Sales training reinforcement – it’s time to face the truth

Sales training

Let’s round up two representatives of everyone engaged in sales training – sales training vendors, training managers, VP’s of Sales, front-line sales managers, sales reps etc.

The reason for the round up is we want to do a comprehensive opinion survey about the status of sales training. In general there will be substantial disagreement on a lot of the survey items due to diversity of the groups involved.

But we bet there will be universal agreement on one question. The one question is – Do you think reinforcement is important? The answer from everyone will be – Yes.  In the comment section of the survey, responses will appear such as:  “What we do after the training will be as important as the training itself” and “Our sales training never sticks because of lack of reinforcement” and “After three months most of the learning will be lost if we don’t reinforce it.”

Now, this is one of those cases where the majority not only wins but also is correct.  If you do sales training and you do not reinforce the skills learned, then the learning will decay – and the decay will be rapid.   Most of it will have disappeared within three months.

So, let’s remove table the question about whether reinforcement is needed; it is a must-do not a nice-to-do … and press on to the more difficult question – How do you do it?

In order to improve the future, it is good idea to examine the past.  Historically a lot of effort has gone into “buying” reinforcement.  Purchases have come in a variety of shapes and sizes including items such as: participant reinforcement kits, videos, and webinars.  Although these approaches do no harm, they are inadequate. By themselves they will not adequately reinforce the training investment. A company cannot buy reinforcement from a training vendor.  They must internally assess what needs to done and then go do it.

From our experience working with companies that have met this challenge, the answers fall into two categories – coaching and institutional support.  Let’s take a brief look at both.

Coaching. Everyone knows about this one.  So the problem is not recognizing that coaching is the right thing to do; the problem is doing it right.  Before the sales training program is implemented, a plan needs to be put in place as to how the front-line sales managers are going to coach the skills taught in the sales training program.  At least the following three questions need to be addressed:

  • Are the front-line sales managers knowledgeable in the application of the skills being taught in the sales training and if not, how do we correct that?

Institutional Support. Whereas there is a lot of discussion about sales coaching, there is less attention given to this type of reinforcement.  There are a number topics and ideas that a sales rep needs to be knowledgeable about to successfully apply the sales skills taught in the sales training program.  The topics will vary by the focus of the sales training and the company but lack of this knowledge is one of the reasons that the skills are never applied and soon decay.

Unfortunately, this type of reinforcement is often neglected.  To add clarity as to what this might look like, let’s examine what one of our clients recently did in assessing the type of institutional support that would be needed to reinforce the training.  They identified three priority areas:

  • Messaging. There are a number of straightforward company topics that the sales reps simply do not have sufficient background on to discuss when a question is asked in a sales call. What is needed is a “narrative” sales reps could use when a topic comes up.  Everyone should have a common answer.  A couple of examples of topics are: “How is the acquisition going?” and “What is the unique benefits of doing business with your company?”
  • Success Stories. Because a lot of sales reps have not been here very long and have operated in silos, they do not have a collection of success stories for their own area and certainly not for the other areas.  Stories are compelling.  We need to write past successes up into stories.  At this point it is not a realistic expectation that the reps can create the stories.  They should focus on how to use the stories effectively in the sales calls.
  • Integration. The company is moving from selling individual products to selling an integrated solution; yet there is no common vision among the sales reps as to exactly what that means for the customer.  We need to describe for sales reps the company’s short- and long-term vision of what integration might look like and what it means for the customer.

Sales training is increasingly important; it cost a fair amount of money and effort; and it is very difficult to do it over again. So, the moral of the story is get it right the first time.  And, getting it right requires getting serious about reinforcement.

Some related posts you might find interesting are:

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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