Sales Managers Critique Traditional Sales Training

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For many years we've heard about the shortcomings of traditional sales training, but as strong believers in CRM and state-of-the-art sales processes, we never surveyed companies in any systematic way on the topic. But recently Sales Performance International completed an Internet and telephone survey of 113 corporate sales managers to identify and analyze their complaints. We wanted to hear from sales managers in their own words the problems they have with traditional training and tools. Not only did we get a strong response, but also an insightful one.

By far their biggest issue is a lack of management follow-up and reinforcement. One respondent told us "There's no ongoing learning and reinforcement of principles and concepts. So it's really drive-by training that feels good for a couple of days, and then it's forgotten." Moreover, many respondents put the onus on the sales manager to implement and reinforce what was learned.

Another sales manager expressed it this way "Management talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says it wants to integrate new long-term methodologies, but also expects us to meet our quarterly quotas." Another protested: "Salespeople are, and will always be, first directed to make their quota number. So training is not a priority."

In fact, it's the most common complaint we hear today...that management can't balance the need for fundamental change with its short-term sales goals. Of course, compensation issues are key. Salespeople will only do what they're paid to do. So compensation has to be fixed in order for any change to take place and stick.

The second issue with traditional training was a lack of coherence. Respondents described the problem in different ways:

"With traditional methods there's too much philosophical preaching, not how to apply [strategies]; no tying everything together."

"There are very few new ideas out there. Most traditional training is a rehash of everything done before. Old cliches and sales jargon. It's gimmicky and insulting to my sales team. No process, just learn a couple of techniques, and that's it."

"No clear process or methodology that can be measured and repeated. Usually, traditional training is a set of nonconnected skills, not a chain of events."

The third complaint was about lack of integration:

"Most training providers are unable or unwilling to integrate their content into a larger curriculum or sales process reinforcing and linking like or supporting concepts. Because of the blinders when they hear 'integration' coming out of the customer's mouth they right away discuss how all their products are integrated with each other. This is not what integration means to the customer of training materials."

"The usual training offers no common language or chance of building a company-wide sales culture."

"We see little or no linkage with a sales management system for forecasting, pipeline analysis, opportunity qualification and coaching."

The fourth shortcoming was the predictable focus on product:

"Most training vendors are product-centric and don't focus on the customer's needs or desired business impact. Or when dealing with a vendor purporting to offer a more consultative approach to selling the vendor's own behavior flies in the face of their content."

A fifth complaint was about inflexibility:

"There's little or no customization to a client's specific business. No development of special tools and job aids. One size fits all."

"The old training doesn't help differentiate you or your company by the way you sell. In most cases, it's manipulative."

So there's clearly growing dissatisfaction among sales managers with the old ways of selling, and that's why so many sales managers have moved their teams to CRM. Indeed, what comes across in our findings is the need for a systematic sales process that may be shared and implemented across the organization. There are sound sales processes out there that would deal with these complaints, but only if sales management appreciates the scale of change necessary and is committed to make it happen.

Keep in mind that a proper sales process must have three characteristics. It must be repeatable, predictable, and scalable. In addition, experience suggests that sellers and managers are more likely to employ a process if it supports the sale, is easy to use, and is reinforced through sales tools or job aids. If a sales process is too complicated or requires too much paperwork generally sellers and managers alike won't use it. (This is why some CRM has been fraught with so many problems. It often becomes a garbage in/garbage out situation where the only thing companies are automating is chaos.)

Being repeatable means a company can use the same process over and over to achieve consistent results. Sales management should reward sellers for consistency in making their numbers versus the big spikes in revenue, typically at month or quarter end.

Being predictable implies the use of milestones to help the sales manager know where salespeople are in specific opportunities, as well as know their pipelines. This knowledge helps to answer questions such as "Will I make my numbers, this year, this quarter?" or "Is my pipeline balanced?"

Being scalable is important because sales organizations expand and contract. Moreover, the same processes should be applicable to any size organization, whether one salesperson or 10,000.

There are sound sales processes out there that would help companies overcome their problems with traditional sales training, but only if sales management appreciates the scale of change necessary and is committed to make it happen.

About the author:
Keith Eades is president and CEO of Charlotte-based Sales Performance International. Among SPI's clients are IBM, Microsoft, Pitney Bowes, Bank of America, EDS, GE Capital/ITS, Hewlett-Packard and Merrill Lynch. Eades is author of The New Solution Selling, forthcoming from McGraw-Hill.

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