How to Train Sales

By Michael Chase. This page is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License

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It is the Monday morning senior staff meeting, and there is some unwelcome news. That big order that everyone was counting on still hangs in the balance.

The VP of sales, on the speakerphone, tells the team, “The customer feels that anybody’s system will work, so the decision is going to come down to price. We need to talk about how low we will go.”

The VP of operations cannot contain himself. He jumps up and jams the mute button.

“I’ve had it. Sales only knows how to compete on price, and they can’t control the customer. Sometimes, I’d swear they’re on the customer’s payroll, not ours.”

But what if the mute button had not worked? The sales VP may have had the following to say in his defense:

“Our customers constantly raise objections to our product and pricing that I’m not sure how to address. And do not forget our competitors. Every day, they suit up for battle with just one mission: to make sure that we don’t accomplish ours.”

The operations and sales executives are both frustrated. The organization has failed to equip the sales force to win.

You will never fix this problem unless you commit the time and resources needed to develop product skills in your sales force. Do not confuse product skills with sales skills, like negotiation, discovery, and organization mapping. Product skills equip the sales force to defend your pricing, address customer objections, and thwart attacks by your competitors.

Know What You Want Sales to Do

Sales product training can disintegrate into unproductive periodic product information conveyances if you do not have clear competency development goals. The trainers, typically product managers, feel that they are training but not getting results. Sales feels like they are getting a lot of information but are unsure what they should do with it. Clear competency goals change all that.

Selling complex capital equipment almost always requires some level of team selling. Besides the salesperson, members often include applications engineers, regional marketing managers, and factory experts. You will not successfully deploy product skills if you do not define sales team member roles and expected competencies.

The competencies you require from each team member in your company will vary depending on product type, the number of customers served, transaction values, and organizational structure. See the example sales team competency level by selling team member role in Figure 67.

Example sales team competency matrix
Figure 67: Example sales team competency matrix

You will need a training curriculum that develops the product skill competencies that you seek. That curriculum must address these questions:

  • What competencies will they develop?
  • How will you teach them?
  • How will sales practice them?
  • How will you verify each competency?

Train to Solve the Biggest Sales Issues

If you ask your sales team what the most significant sales issues are, you can be pretty sure that they will not say, “I haven’t had a product update lately.” Yet all too often, that is about all they get from a product training session.

You have seen this movie. The product manager takes the microphone. He then plows through his deck of seventy-five slides, showing the latest data, customers, recent developments, and product features. The salesperson learns a lot about the product, but not how to sell it. That leaves the poor salesperson struggling to find those few valuable nuggets of information in that overwhelming slide deck.

Instead, focus product training on the three most important things that a salesperson needs to know to sell your product:

  1. Why the customer should buy your product at your price
  2. How to handle customer objections to the product
  3. What to do when the competition attacks

There is no better way to figure out what the sales force needs than to ask them. To ensure that your training is on target, ask the sales force where they need help before setting the training agenda. Ask them these questions:

  1. What part of our value proposition and product positioning is the weakest?
  2. What are the top customer objections to buying our system and paying our price?
  3. What are the most difficult competitor attacks to defend?

You will get a list of the top issues keeping sales from securing orders at value-based pricing by asking these three questions. Base your sales training plan on the sales team’s answers. If you want a rule of thumb, the above three topics should make up 70–90% of every product training session, with the remaining 10–30% for general product and company updates. Now, instead of just transmitting random product information, you are training the sales force to win.

If you have not been training the sales force this way, you will find it a little uncomfortable at first. Your first reaction might be:

“We cannot do that! Sales is going to raise all kinds of questions that we are not ready to answer.”

That is exactly right. When you get your feedback from the sales team on their top issues, you will not be ready to address them immediately. If you could, they would not be their top issues. However, not having a ready solution does not mean you duck them. These are the issues keeping your company from closing orders. As a sales and product management team, you do not have any option other than to figure out how to address them.

