Why traditional sales training doesn’t work

Your sales team is on the front line of your business, and in theory, companies could even sell more by adding more members to their sales teams. However, it is significantly more profitable and efficient to have a solid group of highly skilled, high-performance sales professionals. This is where sales training and coaching comes in. And this is why companies are investing heavily in training their sales teams.

However, the training is not always effective. The American Society for Training and Development notes that one week after sales training, the average salesperson will lose up to 70% of the new skills that he or she learned but did not use. In a separate but non-public study, a global US-based language service provider found that after a month, 87% of the new skills learned during sales training, whether or not they were used in practice, were lost. So why are companies spending so much money if the return on investment is so low? And why isn’t it working?

The answer is that it’s hard to make a significant impact in a few hours. Even three days of intense training won’t do much to change a sales team in the long run. People tend to revert back to their old ways. Even if the training is highly specific, with clearly defined goals, methods and expectations, oftentimes there still won’t be a significant change in a sales team.

The problem isn’t that the training content is wrong or that your sales team is unmotivated. Most sales methodologies provide sound fundamentals in selling, and most people really want to succeed. Many sales executives are highly motivated and excited to implement new sales knowledge into their practice. During sales training, many people feel “pumped up” with excitement and imagine their future sales increasing with the help of their new skills. Unfortunately, too often, this excitement is short-lived, as reality sets in and they revert back to old ways.

This is all pretty normal. Have you ever been deeply moved by a sad movie or an inspirational story — so much so that you vowed, at that moment, to change your behavior in some way, only to find yourself forgetting about it days and sometimes even moments later? Look at traditional sales training the same way, as a variation of an inspirational story.


The problems with traditional sales training

Selling is a team effort. Your sales team could be made up of many highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals, but they won’t succeed if they cannot work as a team. Most sales training curricula focus on how the individual can improve his or her skills, ignoring the importance of working together. An environment where the members of your sales group are helping each other out and offering both encouragement and advice will do much better than one that is structured for individual success. Not everyone has the same strengths and weaknesses. If your sales team can work together effectively, the weaknesses of the individuals will disappear as the team compiles its strengths. In addition, there are more people involved in a sales team than just the men and women on the front line. Sales management and administrative staff are equally as important to the team, and thus they require the same amount of training and evaluation as the task force does.

In addition to the sales team, there are other people in a company who deal with clients on a day-to-day basis. Non-sales employees such as project managers can influence a prospective client as much and sometimes even more than a salesperson can. Those members of your staff who deal with clients on a regular basis should also be trained on how to effectively communicate the company’s promise of value. Understand that any employee who has an opportunity to interact with a customer also has the ability to turn that customer away from your company. One of the most important determining factors in a sale is customer service — something the sales team often has no control over. So when you’re thinking about your sales strategy, try to include everyone in your company’s plan.

Additionally, sales training needs to be very focused. Many sales training programs are not tailored to a specific industry. For example, there are particular cultural considerations you have to take into account when doing business in the international language services industry. A successful method of doing something in the United States can be interpreted as offensive in a different country. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “you can do that in America, but you can’t do that here.” There is no single perfect way of doing things. Sales training programs have the problem of being too generic — not only between industries, but also among individuals. Most programs target one sort of individual with a specific set of selling problems. Sales trainees are all different people who come from different backgrounds, and thus have specific needs and unique problems. A traditional sales training program will be only partially relevant to everyone.

Success isn’t achieved by following a specific methodology; it’s about changing behavior. A solid majority of sales training programs offer no follow-up plans whatsoever. You can’t just tell someone how to do something and expect him or her to be able to do it perfectly! Effective training programs require coaching, reinforcement, ongoing support and encouragement to help sales people change their behavior. Sales training programs are equivalent to lectures on how to play a sport. No one ever learned to hit a golf ball, swing a tennis racquet or ride a motorcycle by listening to someone else talk. Practice and application are crucial. Skills used in the selling situations need to be practiced and progress should be monitored. Strengths need to be leveraged and weaknesses coached up.

A high number of sales training programs are led by someone who has not sold anything in a long time, if ever. Managers of sales professionals need to be trained on how to coach behavioral change, and many have little concept of how to actually do this. A lot of them are promoted salespeople who were told to simply do their best. Just because someone was a great player doesn’t mean they can be a great coach. Thus, senior management needs to be aware of its role in the growth process.


How to make sales training work

The solution to the problem of traditional sales training is not simple. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take to ensure that your sales training program is more effective at changing the behavior of your sales team and growing your company. When you can find good ones, leaders play terrifically important roles in the growth of their sales team. These knowledgeable professionals can and need to identify where exactly a sales team’s weaknesses are, both as a whole and in each individual. Tailoring a sales training program to the individual or small group ensures relevance while creating a common language across the organization.

