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Does 'Sales Training' work?




We have all been in the workshops, the off-sites, the multi day fully immersive courses, the certification programs. Many of us have the badges to prove it, or the little plastic cubes. In the US, $15 Billion a year is spent on training sales people, yet only 30% of sales enablement goals are met. It takes on average seven months for a new sales person to become productive and turnover of sales people is twice the average level of turnover. 85% of sales training fails to deliver a positive ROI (HR Chally), yet the average spend on sales training per organisation was $751,542 (2015, US, ATD). So is there is an epidemic of companies spending a lot of money on something that seems to be quite spurious?


So you have a function that consumes a huge amount of resources, has very high turn over, spends without delivering a return and perhaps doesn't seem to be improving. You examine this problem, think about a solution, analyse the data, and you come up with 'let's do more training', seriously? Let's take a little look at how sales training usually happens:


Jane joins the company as a new sales person. She is really excited about her new role, the product is fantastic, she likes the people she has met so far, and everything looks pretty rosy. She heads off to the 'training centre' for two weeks of new hire training. She will be staying in the Happy Traveller Hotel, which is pretty basic, and she won't be allowed home to see her family for the weekend in between, as the flights are too expensive. No matter, Jane is a big picture kind of person, she is excited about the opportunity and is going to make it work!


Day one at the training centre. Jane gets to do an ice breaker where she has to build her cities most famous landmark out of taco chips. She gets that done with the other two new people joining her office. One of them is in engineering, so it got a bit detailed, but the new facilities person did a great job cleaning up afterwards. The afternoon they watch a movie about the companies history. It was made three years ago, so doesn't cover anything about the 'new technologies' division she will be working in, but hey, who new you could talk about polymerisation for two hours? They finish day one a bit late, as the Q&A session gets a bit bogged down by the guy in engineering's questions about thermo plastics. She misses calling her kids to say good night.


So, Jane, being the valiant and tirelessly positive team player that she is, fights her way through five more days of this, compliance, HR, FCPA, Finance. On the last four days, she gets split into a sales specific group. Two of the people are in their first sales job ever, so a lot of time is spent on things like 'how to make a presentation' and 'dressing for success'. The second last day, they cover the sales methodology the company uses "Hunt to Kill". They learn that sharp knives kill fast, while blunt knives sort of just make a mess. She promises to keep her knife sharp. They then get a three hour session on the CRM tool they will be using to forecast, and all the paperwork requirements for a deal. There is a 'last night together' party, so everyone is a bit wrecked on the last day. They take photos and complete an evaluation form. She give it mostly '5's, as even though it wasn't totally relevant to her, the people were really really nice and everyone was such fun! She rushes to the airport to get her flight home, and adds all her new colleagues on LinkedIn. Woo hoo! New job, and the WEEKEND!


She hits the office nice and early for the Monday morning sales meeting. Everyone is delighted to see her, and laughs about how sharp they keep their knives. The sales manager tells her that even though it can be a bit funny, she has to make time to sharpen her saw, and it's important they spend time on that. Now Jane is a bit confused, but sharpening is obviously important. Her next two weeks, she goes on 'ride outs' with her collegues, sitting in on their client meetings. She is struck by how really none of them use any of the sales methodology at all, and when she asks about it, they just laugh if off.


Finally, after eight weeks, Jane has her territory! This is a really complex sale, so she is excited to be going out to her clients and putting all of the work she has done into practice. She has done her 'Hunt to Kill' prep sheet for her first few calls, and André, her manager, reviewed them. She is ready! Her first call, the client has a PhD in Fluid Dynamics and rips her presentation apart. This product won't work for them at all. She apologies and schedules some more time with him to learn more about the company. The following calls don't go a whole lot better, but she is learning a lot. She talk to her colleagues about this, and they tell her she has her prep sheets all wrong. Each of them highlights a different problem, and Ivan, who she has come to really like, tells her André has never actually done the 'Hunt to Kill' training as he joined before they had it. Ivan is the top performer and he doesn't use it either. She just ditches it and goes back to using 'Listen to Learn and Earn' which she did at her last company, but just tweeks it a bit.


