Sales training: overview

Sales people bring home the ‘corporate bacon’, so they are a prime target for development – many larger employers will have someone charged with managing sales training and learning and development (L&D). It’s likely they will have a sizeable chunk of the training budget – that’s how important sales people are.

Whether or not good sales people are born, rather than made, was once a moot point. While sales training, especially for beginners, often started with the premise that anyone with the right attitude could sell if given appropriate training, mentoring and support, various diagnostic and assessment tools have recently begun to refine the process, helping to ensure that the right people are selected for the right roles and trained appropriately.

Often sales training is underpinned by a methodology, a process or even a system – and you will need to get to grips with that to understand what the training is trying to achieve. Remember: the psychology of selling is predicated on human behaviour.
It’s likely your employer will have a director or head of sales. There may also be departmental leaders, such as head of telesales, head of field sales etc. Whoever is responsible in training and L&D will need to discuss and agree development needs and timescales with these managers.

As sales is so important, and markets so volatile, these meetings should be regular – changes in markets can be unexpected and swift and sales staff may need new skills to deal with the consequences.


Questions to ask your sales managers before planning training:

  1. What market conditions are you experiencing?
    Make sure you know exactly what conditions your sales teams are facing before you start buying or designing training. Providing training for prosperous times while the economy is actually heading into recession would be a waste of resources, in terms of both time and money. And providing inappropriate training would be a clear indication that you know nothing about what your sales people are facing, which could make people think HR and L&D is out of touch with the rest of the organisation. 

  2. Why do your teams need training?
    Like any staff, sales people can need training for a variety of reasons. It’s essential that you know and understand these reasons – they should define the type of training you provide. Reasons may include staff being new to sales, new to the company, a change in the type of product or service being sold, evolving market conditions, or a company take-over. They may have been promoted, or may have moved from one type of training to another. Today, there are a number of assessment and diagnostic tools to help you determine whether salespeople are in the right roles: these will help flag up any issues and identify the types of training that will provide the most benefit and value for your budget. 

  3. How experienced are the sales people who need to be trained?
    There is no point providing the same training for a sales director as for a new telesales executive. You need to know the people you are training and the type of role they are expected to fill. 

  4. What training have they already received?
    Ask candidates for training what courses they have already taken. Don’t waste someone’s time (and your employer’s money) on providing training that staff have already completed. Aim to re-inforce and complement, rather than duplicate, previous training. And while you are asking staff about earlier training, find out what they thought worked and didn’t work – and why. 

  5. What specific areas (such as telesales or face-to-face selling) need covering?
    Sales is a very broad area, and most members of your staff will concentrate on a specific type of selling or sales management, for instance key account management or applications selling. It is vital to ensure that team members are matched to a role which they are capable of performing. For instance, do they have the mental agility and intellect to sell at board level? Proper assessment will identify any gaps in skills and competencies. You need to be very clear before arranging training that you are covering the correct areas. Any training offering should be appropriate and tailored to meet delegates’ needs. 

  6. What do you want the training to achieve?
    In the days of big L&D budgets, employers could afford to train staff almost for the sake of it. But not anymore. You need to find out, from both the delegate and their line manager, what skills gaps to plug and whether training will address any issues cost-effectively. Before you train someone, you need to be very clear about why you are training them, and how you want their performance to improve, post-training. 

  7. How will we measure outcomes?
    Sales performance is more easily measurable than many other functions. Depending on the area of sales in which the candidate works, you should be able to agree targets with the line manager and perhaps the candidate themselves. For instance, if the skills gap is to do with time and workload management, look at how many visits or calls the candidate makes in a week, then agree a revised target with the line manager. Setting financial targets should not be too complicated.

  8. What timescales must we work to?
    Find out how urgently the employee needs the training. Speak to their line manager. You may also need to look at this at a more strategic level across the team. The timescale will influence your budget and your choice of suppliers. 

  9. How would you prefer the training to be delivered?
    Whilst sales training was once exclusively delivered face to face, it is also becoming more popular online, Because of the nature of the role you need to consider the format and the length of sessions. Ask sales team leaders whether short, regular sessions would be better, or if they would prefer longer courses or intensive one-on-one coaching. Much will depend on the nature and seniority of the role and it may be that a hybrid delivery mechanism works best. Remember that, more than with any other function, the sales team has to justify time out because of potential revenue implications. .

  10. Are there any providers you rate and would like to use?
    Having assessed exactly how individual salespeople need developing it is important to choose suppliers capable of supplying appropriate training. Review sales training providers from across the market. Why not ask sales managers and team members who have provided previous training, and whether or not they would like them to conduct the next course. They may also know of good trainers working with competitors. 

  11. Do you have any development budgets to help pay for the training?
    A combined sales development and L&D budget will allow you to be more ambitious with your training plans. Given their impact on the bottom line, sales departments are more likely than most to have a respectable development budget. 

  12. How can we prioritise and quantify who needs the training envisaged?
    Using sound diagnostic and assessment tools informs sales leaders and trainers about exactly where to target scarce training resources, so helping to optimise a limited budget. Because training is not a solution to poor performance, it is important to concentrate the right training where it will provide the most benefit to the individual and return on investment for the employer. Remember, you need a good business case for developing staff these days more than ever.


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