Why sales training does not work

Every year millions of pounds, and much more in terms of downtime and opportunity cost, are spent on sales training in the b2b sales arena.
Jeff Downs looks at why in his opinion, it doesn’t work.

Public programmes, evening seminars and in-company structured events – in terms of improving sales productivity, what do they really achieve? In my experience, very little.

Well-constructed sales training modules delivered by competent trainers develop tremendous enthusiasm but far too often (I’d estimate in 95 percent of cases) the training binder ‘gathers dust’ and very little is implemented. The reality is that most programmes demonstrate ‘how it should be done’ and the better ones allow ample time for role play so that delegates’ ‘light bulbs’ are well and truly turned on. At the most, this develops enough competence and confidence to ‘give it a go’ in the real world. Some people do, most don’t. Even the ones who do, try it once, don’t like it and then don’t feel inclined to try again.

So why is sales training so popular? One reason is very clear: because it’s dead easy to ‘tick the box’; spend some cash and for sales management to be seen as investing in the team in the traditional way. HR departments that dare to venture into the world of ‘sales’ justify their position on such a premise and worry more about pedagogics and logistics than achieving improved sales performance.

Sales management naivety is often a factor here too with a belief that sales training is the simplest and quickest route to improved sales productivity.

Beyond these issues, there are a number of inter-related factors that prevent return on investment from sales training:

  1. For individuals to change the way they sell (and presumably we want them to!), they must clearly see the gap, i.e. the what and the why. Senior management and line management need to make a ‘management demand’ through clearly communicated sales policy—issues such as the required customer mix, product mix, routes to market, the role of the salesforce, pricing policy etc. At an individual level there must be buy-in to the required changes and the individual must be capable of closing the gap. To deal with the risk of change, the perceived opportunities for the individuals must be sufficient to drive them out of their comfort zones.
  2. To facilitate the above, sales management need to focus on sales activity management rather than on results which by definition are already history. They must understand the linkage between the targets they are setting and the required revised sales activity. In particular, the role of sales training needs to be seen in the light of improving key performance indicators such as conversion ratios, average order values and sales margins.
  3. The sales methodologies being introduced must fit the business. Assuming the sales team has to sell the added-value of their offering (if they do not, I’d question their existence!), then a value proposition driven structure is required to ensure that the training has relevance and ‘bite’. In my view, too many sales training programmes are steeped in 1980’s style attitudes to selling with ‘sharp-angled’ tactics and with scant attention paid to really understanding the customers’ needs and wants. Most ‘professionally trained’ sales people I meet refer to dated techniques such as ‘General Benefit Statements’, ‘Features and Benefits’ and ‘Closing’ techniques—most of which equate to ‘step over leg lock, half nelson’ approaches that I hoped had disappeared with Spandau Ballet and Haircut 100.
  4. Too many sales trainers are seen as just that, i.e. lacking any authority (and sometimes the credibility) to be the ‘winged messengers’ of sales management to drive the required changes using the programme as a platform. This allows ‘take it or leave it’ escape routes for the participants. Most, in my experience, choose the latter. Senior management need to demonstrate total commitment to the required changes in sales behaviour. Managers who kick-off sales training events with statements such as: “If you only take one or two things from this course then we’ve achieved our aims” or, worse: “treat these methodologies with a pinch of salt” really make me cringe.
  5. Sales skills do not develop in the classroom, they develop in the field. With the best ‘pro’ in the world you can’t become a good golfer if you just operate on the practice green. After attending a sales training programme, the individual has to deal with ‘re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere’. They need good leadership and support in truck loads and they need it quick.

As a wise person once said: “to know and not to do is not to know”– after only two weeks they will have forgotten most of the learning points. Field coaching is important all the time but is essential after a training programme if your objective is implementation.

In my experience b2b sales managers do not have a good track record in this respect. It’s not necessarily their fault, other demands of the business (internal meetings, number crunching, reports, forecasting etc), dictate that they ‘fly the desk’ instead of fulfilling what I regard to be their primary task. Another startling barrier to implementation here is that far too often, sales managers have not attended a similar sales training programme to their salespeople so they are not working to the same operating system!! Add this to sales managers often not having sufficient personal development in coaching skills and you have a recipe for negative ROI.

Overall, a big challenge but one worth taking up if you’re serious about gaining competitive advantage through your salesforce.



Posted on

February 14, 2022