UK: Sales Training

Last Updated: 3 December 2012

Without effective sales training, your company can never hope to achieve the growth needed to stay healthy in difficult times.

Tools for salespeople – the front-line force

In the ongoing campaign to acquire customers, salespeople represent your company's front-line force. So quality sales training works best when it provides these tools:

  • expert customer relations skills
  • enhanced communication techniques
  • comprehensive product knowledge
  • advanced selling skills.

Of course, it's not easy to custom-tailor every training programme, especially when the sales staff is large and/or geographically dispersed. But typical training methods often suffer from inconsistent delivery of information and a lack of measurement tools to determine their effectiveness. They also suffer from insufficient preparation and planning.

We plan our holidays and our vacations; do all the homework necessary to enjoy our break from work. Now look at your sales staff's plans for next week. Whom are they calling on? What touch-pieces are going to prospects? How do they plan to go deeper and wider inside the customer's company?

Key questions for a sales training programme

Before initiating a sales training programme, the CEO and sales manager should address certain key questions:

  • What is each salesperson's current level of skill and product knowledge?
  • How much support does the team get with updated product information and positioning statements? Does marketing support sales?
  • Are sales goals clearly focused and established? What improvements have been made, both in the field and in the office, to make salespeople's work more efficient?
  • How is the industry changing? Do the sales staff have a good working knowledge of your competitors' sales strategies and product development?
  • Ask the sales staff: Is your company easy or difficult to work with? Is time consumed with needless paperwork or other activities that rate a poor second to actual selling?
  • What are the sales training programme's long-range goals (more repeat business, gaining entry to new territories, etc.)? Make sure goals are specific, attainable, measurable and meaningful.

Objectives of a sales training programme

Viewed from the CEO's desk, an effective sales training programme should have several broad objectives:

  1. Increased productivity and profits. The sales team's role is growing profitable revenues.
  2. Enhanced customer loyalty. Your product can be top quality and low price, but without really good customer relations your long-term prospects are weak.
  3. Decreased turnover. If you recruit good people and provide career growth, they will be productive and loyal. Invest money where it will do the most good.
  4. Self-managed staff. A well-trained sales team works from an ingrained sense of focus and purpose. It manages itself.

Serving the customers

Sales training should focus on teaching reps how to unearth the customers' highest value needs and educating them on opportunities they may not see for themselves. This is the kind of valuable information a company can use to modify its product offerings and deliver the specific benefits the customer really needs.

Of course, to know what the customer needs, you first have to talk to the customer. Train the sales force to engage your major customers in dialogue. What modifications to your existing products would better serve their needs? Are there products they'd like to have, but can't buy from you now?

Survey your customers. Ask them about their long-range goals. Ultimately, they will give you the information you require to meet their needs. Done properly, this process demonstrates your commitment to them in ways that transcend the conventional buyer-seller relationship.

The CEO as sales leader

Companies with the strongest sales teams generally have at least one element in common. In each of these organisations, the CEO has made a personal commitment to sales training and sales support. These CEOs don't view sales training as an expense; they view it as an investment.

You can manage assets, but you have to lead people. In sales training, that leadership quality manifests itself in strong support at the highest level. For the CEO this includes showing up at sales training sessions and even occasionally participating as an instructor.

You can manage a company's assets and database, but you have to lead the sales force. It's up to the organisational leader to create and maintain a culture of success, reflected in the attitude of each and every individual hired and trained as part of the sales team. The ideal attitude is "I can, I will", not "What happens if I don't?" Attitude plus skills plus activity equals success.

Building sales team credibility

All too often, CEOs preoccupied with bottom-line issues search for ways to cut the sales and marketing budget. Instead, they should focus on what can really help the business – that is, help build credibility for the sales team. Having to establish credibility on their own, each time they hit the street, often leads to sales staff burnout and lacklustre performance. When work becomes drudgery, effort goes way down.

In other words, "challenge turns into misery", and CEOs are faced with high turnover – another draining expense for the organisation.

Other reasons for sales staff burnout and turnover:

  • Lack of focus. Some salespeople don't have strong personal and/or business goals.
  • No direction. Salespeople want to follow a leader with a plan.
  • Infighting. Corporate turmoil – battles between departments such as sales and production – ends up sapping passion and momentum.
  • Lack of tools. You've given the sales team a job to do. Do they have the tools to get it done?
  • Wrong attitude from the top. Sales goals and quotas should be ambitious but not unrealistic. When companies reduce sales support, cut training and cancel advertising, the message they're sending is: We don't have the commitment to get things done.

    We encourage CEOs to spend much more time involved in sales than they presently do. For example, salespeople should be able to call upon their own CEOs when they're making those all-important appointments. CEOs should spend time assisting the sales team in getting the kind of high-level customer appointments that really count.

Sales training programmes

The first thing to do with any training programme is to appoint a dedicated project manager. This person is charged with ensuring that things happen the way they're supposed to happen, on time, within budget, and according to set performance criteria.

The next step is to link sales training to sales goals. The best situation occurs when training with key business objectives is aligned with the company's mission. Unfortunately, too many training programmes focus on side issues or techniques that aren't directly related to the bottom line.

Always make sure that trainers and sales managers are in sync with the organisation's overall strategic plan and vision. That's where support from the top becomes critical. Senior management providing ample support and resources paves the road to sales success.

