Sales training – what’s the biggest challenge?

sales trainingGiven the substantial amount of money that companies commit to training every year, the notion of learning more about how to get it right is a question of interest.  With that in mind, McKinsey & Co conducted a survey of 1,400 executives worldwide to explore the question.

Major Finding.  When asked about their companies’ biggest challenge with training programs, the respondents reported that the one growing most in concern was the lack of metrics.

Although the survey respondents felt applying metrics to training was important, only about 20% bother to measure the impact of training programs at all – and only 13% tried to compute a financial return on their training investment.  This means that developing and applying metrics to training effort is indeed a business challenge.

As the study goes on to note: “Such low figures might be understandable in the context of general-purpose training without any business objectives. But let’s imagine a bank that knows its sales performance could improve if call-center employees were better at identifying unmet customer needs. A range of skills might be relevant to achieve this objective. Assessing which skills really affect sales performance and applying metrics that show how well employees deploy them are critical for allocating training resources effectively and for actually boosting sales.”

What’s important for making training work?  Here the McKinsey study noted:  “the more cooperation that exists between the training function and the business units, the more likely that learning will have an impact on business results. Co-owning leads to success. Sharing responsibilities—with HR guiding the ‘how’ and the businesses the ‘what’—has a number of practical advantages, starting with the greater relevance of the resulting programs to the actual work of employees.”

Implications for sales training.  Although the McKinsey report was about corporate training in general, the results have implications for the world of sales training.

First, we particularly need to do a better job in applying metrics — both to assess how to improve the programs, as well as, how to measure the results relative to performance improvement.  Sales training is a social not a physical science so classic control group pre-post test designs are difficult to execute; however, there is vast room for improvement using other summative and formative evaluation designs.

Due to the disruptive changes in the buying environment there is more of a need for sales training than ever.  However, it is difficult to obtain a commitment of greater resources without metrics to establish the merit of the investment and the guidance for crafting the programs in the first place.

The second important finding from the survey was highlighting the importance of  “co-ownership” of the program with Training and the business unit – in this case Sales.  One aspect of this ownership relates to what is done before the program.  Here are three best practices:

  • Senior sales leadership needs to communicate to the entire sales team why the organization is committing to the training.  Specifically the communication should help the sales organization understand how the sales training helps the sales team achieve the company’s strategic sales initiative.  There should be no doubt that the senior leadership has and will be actively engaged.

Everyone needs to bring the mind-set that the sales training is being conducted so the company can achieve its strategic goals.  It’s not just a sales training exercise. To achieve that goal the leadership message needs to be clear and compelling and must be repeated and reinforced by all front-line sales managers.

  • Members of the sales team need be engaged with training in crafting the program.  If you are implementing a sales training program, it is always a good idea to keep your eye on the ball – the ball in this case is the sales team. Although it is important to be mindful of time out of the field, there are a number of ways for achieving involvement.

For example, since most sales training is customized, select a small group (4-5) of top sales performers to provide the information to customize the program exercises and case studies and to provide best practices for the feedback sessions for the role-plays.  These top sales performers should become “ambassadors” for the sales training program.

  • Sales training managers must reinforce the message from the sales leadership and communicate how the program fits with past and future sales training efforts.  The communication needs to be clear as to “what the sales training program is about” and “why it is being implemented.”

The sales training manager must ensure the sales training program is conducted in way that demonstrates institutional commitment.  For example, front-line sales managers can be invited to serve as table leaders to relate the learning to the real world and orchestrate feedback – Marketing can be invited to serve as participants to provide and gain insights.

Every salesperson walking into a sales training program needs to be crystal clear that the company and the leadership are totally committed to the sales training before the day even begins and they need to understand it will help them do what they need to do to increase their sales performance.

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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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5 Responses to Sales training – what’s the biggest challenge?

  1. Ronnie says:

    ok good points on making training work. My question is – how do you measure if successful? Not just the sales numbers as that is too late. But what leading indicators?

    • Janet says:

      Ronnie, I think i would start by reviewing the work by Kirkpatrick – Kirkpartrick’s Four Level Training Evaluation Model. More advanced work is published by people like Michael Scriven, Robert Stake, James Popham and Gene Glass. They have focused on educational evaluation versus evaluation in general.

  2. Ann Sazon says:

    Another great article,Richard. I think the survey is truly accurate. I had the opportunity to play the role of a sales representative and sales trainer before and what I realized is how training and the actual sales operations are disconnected. I agree that sales training should be aligned to the needs for improvement of sales operations and should be involved with implementation. Many companies do not have this in place though. I am lucky that I am now part of a company that has well-aligned sales training and operations. Any sales specialists can find these companies with excellent training by signing up with Invisume. They keep the entire process 100 percent private. Thanks for another good read. Looking forward to more posts

  3. Nice post but is it possible to measure the outcome of training by the total sales result because that is controlled by many variables such as management decisions, market conditions etc.

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