So this is a positive scenario for the company. Jane will probably hammer her number, she is an earnest, well intentioned and committed sales professional. However, it really isn't a positive outcome for Sales Training, even though the metrics may suggest it is. It's a hugely common occurence though. In a smaller company, it might not be as structured, and there may not even be any sales methodology to work with. And yet, the average US company is going to spend almost three quarters of a million dollars on more of this? Why exactly?


Reason 1: Because people expect it. It quickly springs to mind as a solution when anyone digs into the process. 'We need to do a better job forecasting. well no one is using our sales methodology so we need to train them more on it, they don't understand it and it's really inconsistent'. A long discussion ensues. Senior VP person says 'well you just have to make everyone use it, that's all there is to it', sales managers, including André, retort with 'well if we could get more training'. Sales managers are smart, this is all about get to give. SVP acquiesces, and tells head of training to make it happen.


Reason 2: The process is really bad. In a lot of companies, serious challenges to closing deals happen at the end of the process, and they are often internal. Things like contract terms, legal sign offs and technical requirements cause forecasted deals not to close, yet every one of these things can be done up front, automated or extensively streamlined. However when an analysis occurs, it frequently turns into a turf fight. 'Sales people would give the product away if we let them, I need to approve EVERY deal', the CFO asserts in a very pointed fashion. 'How about we train them better? They need more training'. Sales process, sales methodology and sales pipeline management are very different things, and if they're broken, training won't fix them.


Reason 3: It's a 'no fault fail'. So the company missed it's number. There will be questions. Chuck, who leads the lowest performing team, gets fired. Everyone realises that this is pretty serious. Some members of the 'performance improvement' team interview a cross section of the sales force to determine what might be the problem. They ask about the methodology and request copies of the 'Hunt to Kill' prep sheets in advance. Mass panic ensues as sales people retroactively complete the sales sheets from memory. The Performance Improvement team send them to 'Hunt to Kill Ltd' for review. They are SHOCKED by how poorly they have been executed! THe CEO reiterates how important the methodology is and everyone has to attend mandatory training, again. Chuck's leaving bash is really wild though, great guy, we will miss him.


Reason 4: Sales is weird. To sell properly, you have to be able to manage a relationship. Relationships don't really have a methodology or a process that anyone can rely on, otherwise no one would be signing up for harmony or match .com, would they? Books like "The Rules" wouldn't sell at all, becuase we would all have a process and a metholodgy we could rely on, sort of like GAAP or CGMP. So while there is a lot you can do to make sales performance more consistent, no methodology is going to make it 100% reliable. It can't be. If you are 'over forecasting' continuously, you will fail, consistently. If you are 'sandbagging' you will make your forecast every time, so you ideally want something in the middle. Failure IS an option, in fact it's quite an acceptable one, just not for everyone, simultaneously. Move on.


Reason 5: Leadership. You've been screaming this one at the screen, haven't you? Yes, André is a hopeless manager. He was the top performing sales person three years in a row! The CEO said if he made it for a third year, she would bring him on her annual ski holiday, and ya know what? André DID IT! Wild! The CEO loves him, and he used to be a ski coach, so her kids love him too! Yes, André absolutely hauled ass as a sales person, however he is a truly hideous sales manager. He has no leadership skills at all, has raging ADHD, a foul temper and utterly no patience. Really nice bloke, but his team avoid him at all costs, except after work when he is a hoot! He is a brilliant closer, so he can be useful if you need someone to go and smash a client into submission. However, use with caution, one client cancelled their entire account after he called them an idiot. He has never had any training though, which is consistent with the industry average. Sales managers are four times less likely to spend time in specific training than account executives. He is sort of the key to the whole problem here too. Sales people need coaching, they need on the job learning and they need it reinforced by a highly competent and consistent source. André is not that person.


There are plenty more reasons. Feel free to contribute a few if you like. And yes, sales training really does work. It can be massively effective, just maybe not the way you're doing it.



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