How to Train Sales

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It’s the Monday-morning senior-staff meeting, and there’s some bad 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’re willing to go.”

The VP of operations can’t 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 hadn’t worked? The sales VP may have had the following to say in his defense:

“I know that it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, but I’d rather compete on value. As a company, we’re good at describing the technical genius of our systems. However, we need to show customers how they will make more money buying from us instead of competition. I also need a value proposition that supports our pricing.

Our customers constantly raise objections to our product that I’m not sure how to address. And don’t 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 frustrated with the same thing. The organization has failed to equip the sales force is to win.

You’ll never fix this problem unless you commit the time and resources needed to develop product skills in your sales force. Product skills are separate from and shouldn’t be confused 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

“We train them, but it doesn’t seem to do a lot of good. The sales team still doesn’t know enough about the product to sell it. So, we, the factory experts, have to get directly involved in every sale.”

As you might have guessed, that’s the point of view from the factory-expert side. If you asked the field team, their protest would probably go something like this:

“Oh, sure, we get product training. Actually, it’s more like an annual PowerPoint drowning. I’m not sure what to do with all those details.”

Selling complex capital equipment almost always requires some level of team selling. In addition to the salesperson, members often include applications engineers, regional marketing managers, and factory experts. Product skills training will never be successful without defined roles and expected competencies for the sales team members. 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 in the figure below. It contains a simple sales team competency matrix to define expected competency levels by selling-team-member type.

Example sales-team, competency matrix
Example sales-team, competency matrix

Sales product training disintegrates into periodic product-information conveyances without clear competency-development goals. The trainers (typically product management) feel that they are training but not getting results. Sales feels like they’re getting a lot of information but are unsure what they should do with it. Clear competency goals change all that.

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

  • What competencies will be developed?
  • How will they be taught?
  • How will they be practiced?
  • How will each competency be verified?

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 won’t say, “I haven’t had a product update lately.” Yet all too often, that’s about all they get from a product-training session.

You’ve probably seen this movie. The product manager takes the microphone. He then plows through his deck of seventy-five slides showing the latest data, customers, new 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’s 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:

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

You’ll 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 comprise 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’re training the sales force to win.

If you haven’t been training the sales force this way, be forewarned; it will be a little uncomfortable at first. Your initial reaction might be:

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

That’s exactly right. By definition, when you get your feedback from the sales team on their top issues, you won’t be ready to address them right out of the box. If you could, they wouldn’t be their top issues, would they? However, not having a ready solution doesn’t mean you duck them. These are the issues keeping your company from closing orders. As a sales-and-marketing team, you don’t have any option other than to figure out how to address them.

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

Commit to Continual Skills Development

You probably won’t 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’ve learned before coming back for your next lesson. Then, the cycle starts all over again. Each time through, your game gets a little better.

The same is true for improving sales force effectiveness. One product-training session won’t 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 product-skills-development programs follow a regular heartbeat of training events that build on each other to generate steady improvement.

One of the biggest challenges to establishing a routine for salesforce product training is finding a lull in the day-to-day frenzy of making the quarter’s numbers. Here’s a tip: try scheduling a quarterly sales training event the second week of every fiscal quarter. The beginning of the quarter is when you are most likely to catch the sales team’s attention. They’ve just closed their quarter and so have their customers. With everybody busy counting the beans to figure out where they stand, the sales force has a moment to catch their breath. It’s the perfect time to deliver your training.

This regular heartbeat of product-training events also creates a recurring deadline for the marketing team. It’s a regular reminder to get their product positioning and selling tools ready for prime time.

8 Ways to Improve Sales Training Delivery

You recognize a terrible training session when you see one. Nobody’s paying attention. The sales team’s laptops are open to e-mail or stock listings. Cell phones are going off. 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. And, you can hear the murmur of half a dozen side conversations.

All of the training preparation in the world won’t impact sales success without effective training delivery. Your sales training sessions need to be highly interactive with everyone engaged. They also need to make sure that the sales team is ready to use their new skills when they get back in the field. Here are eight ways to make that happen.

1. Use a Facilitator

Managing a meeting of unruly salespeople and executives is hard. It’s even more difficult if you don’t have a facilitator to design the training agenda and ensure that the event goes according to plan. The facilitator has two primary roles. The first is to develop the training flow and learning activities. The second is to facilitate the training session to ensure continuity and provide 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’ll need to establish ground rules. An example set of ground rules might be:

  • Cell phones off
  • Computers closed
  • Return from breaks on-time
  • One meeting, no side discussions
  • Everyone participates
  • Individual and out-of-scope issues will be addressed off-line

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. Penalty systems work well, like donating a dollar for every infraction.

3. Assign Pre-work

You want your attendees to arrive at your training session fully prepared to participate. To accomplish this, assign work or reading that they need to complete before attending the sales training. To ensure the prework gets done, let the attendees know that the first training exercise will feature a quiz based on it.

4. Have a Clear Objective and Agenda

You’ve brought the sales team together to achieve something. State that objective right upfront. You also need a clear agenda to achieve that objective that includes the timing for all content, exercises, and breaks. Try this exercise to get the sales force to internalize the objective and agenda.

  1. Ask attendees, “Given our objective and agenda, what do you expect to get out of today’s training?”
  2. Write down their answers, perhaps on a sheet of flip chart paper that you can post in the room afterwards.
  3. Just before the training adjourns, go back to the list of expectations and ask attendees to comment on how well you did meetng each of the listed expectations.
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 and interactive application scenarios, 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

To ensure that your attendees are receiving everything you are transmitting, make sure that you slot in frequent learning checks along the way. Learning checks can include short quizzes, contests, role plays, or other methods to reinforce lessons learned.

Try to insert an interactive learning check after approximately every forty-five minutes of new material in your training.

7. Provide Plenty Of Breaks

Your trainees have a lot going on in their lives outside of your training session. Respect that by providing plenty of breaks to check voicemail, call customers, and check e-mail. Plenty of breaks will also put you on sure footing when you try to enforce your ground rule of returning from breaks on time.

8. Don’t Allow “Sit-Ins”

Some non-sales-related members of your organization will inevitably ask if it’s okay to “sit in” on the sales training.

Your polite response should be, “We’ve designed this training specifically to improve the salesperson’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 aren’t participating directly, they are likely to test your ground rules. The first cell phone or side conversation violation is almost guaranteed to come from a sit-in.

If they do participate, it’s even worse. Sit-ins will pull you off your primary mission. The supply chain manager’s question may be great, but it’s unlikely to be critical to the salesperson’s training.