How to Make Sales Training More Effective

Jan 3, 2018 | Sales, Sales Management, Training Salespeople

If I hear the phrase “sales training doesn’t work” one more time,

I think I’ll scream.

If done well, sales training works fine, for what it’s designed to do. This may spark a semantics debate, especially with my friends in the sales consulting space and others with a performance-orientation, but to me, training – in and of itself – is not designed to improve performance. On any given topic, training teaches people:

  • WHAT to do
  • WHY do it
  • Especially HOW to do it
  • Hopefully WHEN to do it
  • And possibly (if this nuance exists) WHERE to do it

Training, done well, simply provides the potential to improve performance.

As with any knowledge or skill, knowing what to do and being able to do it, does not automatically mean that the knowledge and skill will be used. The “Knowing/Doing Gap” is legendary, and books have been written about it.

Don’t Hear the Wrong Message

As a friend of mine is as fond of quipping, “Please don’t hear what I’m not saying.” It’s not that I believe we shouldn’t focus on improving performance – we should, and it’s been my life’s work. We just need to stop putting unrealistic expectations on training alone to do it.

Training is only PART of the solution. Knowing what, why, how, when, and where to do something, is not enough. And that’s where training’s responsibility ends. (“Training” in that sentence means the act of training, not the department or function leaders, who should be consulting internally with their clients to use training effectively like this, to improve performance.)

You’ve probably surmised by now that I DON’T really mean that we should stop training. I DO think that we should stop wasting money by doing it poorly. I DO mean that we should stop JUST training and expecting performance results.

Lift Sales Results with Effective Learning Systems

So how DO we improve sales performance? Well, there are dozens of ways to attack the sales performance ecosystem (also see this post) but when a knowledge or skill gap is involved, we should use training, with what I have come to call an “Effective Learning System.”

We could debate whether this is a “performance” system rather than “learning,” but I chose to learn because there are many non-training ways to address performance issues… this method applies when training/learning is part of the solution.

An Effective Learning System includes training and much more:

  • The Right Content
  • Effective Instructional Design
  • Extensive Manager Engagement
  • Purposeful Transfer Plans
  • Coaching Excellence
  • Measurement Plans
  • Performance Management Expectations
  • An Integrated, Aligned, Change Plan

The big difference between training alone and an Effective Learning System is obvious, right?

Training typically includes just Content and Design (with perhaps a smidgen of a few others, but often not). If you’re an ADDIE fan, training involves Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. Today, we’re hearing a lot about agile methods like the Successive Approximation Model (SAM), which is worth looking into, but you can use either in the Design phase here.

I hope it’s obvious that the elements that truly drive results in an Effective Learning System (ELS) go far beyond training.

The Right Content

The best training or learning system in the world can’t overcome poor content that won’t produce real-world results. When training is the right solution, it all starts here. Training pros will all be familiar with needs or gap analysis, and I strongly encourage Top Producer Analysis to find the differentiating practices between top sales producers and middle producers.

Effective Instructional Design

There is a big difference between presenting information and designing effective training. Much is written on this topic, and I have a presentation on Basic Instructional Design Principles on SlideShare, as well. You should also check out the Successive Approximation Model. Whichever methods you use, my brief recommendation here would be:

  • Chunk, sequence, and layer the content, and assess frequently.
  • Separate knowledge and skill and blend the learning (knowledge prereqs, possibly e-learning or virtual instructor-led training) with classroom skills-based training (with much practice and feedback loops).
  • Use as many simulations as possible to model the real-world and teach how knowledge and skills plug into process and workflow, in-context. (Just like when teaching Microsoft Word… don’t just teach the menus, teach the workflow of how to build a document).

Extensive Sales Manager Engagement

I mean everywhere possible, based on the organizational tolerance for it, which will create natural limits. Some examples:

  • Sales Managers were often the best salespeople, so they’ll have great content feedback as Subject-Matter Experts.
  • Sales Managers need to have buy-in for the content and support it enthusiastically with their reps.
  • Sales Managers need to understand the content and know what their reps are learning.

Purposeful Transfer Plans

How do you plan to get training out of the classroom and used on the job? This is where most training fails. Consider:

  • Plans to reinforce content and improve retention. (More and more tools are popping up to assist with this, many using gamification principles and Meetings in a Box or Manager Toolkits can help managers reinforce content.)
  • Plans for sales managers to follow-up and observe skills in action.
  • Building training content into Sales Enablement applications/tools or CRM and process workflow make great sense. Do everything you can to turn the top-producer practices into “the way we do things around here.”

Sales Coaching Excellence

This applies generally – good evaluative and developmental coaching skills are required for sales excellence. If I need to convince you about this, you’re reading the wrong post. Some ideas:

  • Coaching on using what was taught (activity) and how well the skills are being used (quality) are a key part of the above transfer plans – but even after the skills have transferred, coaching will sustain and grow the skills.
  • Sales Managers already should understand the content, but also need to know how reporting and analytics indicate gaps in the top-producer behaviors that were taught, and how to coach to close those gaps.
  • There is much support that can be provided to Sales Managers here. While managers are generally sharp folks, we shouldn’t assume that everyone will make the dot-connections on their own. You can provide support materials to help them reinforce the training with reps, training on how to diagnose gaps, and how to coach as effectively as possible (and separately, how to manage and lead their teams and exceed at other aspects of their complex and difficult role).

Measurement Plans

This addresses what success will look like, and how you will measure results to determine if you’re achieving the desired outcomes. This should:

  • Include both leading and lag indicators, with verifiable outcomes.
  • Measure both the learning (progress reports, learning assessments, feedback documentation) as well as post-training performance results (coaching sessions, and metrics that indicate progress or results for whatever behaviors were trained).

Sales Performance Management Expectations

Beyond the transfer plans and developmental coaching required to ensure training transfer and post-training success, every organization needs a great Sales Performance Management system. Utilizing what was taught in training (for reps) and coaching and developing reps based on that (for sales managers), should become part of the ongoing performance management in the organization.

An Integrated, Aligned, Change Plan

Think this stuff all happens on its own? I’d say “Think again,” but I believe you already know it doesn’t work that way.

If you’ve truly built content that will lift results, it makes sense to create a plan for leading and managing the change necessary to get those results. It’s a great start to:

  • Get the various elements of the Effective Learning System together.
  • Get everyone aligned around them, provide the training and reinforcement for reps and managers.
  • Continue the tracking and focus on getting the results you intended.

This will separate you from the masses who “spray and pray” with training, and then cry that (can’t believe I’m going to write this)…. sales training doesn’t work. (Sigh)

Don’t let that happen to you. Stop (just) training your sales reps today. Take great top-producer or best practice content that will make a real difference, and then make a real difference with it, using an Effective Learning System.

This is very abbreviated so there’s a lot more I could say and, I predict, a lot you could share to add more value. I look forward to hearing your comments, thoughts, additions, and feedback.

As always, thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means, let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.

Do you want to learn about how coaching can make your sales training more effective? Then schedule a free 30-minute meeting with us!

Mike Kunkle

Mike Kunkle


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