Why does sales training fail?

How a phased approach can improve sales performance

Even in tough times, many businesses continue to recognise the importance of training to stay ahead of the competition, maintain staff morale and be ready to take full advantage of opportunities created by any upturn in the economy.

Yet despite this, many sales training programmes fail to deliver the results such companies are looking for. Why is this?

Our research and experience indicates four primary reasons. First, training, like many other many management issues, is subject both to fashion and changing market needs. As a result, many salespeople are taught the wrong skills – they may be ‘flavour of the month’ or based on conventional wisdom, but in neither case are they objectively proven to relate to sales success.

Off-the-shelf or poorly customised programmes will not attract the necessary commitment for sustained skills improvement.

Insufficient practice opportunities and inadequate objective feedback will similarly fail to deliver the robustness needed for newly acquired skills to withstand the rigours of daily life.

And finally, studies show that, without reinforcement, up to 80 per cent of skills gained can be lost within three months.

Phased approach

One way to ensure that a sales training project delivers the desired results is to address the training needs in three distinct phases, namely manager training, seller training and field coaching.

Phase 1: Manager Training

Frontline managers are the key to sales success as they are responsible for consolidating, integrating and refining new sales skills.

They should be:

  • trained in the same skills as their salespeople
  • shown how to analyse real sales objectively
  • coach their people using the information they gather
  • implement the project in the field.

Phase 2: Seller Training

The sales training programme itself should:

  • focus on the right skills – it is vital to highlight the crucial behavioural differences between successful and average sellers, to ensure participants concentrate on developing the right behaviours
  • be fully customised – whoever designs the training should work with sales managers to produce materials that reflect their sales environment and ensure that participants buy into the training
  • contain frequent practice opportunities – programmes which allow more individual practice in a low-risk environment will lead to a deeper understanding, enhanced confidence and better skills transfer
  • provide objective feedback – accurate observation of the participant’s skills and objective feedback against the ‘success model’ is essential during the practice sessions to support the learning process.

Phase 3: Field Coaching

Although it is widely acknowledged that on-the-job coaching can be the most efficient way to improve productivity, it also true that success rests on a carefully designed implementation programme.

Supporting sales productivity projects in this way may involve:

  • giving managers a range of instructional materials for meeting the needs of individual salespeople
  • tracking the project online by collecting data in the field, entering it online and printing off feedback and development reports
  • review meetings with managers to handle problems, discuss priorities, provide feedback about achievements and ensure that companies achieve a good return on their investment.

Measurable improvement

If sales training is undertaken in this way, businesses can expect to see a clear and identifiable improvement in sales performance.

One recent study compared a group of sales people trained using the above approach with a control, or untrained, group. The results were impressive – sales revenue increased by 6.6 per cent and gross profit by 9.6 per cent during training and by 9.3 per cent and 13.2 per cent afterwards. Equally importantly, the performance of the trained group continued to improve during the post-training period when coaching and field support was withdrawn.

This establishes that the performance improvement was attributable to the skills learned rather than the presence of coaches. It also suggests that such improvement is likely to be sustainable.

Sales skills development should not be an act of blind faith. Training sales people with the right skills and helping them to apply them intelligently can lead to increased revenue, better margins and stronger customer relationships.

What really makes the difference, however, is training sales managers in how to coach people in the right sales skills and how to implement field coaching projects successfully. Without this, sales training projects will continue to fail and will not deliver the kind of return companies are seeking from their investment.

By Tony Hughes, CEO of Huthwaite International, www.huthwaite.co.uk

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