American Companies Spend Billions of Dollars On Sales Training Every Year. Are They Getting Their Money’s Worth?
Last year, companies in the U.S. spent a combined $20 billion on sales training. They made this investment with the hope
that training would dramatically improve their top-line growth by transforming their average sales reps into good ones, and their good reps into all-stars.
But research on traditional sales training reveals a dramatically different story: one month after completing training, reps already have forgotten 85 percent to 90 percent of what they learned, according to ES Research.
Learning happens when we move along a gradual continuum from non-mastery to mastery — an active process that requires several crucial steps: (1) we need to observe someone else performing a skill effectively; (2) we need to try it ourselves in a low-risk environment, so we feel free to make mistakes, learn from them, and improve; and (3) we need someone to mentor us along the way — to help us determine what’s working and where we need to improve.
“Becoming a better leader (or manager, or pipe-fitter, or ballet dancer) requires wanting to learn, then acquiring new behaviors and putting them into practice,” writes Mike Myatt in Forbes. “We know intuitively that you can’t become a prima ballerina just by listening to somebody else talk about great ballerinas and how they danced … You have to want to learn
to dance, then you have to see the movements, try them, and try them again and again in ever more demanding and complex ways.”
Considering how we learn, the ineffectiveness of traditional sales training shouldn’t come as a surprise. The problem, of course, is that most sales training is a one-time event. Companies herd their reps into a conference room, where they sip coffee and nibble on pastries and listen (or don’t) passively while a speaker shares best practices, case studies and motivational stories.
Conversely, the process Myatt is describing isn’t really training — it’s coaching. While the two terms often are used interchangeably, they are actually very different, particularly when it comes to sales. Coaching isn’t a single event. It’s a process, requiring frequent, ongoing communication between rep and manager.
The good news is that when these two disciplines are combined, the impact on sales performance is dramatic. A study by
Ventana Research found that sales reps are four times more productive when their training is complemented with ongoing infield coaching and reinforcement.
COACHING IS A RELATIONSHIP
Sales training is designed to teach reps how to do something new — and do it in a consistent, repeatable manner. But
when you think back to your last sales training session, something vitally important was missing: you. While some of the information may have been relevant, none was tailored specifically to you — to your strengths and weaknesses in the field. And once the training ended, the trainer wasn’t around to ensure his message was absorbed and implemented in the days and weeks that followed.
As a result, after a day of training, sales reps typically don’t have the deep understanding, familiarity and experience with
the material to take what they’ve learned into the field. Instead, they fall back on the same tired approaches they’ve always used — with the same results.
A coaching relationship starts with the individual. What is it about your sales approach that needs work? How can a coach
build upon your existing set of skills and make them even better? How can she refine your best practices and reinforce areas that need work? The coaching process is designed to uncover areas you know need to be improved — and those you don’t even know need developed.
Even the best trainers will never be able to impact sales performance the way a good manager can. Training happens at
most once or twice a quarter. A manager has the opportunity to influence the behavior of his or her reps every day.
Think about the golf swing. While a training session with a pro can provide an important introduction to the fundamental elements of the swing — grip, stance, ball position, backswing, followthrough — taken together, these discrete pieces of information quickly become overwhelming. When shared in small increments, however, and reinforced with ongoing coaching and regular practice, training becomes a valuable foundation. It becomes the first step on the path to mastery.
Like a new golf swing, a new approach to sales will feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Absent regular coaching and
feedback, it is easy to get discouraged and revert to old techniques. But if it took Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers of all time, a year of constant coaching and reinforcement to get comfortable with a new swing, how can we expect sales reps to employ a new approach to selling after a single training session?
ADAPTING TO THE NETWORKED ERA
Think about your last trip to Best Buy. Did you notice the guy playing with his mobile phone in the personal electronics aisle? Chances are he was comparing the price of the flat-screen TV in front of him with every retailer and e-tailer in the country.
The world has shifted beneath our feet. What worked 20 years ago — or even a decade ago — no longer applies to the
social, real-time, networked sales environment of today. Consumers are more savvy, and have access to more information, than ever before. Recent research by the CEB revealed that consumers are 57 percent into a buying decision before they reach out to a vendor.