This “biggest issues” approach to sales product training guarantees you will focus the team’s efforts on solving your company’s most significant selling challenges. It will put you on the path to closing the most critical gaps in your ability to defend your product and its price in the market.

Commit to Continual Skills Development

You will not be successful in knocking ten strokes off your handicap with just one golf lesson. The golf pro observes your swing and gives you a few pointers to correct critical issues. Then your pro has you practice what you have learned before coming back for your next lesson. Then, the cycle repeats. Each time through, your game gets a little better.

The same is true for improving sales force effectiveness. One product training session will not cause a sudden jump in market share and gross margin. Instead, just as in golf, improvement comes from continual learning and practice. The most effective sales force development programs follow a regular heartbeat of training events that build on each other to generate steady improvement.

This regular heartbeat of product training events also creates a recurring deadline for product managers. It is a regular reminder to get their product positioning and selling tools ready for prime time.

How to Deliver Effective Sales Training

It is easy to spot a bad training session. Nobody is paying attention. The sales team’s laptops are open to email. Cell phones are going off. You can hear the hum of multiple side conversations. The product manager at the front of the room has been there for two hours, pointing to slides that only those with the best seats can read.

All the training preparation in the world will not affect sales success without effective training delivery. Your sales training sessions need to be highly interactive with everyone engaged. They also need to prepare the sales team to use their new skills when they get back into the field. Here are eight ways to make that happen:

1. Use a Facilitator

Managing a meeting of unruly salespeople and executives is hard. Have a facilitator help you develop the training flow and learning activities. Then have the facilitator run the training event to ensure a productive learning environment in which the participants will feel safe participating and practicing new skills.

2. Set and Enforce Ground Rules

If you want people to behave in a certain way during the sales training, you will need to establish ground rules. An example set of ground rules might include:

  • Cell phones off.
  • Laptops closed.
  • Return from breaks on time.
  • One meeting, no side discussions.
  • Everyone participates.
  • No individual or out-of-scope issues allowed.

Get your ground rules on the table in the opening moments of your training session and keep them posted somewhere in the room. Also, be prepared to enforce them with some kind of penalty, like donating a dollar towards the dinner tab for every infraction.

3. Assign Pre-work

You want your attendees to arrive at your training session fully prepared to take part. To do this, assign work or reading that they need to complete before attending the sales training. To ensure attendees get the pre-work done, let them know that the first training exercise will feature a quiz based on it.

4. Have a Clear Objective and Agenda

You have brought the sales team together to achieve something. State that objective right up front. You also need a clear agenda to achieve that objective that includes the timing for all content, exercises, and breaks.

5. Emphasize Dialogue, Not Monologue

Nothing is worse than two days of listening to a succession of product managers give presentations. Instead, design your meeting with structured discussions, learning checks, question-and-answer opportunities, role plays, and brainstorming exercises sprinkled into the training. Dialogue also ensures two-way learning between trainers and trainees.

6. Use Frequent Learning Checks

Include frequent learning checks to confirm understanding. Learning checks can include short quizzes, contests, role plays, or other methods to reinforce lessons learned. Try to insert an interactive learning check for every forty-five minutes of training content.

7. Include Plenty of Breaks

Your trainees have a lot going on in their lives outside of your training session. Provide plenty of breaks so they can listen to voicemail, call customers, and check email.

8. Do Not Allow Sit-ins

Some non-sales-related members of your organization will inevitably ask if it is okay to “sit in” on the sales training. Your polite response should be, “We’ve designed this training specifically to improve the sales team’s skills. If you would like for us to provide a separate session appropriate for your team, we’d be happy to do that.”

“What’s the harm?” you may ask. The harm is that these sit-ins will be a distraction. Since they are not taking part directly, they are likely to test your ground rules. If they participate, it is even worse. Sit-ins will pull you off your primary mission. The supply chain manager’s question may be great, but it is unlikely to be critical to the salesperson’s training.