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Great Sales Training!
Too bad it won't last,
...And What DOES
By Jack R. Snader
Too Bad Most Sales Training Doesn't Work!

That's the sad but true post-mortem pronounced after many a company sales meeting. Often excellent in content, presentation, and delivery, many sales training programs have no long-term effect, wasting millions of corporate dollars across America annually.

Is it the fault of the training itself? Probably not. More of the blame rests with the structure of the sales supervisor position. A first-line manager's evolving job description involves expanding administration and paperwork, with coaching squeezed to only the most crucial trouble-shooting.

Training remains a task with hazy objectives and intangible payoff...until the annual sales meeting rolls around. That's when sluggish sales results trigger the need for a quick fix, or ambitious goals call for another shot in the arm. In the vacuum of new ideas, management unlimbers the annual training session.

The Coaching Imperative

The development of selling skills is comparable to the development of an athletic skill. Consider, for instance, a well-coordinated individual who decides to take up golf or tennis. Nobody would expect that person to become a pro after a quick training session of a few days, weeks, or even months. Every athletic team, like every sales team, needs a coach for ongoing development. And in sales, that coach is the first-line manager.

Imagine an athletics coach training his ball team for one week, then sending it out to compete all season without him! Yet, this ridiculous scenario happens all the time to professional sales teams.

Or think of an athletic team's owner sending his team away to be trained by some sports training organization in a methodology their own coach neither understands nor supports. This doomed approach is used in sales whenever top managers or executives choose independent training companies without sales manager involvement or buy-in.

These training programs end up as "enter-train-ment", creatively executed, enjoyable, and entertaining sessions that temporarily captivate interest and generate excitement.

But a week later, no one is practicing the skills taught. Management makes no reference to the program's techniques or concepts. Sales managers aren't coaching the skills. Salespeople are selling the same way as before the program took place. Writers at the home office never experienced the program and don't use program terminology, so home office bulletins don't enforce the new skills and company literature doesn't support the newly trained philosophy. Is it any wonder the effect of training doesn't last?

The sales manager as coach

The key to sales training success is the first-line sales manager - the only one close enough to the field to understand salespeople's day-to-day challenges and to provide valuable know-how.

Just as a sports team owner is careful to select the right coach, a company's priority should be careful selection of its sales coach. But how are sales managers chosen? Often, they have been promoted from sales because they were successful salespeople.

Ironically, there is little or no correlation between qualities needed for sales success and sales management success. A MVP, like a superstar sales rep, does not necessarily know how to develop the skills of other players. In fact, he may end up jumping into the game himself, saving his team members from having to develop new skills.

Rather than being a great player, an effective sports coach has to be an expert in the development of techniques, tactics, and strategy... the same qualities needed for sales coaching.

Training programs would be more relevant to real-life situations and sales teams would be more committed to the program if sales managers who understood coaching participated in the development, roll-out, and follow-up support of sales training programs. But allowing sales managers time to do this means freeing them from excessive paperwork. It also means giving them tools to facilitate the coaching process. And it demands a corporate commitment to integrating the program throughout the company.

The training tools provided may be field workshops with prepackaged follow-up materials. They may involve one-on-one coaching or group clinics, with materials geared to the specific industry, company, or individual. The sales manager may infuse his or her own coaching style while implementing the corporate training plan.

But whatever the approach, whatever the style, coaching needs to be continuous.

Environmental Analysis

As important as coaching is, it isn't a cure-all for sales development. Environmental, administrative, and motivational factors also contribute to sales success. Prior to launching any program, a performance audit may reveal a turnover problem caused by inadequate compensation, or nebulous job descriptions that force a salesperson to waste time solving shipment problems rather than selling.

Or it may reveal a marketing program out of line with the sales training philosophy. Even the most sophisticated training and follow- up programs won't solve these kinds of problems.

Quality of training

But whatever else is happening in the company, high quality training is imperative. For reps, does the program teach verbal as well as strategic skills? Is the content relevant to actual selling situations in the industry?

Does the training develop an ability to recognize the different customer communication needs? In short, does the program teach a "people strategy" as well as an "account strategy"?

For managers, is the training program designed to be coached? Does it teach sales managers to respond appropriately to varied training needs?

Five-point plan

Here's a plan to help position your sales managers to become coaches: Train first-line sales managers how to coach their salespeople. The skills in managing and selling are quite different and almost unrelated.

  • Help sales managers see the benefits of investing time and energy in coaching, i.e., reducing sales force turnover, achieving new sales targets, performance improvement.
  • Teach managers when to coach. Coaching after observing real selling situations is most effective.
  • Provide managers with tools for coaching. A structured coaching format, a common selling vocabulary, and a feedback report to salespeople are three possibilities.
  • Budget money for training program reinforcement. If the subject is a skill worth teaching, then it should be worth reinforcing over a longer time frame.
  • For most business/industrial companies, the field sales organization is the company's most important marketing asset. A commitment by top management to improve the first-line sales manager's coaching, and to be alert to the selling environment, spells the difference between sales training that works and training that doesn't.

Want to learn more?

For more information on on how to assess management, sales management, and selling skills within your sales organization. E-mail us at:

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