Sales training: It ain’t what you sell, it’s the way that you sell it

Do tried-and-tested methods of sales training still work? Or is a completely new approach needed for the 21st century?

Sales people are having to adjust to a fast-changing marketplace. The internet is making customers more knowledgeable about what they are buying and globalisation, mergers and acquisitions are reducing the number of buyers to strike deals with.

As Dr Ken Le Meunier-Fitzhough, lecturer in marketing and sales at Cranfield School of Management, explains: “Salespeople are dealing with fewer accounts and in much more depth. Buying is becoming a profession and they [the buyers] want a much more professional approach from salespeople.”

Shift of emphasis

Andrew Milbourn, chief executive of newly launched sales training specialist Kiss the Fish (KtF), argues that a new approach is needed to address these changes.

“The emphasis is now on having the same agenda as the buyer. It’s a subtle shift from me being under pressure to sell to actually understanding the buyer’s problems,” he says. “You have to try to build a relationship with the client so they know where to come when they need something.”

Milbourn says the ‘bulldozer’ style of selling, where each pitch is seen as a contest with the potential buyer, demonstrates how a traditional salesperson may need to change.

“I have to get them to understand that that won’t help them succeed in a modern sales environment. You have to be prepared to say to a client ‘I don’t think you need this product’. It’s about respect and maintaining relationships,” he says.

Milbourn argument is reinforced by Tack International managing director Nick Washington-Jones, who says: “All our research is showing that you need to have the ability to understand the bigger picture of the customers’ marketplace and the customers’ customers rather than turn up and try to sell your product.”

Tack’s latest survey of 180 buyers from a cross-section of companies found that face-to-face cold calling is now only acceptable to 6% of buyers.

The US-based Sales Executive Council, which provides research and advice to some of the world’s leading corporations, confirms that, over the past five years, there has been an increasing focus on the needs of the customer at the expense of the features and benefits of the products and services being sold.

Managing director Dr Matt Dixon says: “Increasingly, customers want sales reps to teach them about business challenges they are unaware of.”

Not everyone agrees with Milbourn that sales training needs fundamental change, however. Steve Thurlow, business director of Huthwaite International, says its core model for sales training is the same as 30 years ago. “All our research has shown that the most persuasive thing a salesman can do is tell a customer how you can do what the customer has told you they want doing.”

Honesty pays

Michelle Alles, partner at Stirling Training Consultants, says training that is designed to boost sales of a product or service normally benefits customers anyway. “Nine times out of 10 you want to go back to the client in six months’ or a year’s time. If you sold something they don’t need, you won’t get that second sale,” she says.

However, Alles acknowledges that what motivates sales staff has changed. “Everybody likes to be valued but I think this is much more important now that you don’t have so much job security. Self-development is important for people these days as well. By giving them new skills and teaching them something new, it all helps them to keep mentally focused within your company.”

Dr William Pedley, director of education for the Institute of Sales & Marketing Management (ISMM), says that because research shows knowledge retention from traditional courses is low, more emphasis is being placed on proving retention has been achieved.

Since 2003, the ISMM has developed 19 accredited sales training courses, he says, which range from sub-GCSE standard to graduate level. “Demand for them has doubled over the past three years.”

He adds that qualifications also meet a need for clearer career paths in sales, and encourage staff retention by reinforcing the impression they are taken seriously and valued.

“They make the sales force feel wanted and, in many cases, it is a real barrier to predator companies,” says Pedley. “It has an impressive effect on prospective customers as well.”

Proof of sale

Richard Denny, chairman of training and recruitment agency Richard Denny Group, agrees that salespeople want their performance reflected on their CV. But he questions the value of qualifications based on exams: “You can get people to pass exams but it does not mean that you can sell.”

To qualify for Denny’s sales diploma, candidates need to demonstrate they have clinched at least three sales and show recommendations from their manager and a buyer.

Views also differ on the length of training courses. Cranfield runs a two-day course in relationship selling.

“The thing about training, particularly for sales people, is that it’s fantastically motivational,” says Le Meunier-Fitzhough.He adds that any new skills will become embedded if there are opportunities to put them into practice at work.

Tack and Huthwaite both say the time available to conduct courses is shrinking simply because people are too busy. Tack’s sales training course used to last five days but now lasts three.

Washington-Jones says a two-day version, with an e-learning element for trainees to complete in their own time, is about to be launched. “People’s time is being compromised and the style of training is changing as well. There’s more doing and interaction rather than just lecturing to people.”

Marton House appears to be bucking this trend, arguing that short, snappy courses are often firefighting exercises that don’t develop long-term behavioural change. Its nine-day course is being delivered for the first time to 1,000 UK sales staff at HSBC bank.

Tim Clague, head of course content, says it is an attempt to do something new because most participants are experienced at selling and need to be challenged. Material for the course, which is delivered over a year, comes from outside selling and financial services to give a new perspective on different aspects of their job.

“We are tackling age old issues but looking at them in a different way,” he says.

A workshop on time management, for example, involves examining how a leading chef copes with the demands of maintaining standards within tight deadlines while finding the time to experiment with new dishes. A ‘beachcombing’ workshop encourages trainees to draw inspiration from their day-to-day experiences to develop the habit of continuous learning.

Mentored by phone

Clague claims an unusual feature of the course is the way in which mentoring is conducted. “A lot of mentoring is being shifted to online support. With us, someone will not only phone you up but mentor you during the working day. People are getting more out of that than almost anything else,” he says.

Investment on this scale is beyond many training budgets once cost and time constraints are weighed against what the sales force needs to achieve. The short, inspirational course is still proving effective at re-enthusing staff, provided there are opportunities at work to try out what has been learned.

But if a fundamental change in the outlook and behaviour is needed then the likes of KtF and Marton House would argue that the strengths, weaknesses and motivation of individual staff need to be addressed – and that will take considerably more time.

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