The role of the leader is that of a coach and mentor. Remember that the goal in sales training is changing behavior, not teaching skills. Changing behavior takes time, and it is up to the leaders to make sure that the progress is up to par. Keep in mind that the leaders are not infallible, and everyone always has room to grow. The leaders should have coaches of their own who keep track of how well they are doing as coaches.

Almost everyone can remember back to grade school science when a teacher would do an experiment in front of the class. The experiment serves to put into perspective, in a hands-on environment, the theoretical subject material that the class is learning. An effective sales training strategy needs to include something similar. Why is what is being taught relevant? How is the program going to help a sales trainee get more clients or land more sales? Show the trainees the impact of applying new behaviors. Through activities such as monitored role-playing, your sales representatives can apply new skills in hypothetical situations and see their efficacy. When the trainee puts into practice what has just been learned, it gives him or her the practice necessary to carry those skills into real-life sales situations.

Using new strategies for the first time can be uncomfortable and unnerving. This is one of the reasons why trainees fail to carry what they learn in a training program into their sales practices. The mentality follows the line of, “Why try something new and risk failure when you can stick with what you know?” Avoid this kind of behavior by letting your sales representatives practice in situations where failure isn’t harmful to the company and where they can receive feedback from others. This is also a good way to see if your trainee actually absorbed what was taught. Get people to make these applications right after the course. Additionally, give the trainees homework and check that they have completed it. Forcing them to work on something outside the classroom will enable them to tackle the problem in a different environment and will help to reinforce new knowledge.

Think of sales training as change management. A lot of behavior is a product of habit, conscious actions that are performed repeatedly, and oftentimes it takes a while to form a habit. As a manager and coach of a sales team going through training, you need to consider both the skill and the will of your team members. Is your sales team getting it? Some people are going to need some extra help applying and implementing new knowledge. On the other hand, some of your team members might totally understand it, but are in need of some simple motivation — a little extra push to get them out of their old habits. Change is possible within a sales team if it is managed.

In addition to monitoring progress, there also needs to be some sort of way to measure both the activity of your salespeople and the results of their efforts. Have salespeople present their findings and achievements to a senior team every few months. Conduct a business impact study. Ask questions on a regular basis. What new behaviors are helping them in what ways? How do they think they could improve, and in what ways do they think management can help them? As long as you are measuring both activity and results, there will be something for you to measure. Keep in mind that training is a process that involves members of all levels of seniority in a sales team.

In the sales training process, the role of a coach is very important. Understand that coaching is very different from managing. A coach identifies strengths and weaknesses, and then works to leverage team members’ strengths and improve their weaknesses. Positive feedback and motivation is an integral part of coaching. A coach is the team’s leader and mentor. While oftentimes it is still necessary for a coach to manage the process, the main goal is to coach individuals.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t happen overnight. Too often CEOs and senior executives expect immediate results after sending their team through a sales training program. For a sales training program to be effective you have to be patient and set the right time frame for your sales goals.

The “nontraditional” method of sales training can be a bit tricky to navigate. Starting the process is definitely a challenge and requires careful planning and a detailed strategy. Before you consider embarking on this long-term sales training adventure, think about your current situation. Is your sales team a functioning and cohesive team, or are they more a collection of individuals? Are your sales managers skilled at managing and coaching, or are they just experts at reading reports and creating Excel spreadsheets? You need to also look at the strengths and weaknesses of your current sales process. Understand the potential impact of improving your deal size, sales cycle time and “opportunity to close” conversion rates. Remember that effective sales training needs to be customized to fit the needs of each of your sales representatives, and that the most important part about behavior change and sales growth is ongoing training, coaching and mentoring.

It is extremely important to have a carefully planned, detailed strategy for long-term sales training. Develop a plan for managing sales effectiveness that is a dynamic process. You can’t really maintain one method of measuring growth throughout the training process since your salespeople will change as they develop new behaviors. In your strategy, you not only need to include core sales training, but also find a way to emphasize reinforcement, coaching and situational applications. Think about the types of benchmarks you can use to measure the activity and success of your sales team. What impact will your training have on things such as behavior change or the business as a whole? Not to mention, your strategy must be in alignment with the wider organization. Consider the consequences if your sales training strategy and other departments, including marketing, production and operations, aren’t in harmony with each other.

It is possible for a sales training program to be effective, but only when it is highly specialized to a specific sales team where those involved are completely immersed in the training (or more accurately, behavioral change) process. As with many skills, it is nearly impossible to apply sales training learned in three hours or three days to real-life situations. If you want change and improvement in your sales team behavior, you need an industry-specific sales methodology, coupled with ongoing training, coaching and mentoring. Even then there are no guarantees — it’s a difficult, time-consuming and expensive endeavor. But if it were easy, everyone would experience great results, including your competition.