Many companies assume that investments in sales training will increase sales productivity. And, because the sales team is on the front line of revenue and profit, it seems intuitive that improving sales skills would have a positive, immediate, and direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

That assumption, however, has not, historically, served companies particularly well. Companies waste large amounts of money every year on sales training. Karen Woodhead, Director of Marketing, at Huthwaite International, sales and negotiation specialists and the company behind SPIN Selling – one of the most successful training methods in the world – talks about how companies are wasting their training budgets and why sales training frequently fails:

1) Trying to Fix the Wrong Problem

Frequently, we see organisations embark on a sales training initiative without a clear definition as to the problem they expect the sales training to solve. Sales training is a great tool to help improve selling skills, but it can’t fix organisational issues, misaligned compensation strategies or ineffective hiring practices. Training should be undertaken only if there is a clear definition of why it is needed and what the expected outcomes to define success are.

The training team (internal or external) should work with key stakeholders to identify current gaps and challenges in the organisation that training can work to address, and use this as a way of prioritising the training programme – working to align this with the desired outcomes. Looking 6-12 months ahead following the training, the team should work with stakeholders to define what they expect to be different after the training and how they will measure success.

2) Over-Involving Stakeholders

We often see training programmes initiated in large businesses because someone identified a budget, but there is a lack of clear sponsorship or connection to key stakeholders once the training programme is initiated. For training to be successful, the stakeholders need to be part of the initiative before, during and after the training so they can communicate enthusiasm and expectations throughout. Many times, we see training programmes that seem to have become an end in themselves, as opposed to a means to solve a problem the key stakeholders have identified.

Ensuring sales leadership is involved in sponsoring the programme and it is visible throughout, will result in a sale team that is invested in the training from the get go.

3) Failing to Define Desired Outcomes

As discussed above, identifying the problem is the first step, but it is crucial to define the desired outcomes that are expected as a result of the training. How will the sponsors know if the programme has been successful? How will they measure results? The key factors are:

  • Did the participants enjoy the training?
  • Did they understand the material?
  • Are they able to apply it and create behaviour change?
  • Will they receive extra post training support to ensure the new method is implemented?
  • Will it produce business results?

Including outcome measures in the programme charter and defining them before the training is underway will ensure the participants receive the most out of the sessions. Utilising surveys, coaching and benchmarking to isolate and measure the desired outcomes after the training will prove if it has been properly implemented.

Without a real implementation method, training can be delivered in a classroom environment and then forgotten as soon as the session is over.

4) The Training Isn’t Customised to the Business

Another reason training programmes fail is that they take an ‘off the shelf’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. While there are fundamental selling skills and approaches that work across industries, unless the programme is customised and aligned with the business, we find sales professionals resist the programme, feel it’s too generic or has a difficult time figuring out how to apply the concepts to their specific situation.

Working with key stakeholders and a representative sample of the participants (managers and sales professionals), the organisation should identify specific exercises and role plays that can be customised for the business. The programme doesn’t need to be built from the group up, but skill application, case studies, role-plays and terminology need to resonate. Identifying common challenge areas and then building in scenarios, which provide for skill application with live accounts, helps participants feel like they’re getting real work done. It also helps prepare them to apply the concepts when they get back into the field following training.

5) Neglecting to Reinforce the Programme

Finally, one of the biggest challenges is making sure sales managers provide ongoing coaching and reinforcement. Regardless of how good the training is, it will fail if the managers aren’t reinforcing the skills in the field.

Ensure that a comprehensive reinforcement plan is part of any sales training programme and that managers have the coaching skills and tools to support their teams. Involve the managers before, during and after the full process to help ensure success. Hold recurring reinforcement sessions that focus on skill application to maintain the skills learnt and keep them at the forefront of the full team’s mind.

These are some of the common challenges we have experienced after working with hundreds of sales teams over our 40-year history, including 30% of the FTSE 100. Identifying these challenges and taking steps to mitigate them in advance can go a long way to setting your programme up for success.

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