There’s a better way to select sales training

Dave Stein

Strictly speaking, sales training is nothing more than a means to an end. The end is sales performance improvement, which is measured by an increase in the amount of products and services your team sells at higher margins, in less time and more predictably — than before the training. If you provide your team with ineffective sales training, your sales will not improve. That’s an opportunity squandered.

Consider this sobering statistic: 85 to 90 percent of sales training results in no more than a 120-day uptick in productivity. Post-mortem analysis of hundreds of failed sales training initiatives clearly reveals that selecting the wrong provider is high on the list of major reasons for failure. One immutable truth in sales training is this: In order to get it right, you must select the right training provider.

When companies wind up with the wrong provider, it’s almost always the result of someone having made a subjective rather than an objective decision. Sales training train wrecks typically occur because a decision maker selected a trainer who, for example, trained them when they were a sales rep, recently published a new book, presented a compelling webinar, was recommended by a colleague, had a recognized brand, or was identified through other subjective means without an assessment of their capabilities.

Where Should You Start?

Before you invite any trainers to speak with you, it’s critical to invest in a comprehensive and objective assessment of your sales training requirements. If a training provider is involved in the process of defining your company’s requirements, you may wind up with a list that magically coincides with their unique offerings rather than what you really need. The trainer does not uncover your real selling challenges because their expertise is in other areas, or worse, they ignore a challenge because they do not have a solution for it. Either way, you lose.

The sales methodology and the sales processes it contains form the backbone of any strategic approach to sales training. Ultimately, the purpose of training is to get salespeople to use the company’s sales process. That transformation requires behavioral change, which means change management strategies and ongoing reinforcement are required components. Some providers will adapt an existing methodology to your situation; others will build one for you from scratch. Either method can be effective, but only if it is built on the foundation of your company’s selling process.

A definition of your requirements must include the gap between how your customers buy — trends, preferences, alternatives, processes, etc. — and the ability of your salespeople to meet those characteristics to close business. For example, if you are selling into an industry where a business justification must be provided to the customer by the supplier and your salespeople are not capable of building and delivering one, they are not going to sell effectively.

Most sales training providers strongly resist responding to an RFP or formal requirements definition, and there are legitimate reasons for this. You stand a better chance of having providers respond to your request when you assure them that you have a budget, executive-level sponsorship, a compelling need, and that none of their competitors are talking to you or have influenced the requirements definition. You adapt your selling approach to your customers’ buying process; you should expect anyone who sells to you to adhere to the same rules.

Who Should You Include on Your Long List?

The best provider for your company could very well be one you’ve never heard of. The sales training industry is highly fragmented, comprised of thousands of firms and individuals. Many are capable of making a positive impact on your team’s performance. A while back, an ES Research Group client — a division of Honeywell — selected Performance Methods, Inc. after we introduced them. Before that, Honeywell had no idea that PMI existed. The two companies now enjoy a long-term, mutually profitable relationship (see Sales and Marketing Management magazine, March 2007). Last summer, we introduced a European client to BayGroup International, a provider that the client didn’t know about. (Disclosure: Performance Methods, Inc. and BayGroup International are ES Research Group subscribers.)

Use the Internet to identify possible providers, but be aware that the best training companies for your situation are not necessarily the ones that show up first in a Google search, are not always included in the increasing number of Top 10 and Top 20 lists, or active in social media. Speak with colleagues from other companies and independent consultants. Read case studies posted on sales training provider websites. Contact your counterparts from those organizations who were cited in those cases.

Ideally, your long list should include six to eight companies.

What’s next?

Perform a dispassionate comparison of each company against your requirements. Add a weighting factor to assure that you zero in on providers whose strengths match your most important criteria.

When you’ve culled out a short list of two to three firms, invite them to meet with you, relevant senior executives, and other stakeholders. Allow them to execute their discovery process. Give them an opportunity to learn more about your team and your challenges. Observe how they sell. If they are not effective selling to you, it’s unlikely they will provide much value to your team.

Formulate an agenda for finalist presentations. Have each provider take you through exactly how they will implement and deploy their processes, skills, reinforcement, measurement and the other components of a successful initiative.