Individual assessment is the way forward in sales training

It’s time organisations ditched the one-size-fits-all approach to sales training in favour of individual assessment.

The perception that some people are born to sell has done little to advance sales training over the years, with many companies throwing money at ad hoc courses rather than concentrating on individual development.

But according to Russell Ward, sales director at training firm Silent Edge: “Entrepreneurs are born, but sales people can be made.”

Barry Hazelwood, delivery services manager at training specialist Huthwaite International, agrees: “In the business-to-business arena, good sales people are not born. They do not have the gift of the gab an0d they do not have fancy and manipulative sales techniques. These are myths peddled over the years that people hold on to”.

Perversely, it seems the idea that being able to sell is an innate characteristic has actually cost companies money.

“People just assume that sales people know what to do,” says sales trainer and cold-calling expert Andy Preston of Outstanding Results.

“To a great extent they probably do know what to do, but aren’t doing it. Sales is quite an emotional business. No matter how resilient and tenacious you are, having to cold-call and getting refusal after refusal does tend to have an effect and traditional training does not tackle this.”

The biggest stumbling block

Ward also believes that along with a dearth of top-quality sales trainers, a one-size-fits-all approach to sales training has proved to be its biggest stumbling block. “Offering a course that promises to transform your team is unrealistic,” he insists. “All sales people have different backgrounds, experience, skills and so on, so how can one course suit everyone? I’m very much against this ‘sheep dip’ approach.”

Adopting a more individual-based approach to sales training does not refer to separate training as that would probably be both expensive and unrealistic. Instead, says Ward, use a more structured method of assessment – for example, identify similar requirements for training groups of no more than 10 or 12.

When it comes to assessing sales training, Preston acknowledges that HR’s role is difficult because it’s not about skills.

“The better HR understands the sales activity, and what a sales person needs to do, the better its chance of sourcing or delivering good training,” he says.

Ward says the key to Silent Edge’s approach is measuring how capable people are at selling. The company spends a day evaluating each person, listening in on calls and accompanying people to external meetings. Each person then receives an hour of feedback. This is followed by four days of development, over a period of about three months.

Ward says Silent Edge runs very interactive classroom-based training content, which is based entirely on this evaluation. “The best practice scorecards that we’ve created are recognised by Cranfield and Ashridge management schools,” he says. “They are totally objective. We use them to create charts, graphs and scores so that an individual can see their strengths and weaknesses. This becomes an incredibly powerful development tool. We’ve created a scorecard for every single role in sales, including sales leadership and management capability.”

Although 360-degree assessments can create conflict within organisations, Ward claims the assessments that Silent Edge conducts create engagement and are seen as an insight, rather than a witch-hunt. All the data is passed to the sales manager, who then has a rich source of information to use in coaching and developing the team.

And while individuals tend to be ignored when courses are based on guru-led theories, Hazelwood says Huthwaite’s methodology enables people to tailor training to themselves. “We come from a research background,” he says.

“We’re teaching stuff we can prove. It’s very much about adopting behaviours another individual has found useful.”

The diagnostic approach

During any assessment, he says, companies should be sitting down and looking at what the good – and the less good – people are doing. Huthwaite’s diagnostic approach includes administering a series of questionnaires and benchmarking a subject’s success against the company’s success model.

Any evaluation of a sales team should also include an assessment and training for the sales manager as someone with a strong selling track record, rather than the people management skills that are often promoted to that position.

“Companies are very dependent on the sales manager being able to spot what’s going wrong,” says Ward. “By giving them some incredibly rich data about the sales data in their team you’ve just given them some magic dust so they can get on and help people. We give the sales manager the right skills to coach and nurture their team.”

With so many providers offering standardised sales training, Preston says anyone looking for a trainer should pick one that has both a successful sales and training track record and who has created most of the training materials to be used. And while it’s not essential for a trainer to have worked in a client’s industry, Preston believes the more a trainer has trained within it the better.

In the classroom itself, a more individual approach to sales training should be used – for example, in the form of highly interactive and company-relevant role plays, presentations and case studies, says Ward. “It’s about putting skills into practice and about talking the language of the industry.”

Regardless of the type of course or content, Clark warns that training is finite and has a shelf-life. To allow for this, he recommends that, over time, courses are followed up with further training or one-to-one coaching.

As sales people live and die by their figures, it’s obvious that companies prefer to judge the effectiveness of sales training via their profit margins.

“It’s perfectly possible to relate sales training to bottom-line improvement,” says Hazelwood. “If everything is moving in the right direction you can say [the training is] having a reasonable impact. But you can also monitor improved behaviour and pleasant noises from customers, and say with a degree of certainty that training must have had an impact.”

While the expense of tailored training means it may take more time, Ward insists that a company’s return on investment from an individualised approach will probably be two to three times the amount spent on that person.

Clark says companies should also consider other issues such as sales staff turnover, when measuring improvements. “While you might hit the figures, you have to think how much better you might have done had you managed to reduce that 25% turnover of sales staff.”

Case study: Vistorm

After noting that several areas of its sales operation could be improved, information security services company Vistorm engaged the services of sales training specialist Silent Edge.

The company was aware that its marketing team was qualifying leads but they weren’t all being turned around. Other areas for improvement included: getting to the right person identifying an opportunity what Vistorm saw as its unique selling points meeting preparation customer meeting agendas articulating sales stories and understanding customers’ requirements and their businesses.

According to internal and renewals sales manager, Dawn Gabay, Silent Edge’s approach was very structured. “They were specific and geared towards each individual’s skills, taking them through a whole sales cycle,” she says.

Following a day’s evaluation – which included listening in on calls, interviewing staff and accompanying external sales to customer meetings – each person was scored, then ranked and categorised. The company did not release individual scores as it only wanted the information for development purposes.

Classroom-based training of about two days, for groups of 10-15 people, then took place. The course content included role-playing, homework and presentations.

Gabay says the feedback from staff was positive, with delegates keen to demonstrate how they’d altered their approach. Vistorm claims the results were immediate: the company has experienced a 30% growth in an otherwise flat market and already had payback on its investment.

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