Do’s and Don’ts of Salesforce Training

Firms in the United States invest three times more in selling than advertising, 20 times more than online media and 100 times more than social media, according to research presented in a 2013 Harvard Business Journal article. In fact, the money spent on sales training is often the biggest learning expense in firms, fragmented across branches, business units and functions.

Worse, it’s getting more expensive. Due to big data and analytical tasks facing many salesforces, productivity ramp-up times have increased. Each new sales person now represents more spending and more time that has to be devoted to training. Further, even in a recession, sales turnover averages 25 to 30 percent annually, according to research done by industry research organizations Chief Sales Officer Insights. At many firms, that means the equivalent of the entire salesforce must be replaced and trained every four years or so.

It’s never been more important to get the most from salesforce investments. The following “do’s” and “don’ts” for CLOs focus on sales tasks and behavioral goals to maximize learning ROI and minimize retention issues:

Do customize. Sales effectiveness is a function of specific sales tasks, notan all-purpose methodology or set ofpersonality traits. Sometimes, an off-the-shelf training tool can address the desired outcome. But more often, customization is required.

New sales reps—experienced or inexperienced—must learn about the business strategy and selling environment at theirfirm and how other functions affect, and are affected by, those selling behaviors. Those tasks change quickly. For example, buyers now conduct online research about products and price points beforemeeting with a salesperson and rely less reliant on the rep for this information. As a result, sales training must be customized to focus on key tasks to enhance the rep’s value during the customer encounter.

Don’t improvise. Sales training is about cultural values as well as skills because a sales rep representsthe company to the outside world. Values should be practiced and taught, not left for individuals to improvise. This can be a challenge if reps work from home rather than from a branch office. Tailor training to allow reps to hear success stories, role-play issues inherent in yourbusiness strategy and values. Also, reps learn via modeled behavior; have leaders exemplify desired traits and participate in learning where possible.

Do experiential learning. Acquiring behavioral skills versus concepts requires repetition; people must practice new behaviors multiple times to become comfortable and effective. On-the-job learning is crucial. The problem is in most busy sales environments, on-the-job training is a euphemism for no real training at all. Or, it’s a random process dependent on a particular sales manager’s calendar, temperament and ability.

During formal sales training initiatives, incorporate action-learning initiatives. Selling involves rejection and constant adaptation because no two customers are the same. People must learn how to handle unpredictable environments through relevant practice. GE does this via its “Work-Out” programs. During training initiatives, managers and reps discuss, simulate and analyze actions and behaviors while addressing actual sales opportunities or problems, often with customer personnel there to share their experiences with GE products and sales approaches. In recent years, the emphasis shifted to real-time, collaborative problem-solving with customers. Across industries, online media, simulations and virtual environments are increasing the options and lowering the costs of doing this.

Do follow-up. Most sales training suffers from the “day-after” syndrome: There’s no follow-up. Learning leaders can easily anticipate follow-up. For example, a modular learning event rolled-out in a series of short sessions minimizes the cost of non-selling time due to training, while anticipating the need for practice and peer feedback about the skills and behaviors at the heart of each session.

Learning leaders must recognize that follow-up also refers to development over the course of a salesperson’s career. The average rep’s performance tends to flatten out over time due to changes in product, technology, market demographics or other factors, while his or her fully-burdened cost typically increases. As a result, firms may consider individuals with less experience who cost less. Yet acquiescing to this pattern means increasing costs and risks associated with hiring and account reassignments. To mitigate both keep performance aligned with contribution and cost, and use follow-up to keep this gap from growing.

Don’t focus on losses alone. Too often, sales managers’ win-loss analyses focus on losses, with reps sharing their view of the facts and managers adopting the role of the prosecuting attorney. But losses are as important as wins. They provide learning about strengths, competitor weaknesses, buying criteria, and the best pitch—all factors that can increase the odds of success.

It’s been said that some companies maintain their equipment better than they develop their salespeople. That is a mistake.

Frank Cespedes, author of "Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling," is a senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School.

This article originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.