In today’s always on, fast-moving, real-time world, a well-trained and highperforming sales force is more important
than ever. If companies want to avoid seeing their products commoditized and their sales organizations forced to compete solely on price, they need reps to offer prospects greater value and deeper insights earlier in the buying process.
Traditional training programs can’t build material fast enough to keep up with the speed of change. The only way sales reps
can keep pace is to learn every day, on the job. Reps need to be empowered to learn informally, from colleagues and mentors inside the organization. They need a way to identify high-performers and emulate their best practices. And they need a manager who can help them prioritize key goals and coach them toward achieving them.
The results speak for themselves. Sales teams that combine sales process with sales coaching see a 21 percent increase in close rates and a 23 percent increase in quota attainment, according to research by CSO Insights.
BECOMING SALES COACHES
Most sales managers have never received any training or guidance on how to manage or coach sales reps. Typically, these managers come from the sales ranks themselves, and after receiving a promotion suddenly find themselves managing a team. Absent support and mentorship, they often must figure out how to manager and coach on their own, with mixed results.
Equipping sales managers to make this shift successfully will have a significant impact on sales performance — and ultimately, on the overall performance of the company. On average, sales managers impact the behavior of 10 reps. So every hour invested in developing a manager has the potential to yield a 10x return.
A manager also has the greatest impact on sales rep turnover. The cost of replacing an effective sales rep is $1 million, when you factor in the time it takes to onboard a new rep and rebuild the pipeline. When reps leave an organization, 70 percent of the time they cite a poor relationship with their immediate manager as the primary reason for their departure.
The most successful sales team leaders harness their sales reps’ innate drive to win by teaching skills for constant improvement. They take mere management a step further by offering mentorship and fostering one-on-one relationships with each member of the sales force. They cultivate a cohesive team unit by setting ambitious but achievable goals for both individuals and the group as a whole. Successful team leaders, in other words, are coaches.
As a report from Towers Watson puts it, “Sales managers occupy a unique, hybrid position.” Managers have managerial responsibilities in overseeing a sales team, but also sales responsibilities of their own in addition to administrative tasks. Despite these sometimes conflicting demands on a manger’s attention, the research on where she allocates her time to be most successful is unambiguous. Successful sales managers spend 11 percent less time on administrative duties than their mediocre counterparts.
Mentorship through individualized, one-on-one interaction between the sales manager and each member of the sales team can be a powerful strategy for keeping sales reps motivated over the long term. We know from the research that reps thrive on feeling like they’re making progress: individualized mentorship is where that sense self-improvement begins.
EFFECTIVE COACHING ISN’T DEMOCRATIC
The natural instinct of most sales managers is to spend their time coaching the highest and lowest performers on their team. Most managers were successful reps before being promoted, and they instinctively identify with top performers. Meanwhile, they believe that devoting time with struggling reps will help raise the overall performance of their team.
But time spent coaching low performers and all-stars does not statistically improve performance, according to research conducted by CSO Insights. Instead, managers should be devoting the majority of their time to coaching the 60 percent of reps who fall somewhere in the middle. Improving the performance of this group yields the greatest impact on overall sales team performance.
THREE COACHING KEYS
Sales training can set the table for success. But once a training session ends, sales managers need to coach their reps to ensure best practices and techniques become ingrained. Here are three keys to every successful sales coaching relationship:
1) Frequency – The only way a sales manager will truly understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of their reps is to connect with them 1:1 on a regular basis — at least once a week. Setting clear goals, determining the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them, and sharing strategies for overcoming those hurdles can only come through frequent and ongoing communication.
2) Accountability – In a coaching relationship, goals only have meaning if sales managers hold their reps accountable for achieving them. When a rep commits to change their behavior and undertake certain actions, it’s crucial for a sales manager to be able to measure their progress and provide feedback about what’s working, what needs to be improved, and why. Over time, sales reps will be able to chart their development as new techniques and strategies start to yield results.
3) Recognition – One of the most effective things a coach can do to inspire a team is to celebrate it. Sales managers who highlight the importance of the sales team and the unique qualities like resilience, tenacity and charisma needed to succeed at the job will produce sales reps who feel valued and vital. Taking concrete steps to remind reps that the work they do is vital and value to the company and even the world at large can count for a lot.
—BY NICHOLAS STEIN
Stein is senior director of Marketing & Communications for Salesforce/work.com.