A successful training programme should also incorporate expertise in many, if not all, of the following areas:

  • company's market positioning and product line/mix
  • new product launches
  • new market penetration
  • sales skills
  • business management skills.

Many company training programmes confuse product training with sales training. Don't make the mistake of infusing your team with product knowledge alone and then sending them out into the field. That's a waste of time, energy and money! Having the right sales skills will make all that product knowledge pay off.

Phases of effective sales training

The first step in training is education. A strong conceptual understanding of basic sales principles is the best foundation for effective training.

The next steps include:

  1. Hands-on demonstration. Someone with experience demonstrates the sales process to the trainee.
  2. Application. The trainee participates in supervised skill practice.
  3. Coaching. This phase offers "in-flight corrections" to the trainee's performance.
  4. Continuity. Completing one or two sessions doesn't mark an end to the training process. There must be continuous positive reinforcement. Once the sales rep has the presentation down, most companies assume they'll perform well. The truth is that successful presentations only come with practice.

Motivating the sales team

Salespeople are individuals; they don't come down assembly lines in a pre-fab, standardised, one-size-fits-all mould. To motivate them properly you must find out what each one wants to achieve and then help them to do it.

Contests, bonus plans and incentive schemes – these activities will work with some people, but not all. Each person's motivation is different and it's the sales manager's job to identify them. Help each person to create their own mission statement.

At the same time, be cautious – don't confuse motivational experiences with sales training. They're not the same thing. A motivational speaker can fire up the troops, but once they're back in the field they may still lack the essential tools to get the job done. Be judicious in the use of motivational activities.

We often assume that after recruiting a sales rep and giving them basic training, they'll pick up on everything else they're required to do. When they don't, we either fire them or learn to live with the misery. The alternative? "First, never stop coaching. Second, assume nothing."

Sales skills

What skills does an effective salesperson need? We advocate starting with the basics: draw up a skills profile of the ideal salesperson you're looking for before recruitment begins. The goal is recruiting and selecting to that profile through multiple interviews.

First, look at the candidate's experience. That comes from the bio. Then, during the interview, assess their talents. Are they articulate? Do they enjoy people? What kind of listener are they?

Finally, assess the candidate's attitude. A positive attitude and the desire to become a supportive member of the sales team are absolutely essential. Skills alone won't overcome a bad attitude.

Educating the market

Sometimes the sales staff have to educate the market about the product itself. In later phases, after the market understands and is steadily using the product, sales often becomes little more than an order-taking process. Later stages of product development generally require skills that can be duplicated by technology. The problem is, if you end up selling a pure commodity, why should customers bother talking to sales reps at all? They can just as easily order the product from a website – yours or your competitor's.

The salesperson's presentation depends on knowledge of specific reasons why potential customers should buy the offering. The sales force has to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the company and the products it sells.

Everyone, from the CEO down, should be able to list at least five significant reasons why a customer should buy your product or do business with you.

Building a customer's trust

Two related traits – integrity and credibility – are crucial to building a customer's trust.

Integrity means doing precisely what you say you'll do, each and every time. When you deliver, when in fact you actually do more by bringing new ideas to help the customer, you're building trust.

A salesperson establishes credibility by remaining visible to customers over a long period of time. Credibility also comes from generating ideas and solutions that relate directly to their needs.

Don't focus on process over results. A salesperson who gets caught up in activities and neglects results suffers in the customer's eyes. As far as the customer is concerned, the process is secondary. No one really cares how you make something happen, so long as the result is what you promised, when you promised it.

The sales meeting as training tool

A sales meeting represents an excellent chance to learn by incorporating ongoing training and education. Here's an opportunity to practise, teach, coach and develop skills. The important thing is to plan ahead with a relevant, practical agenda.

The overall purpose of a sales meeting is to get people pumped up to hit the ground running. Within that framework, the sales manager can use the occasion to share organisational news, communicate new initiatives, solve problems and offer encouragement.

As much as possible, try to incorporate these elements into each sales meeting: exchange of information, leadership opportunities, sales skills training and education about your customers and the marketplace. Encourage the salespeople to speak up. Listen to their concerns and ideas.

Turning around "marginal performers"

Sometimes, despite the best interview techniques and hiring procedures, a salesperson fails to live up to expectations. In most cases – particularly if you can discern a basic aptitude for the job beneath the problems – it's worth taking the extra time and effort to turn around these "marginal performers".

The key is to go through the process in a measured, step-by-step fashion.

  • Verify the problem. Collect facts before tackling the behaviour. Where are the flaws and shortcomings? What is the sales rep doing wrong? Pinpoint the gaps between what they are doing now and what you'd like them to be doing.
  • Agree that a problem exists. You won't get anywhere until the sales rep acknowledges their difficulties.
  • Assess the problems. Where is the selling behaviour falling short? Ask the rep for their own assessment of the situation, and then align that with your own analysis.
  • Devise a plan. Together with the salesperson, develop a results-oriented plan that includes targeted improvements in specific areas. In a written plan, itemise activities, timelines and results expected.
  • Follow up. Make sure the salesperson understands that there is now an "official" agreement between the two of you, and that results and sales efforts will be reviewed on a weekly basis.
  • Support the plan. Do everything you can to help the sales rep on the path to recovery. Acknowledge progress along the way. Ask for objections and work them out before they become actual obstacles.

The most expensive time in a sales leader's life is when they lose faith in a salesperson and do nothing about it. If you don't replace under-achievers on a regular basis, you undermine the entire sales team.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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