compounded by inadequate training. If you have high turnover or low productivity in your sales organization, the fault lies with the lack of sales leadership, rather than with the salespeople. We presented and discussed in detail, the five primary reasons for sales staff underachievement in the November issue of Transaction World. To recap, here is the list again:
You hired the wrong people
They don’t know how to perform
Commitment to your organization is lacking
Inadequate challenges are provided to encourage action
Sales leadership is weak
All five of these reasons for selling weaknesses are the primary responsibility of the Sales Leader. Let’s see that we have the responsibility to control our destinies and get on with doing so! In this article we address the second reason given above — how to train your associates to be highly productive.
A cardinal business rule is to recruit for skills, but hire for attitude. If we recruit talent then we must bring them into our corporate culture and train them to be effective team members.
Let’s begin by asking some basic questions about this crucial business function:
What is training?
Is training an expense or an investment?
How much sales training is necessary?
Can it be implemented cost-effectively?
How do I get our sales associates excited about training?
Are ongoing corporate universities worthwhile?
Much of what we call training is actually education. Reading a book, listening to an audiocassette, watching a video or attending a lecture simply provides information to the recipient. Education is severely limited without the benefit of hands-on application.
Education — Conceptual understanding
Training — Hands-on demonstration
Application — Supervised skill practice
Coaching — In-flight corrections
Continuity — Continuous positive reinforcement
Our experience shows that salespeople will become sales professionals if they participate in four days of hand-on sales training each year. Any smaller commitment will undermine the effectiveness of your sales team.
It is essential that this training emphasizes selling skills, rather than increasing knowledge about your products or services. Unfortunately, most sales meetings cover everything but training. Usually there are product demos and the Sales Leader or another department head talks too much. Or the meeting turns into a group reporting session to the Sales Manager, so that he or she then doesn’t have to talk to each salesperson individually.
At least 20 minutes of every weekly or monthly sales gathering should be devoted to case studies and skill development. Get your top producers to talk about what works and then involve others in role-practice exercises. You’ll be leveraging the best skills in your sales group by encouraging those practices for all sales reps. You’ll also be recognizing your superstars and giving them an opportunity to better understand and internalize what makes them so successful.
Yet many companies’ sales conferences have everyone on the program — except top professionals. Look over the agenda of your last sales event and count how many salespeople made professional growth presentations.
If your sales professionals don’t eagerly stand in line to get into your sales meetings, that should serve as a wake-up call.
If the meetings do not help them hone their selling skills, it’s only natural that sales reps will question the value of attending. Here’s an exercise to help you see how much you already are investing in training: Calculate the average hourly amount you are paying your sales team. Then determine how much time they are spending in sales meetings each month and multiply that by the number of reps you have. You then have the total you are spending just to have your salespeople attend meetings. Are you getting your money’s worth from this investment?
Too often we ignore opportunities for building training into our corporate cultures. How many individual performance or progress reviews contain a discussion about the personal and professional growth accomplishments of the individual in the preceding six months?
Training is the continuous implementation of skill development programs. Sales training is part of a lifelong learning regimen that will keep boosting our success levels. No one is ever totally trained! Sales associates need at least four days per year in group training and constant individual study must be encouraged and supported by the Sales Leader.
A study by Motorola found that for every dollar invested in training, the return over five years is $33. Effective sales training is an investment — not an expense.
Sales training should be conducted by line Sales Leaders and other successful street-experienced sales professionals. Too often the attention and commitment of salespeople is lost when they are trained by non-sales professionals. Our view also is that sales training is the responsibility of Sales Leadership. It should not be organized, conducted or supervised by Human Resources personnel. Create a Sales Skill Profile list to determine the type of training your salespeople currently need. Do so by asking yourself, “What do my reps need to know?”
Here’s a suggested list:
Customer Needs Assessment
Computer Literacy/Database Management
Team Support Services and Products
Enthusiasm and Daily Attitude
Public Speaking Ability
Asking for the Business
Measure every member of your sales staff against your profile. Score them for each skill as being Weak, Fair, Good or Excellent. Summarize your findings and you have determined the training needs of your sales organization as a group. Do this quarterly with each sales professional to determine team and individual training requirements. Schedule group training around quarterly meetings. Considerations regarding travel time and expense and having your reps out of the field will drive how the training is accomplished.
Video Conferencing is an idea whose time has come. Computer-based learning and correspondence courses also can help significantly. Try to avoid sales leadership’s reluctance to have salespeople out of the field for even a short period and salesperson reluctance to attend meetings. Make the training effective and fun by providing content presented in an entertaining manner. Your reps then will come and enthusiastically participate.
Have your field advisory committee — the group elected by your sales professionals that meets with senior management quarterly — help design the learning experience. And make sure each training session has a purpose.
Our recommendation is to create different sales training courses: Initial training, Intermediate and Advanced. Each of these courses will be up to one week in length. Each course should be conducted six months apart to permit sales reps to have field experience between sessions. Courses are for everyone on your sales team, based on their respective time with the company — regardless of previous industry experience. If you recruit a very successful industry veteran, let him or her help teach the initial training course, while also participating as a student.
Recognize each graduate of each of the three courses at all future company sales meetings. Specially-colored ribbons on name badges can signify who has already completed a class. Everyone on your team will understand they must “grow or move on” as you recognize each person’s training accomplishments.
You can create a special half or one-day course in response to specific skill development needs. Courses on listening or target marketing would be examples. One of your sales professionals who excels in the skill can lead the session. Invite reps on your staff who need help in that area. You’ll find that these courses become the platform for the development of your Corporate University. Graduates of your courses will rise to higher and higher levels of success. You will build your business as you build your sales associates. Sales staff will recognize the value of these training opportunities and you can fund your university with the savings resulting from reduced sales rep turn-over. Generally your Human Resources leader is the dean of the university, unless your company is large enough to have a Director of Training. Yet don’t dismiss these ideas if you have a very small sales forces, you can creatively implement these concepts in a variety of work situations.
Recognizing professional and personal growth activities and accomplishment means each of your sales associates will understand that “he or she who ceases getting better, ceases being good.” Use every quarterly field coaching experience and individual progress review to determine individual training needs. Remember that “You are the message.” As the Sales Leader, ask yourself, “What have I done to improve myself in the past quarter?” Use your personal and career growth successes as examples for your sales team. Creating a mentoring program can bring dramatic results. Have each sales professional ride shotgun with a different sales rep twice a year. Careful considerations and selection of the matches can pay remarkable rewards. Letting each team member be exposed to two other professionals per year brings multiple benefits for each.
Many of our readers’ sales organizations consist of independent sales reps, inside teleselling units, customer service staff or combinations of these. Obviously you have more training control over direct sales associates as opposed to independent reps.
Yet, if you determine the skill needs of a distributor’s rep, you may be able to invite him or her to your company training course.
Peter Senge gave the following advice in Sloan Management Review: “Leaders in learning organizations are responsible for building organizations where people are continually expanding their capabilities to shape their future — that is, leaders are responsible for learning.”
A helpful formula developed at Corning, Inc. is:
TE=P x R x WE
Training Effectiveness results from three factors: P= program, R = the right person is attending the sessions at the right time in his or her career. WE stands for work environment. If the training isn’t supported by the work environment and company culture, it is useless. Effective education and training then supplement job experience. Providing meaningful learning experiences at the right time in the right environment is the most powerful training there is.
Encourage your sales team by your example to be eager for professional growth. When the student is ready, the instructor will come. Always remember “Lifelong learning creates lifelong opportunities.”