Three reasons why people think sales training doesn’t work

Sales training

For a topic like this one, first the fundamental truth of the premise needs to be addressed.  Given that in the United States millions of dollars are spent each year on sales training, are there significant number of influential people who think that sales training really doesn’t work – answer: yes.

But yes needs a bit of explanation.  First, there are companies who do sales training, think it’s an okay thing to do, but don’t really think it is going to make a big impact on their bottom lines.  Indicators of this point of view are statements such as: “We haven’t done any training for a while, it’s about time.” or “I’m sure our people will at least learn one thing from the sales training.” or “We have that time slot at are national meeting, we should consider doing some sales training.”

Other companies seldom or never do any sales training.  Given the dynamics of today’s markets with customers going through transformational changes, more new products being introduced every day, and companies launching major shifts in their go-to-market strategies, it is hard to believe that lack of a need is the reason for not doing or postponing sales training.

So why do people think sales training doesn’t work?  Although there are a number of infrequently occurring whys and wherefores, three reasons can explain most of the rationale behind the “it doesn’t work” point of view.

Let’s examine each of the reasons and in closing explore why it might be worth taking a second look – that is, maybe it does work.

  • Bad Experiences. If you talk with those who make the sales training decision, Directors of Training and VPs of Sales, a modest number have had one or more past bad experiences implementing a sales training effort.

Some of these bad experiences have been just sort of bad – “Our people like the sales training and said it was useful but six months later nobody was doing anything different.”  On the other hand, some experiences were really bad – “The content was the same old stuff – the examples and cases were all generic –and the design was just a pile of PowerPoints – our people went nuts.”

Once bitten, twice shy.  Unfortunately this idiom is ever so true when it comes to doing something where you put your money and reputation on the line.

But explore the story behind the story and the reasons for these failures have several explanations.  For example, in some cases the actual training was okay but the implementation and/or reinforcement was poorly done.

Unfortunately in a significant number of cases the negative attitude is the result of sales training’s checkered past.  If you look to the past, a number of sales training programs were based on magic and myths.  As an alert, some of these programs have escaped into the future.

  • Lack of Proof. Some people make the decision about whether something works based on whether there is any solid research that proves that it works.

When the search for that evidence is carried out in regard to sales training, the results tend to be meager at best.  Has some solid work been done?  Yes, for example, my old colleague Neil Rackham did some great research in behavioral analysis when he created the SPIN model and more recently, the folks who did the work around the Challenger Sale backed it up with some credible research.

But in the main there is not a lot of solid stuff out there.  Individual companies sometimes do the substantial research and evaluation work but it is usually not accessible.  Alternatively, the work that is available is frequently just opinion surveys or self-promotional studies.

So as they say – fair enough.  But there is another side to the story.  First, it is good to remember that sales training is a social not physical science.  Therefore the pre-post control group type research designs are not really applicable.  Second, if one went looking for that same level of research in regard to compensation frameworks, CRM systems, or needs assessments the same lack of results would likely be the outcome – that is sales training has some good company.

If you are looking for hard research data type proof you are not going to find it.  The next best approach is to do a really good job talking with other folks who have used that program for which you are about to write a check.  This means going beyond the one phone call.  Talk with multiple companies and multiple people inside those companies.  In addition make sure you see an example of the training materials or see a program.

  • Unique Need. This reason is a little bit different. It usually comes from people who think that sales training can work. They have often already done sales training that was effective in the fundamentals like sales call execution skills, account strategy, or sales negotiation.  But now they are facing performance issues that are more unique and complex and they doubt whether sales training can help.

If one has not recently reviewed what is available in the sales training world, then this conclusion is substantially correct.  In the past a significant number of the sales training programs were generic or at best semi-customized.  Regardless of the problem, the sales training solution was fundamentally the same. And, the different programs were really not that different.

Clearly as we can see there are some legitimate reasons for people holding the point of view that sales training doesn’t work.

The good news is a tremendous amount of work has been accomplished in the last several years to design a new era of sales training programs. Today’s sales training is not your father’s Oldsmobile.  Plus, there are now more training vendors with which to partner to custom-design programs that are tailored to your unique needs in a cost-effective fashion.

Best suggestion – take a second look.  Best bet – if you think it doesn’t work you may be pleasantly surprised.

Two blog posts on sales training you might find helpful are:

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection.

©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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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