Much has been written in recent years about the fundamental shift in how people buy and the corresponding need to change the way in which sellers engage with these buyers.
Today’s buyers are using the internet and social networks to research alternatives BEFORE engaging sellers, meaning the sales professional must shift from being the primary source of information about a solution to a collaborative partner or trusted advisor.
In this role, the sales person must be capable of helping prospective buyers analyze their situation more thoroughly, develop clear differentiating criteria, and ultimately make a more informed buying decision.
So how will sales operations and sales learning and development professionals actually affect this important change in selling behavior? Unfortunately, this is an area where methods have not kept pace with the changing environment or seller profile.
Despite the advances in neurosciences and technology, and the increased number of millennials entering the sales profession, companies continue to rely predominantly on traditional instructor-led sales training events to improve selling behaviors.
In this post we will briefly examine the fatal flaws of this approach and describe an alternative that has the potential to radically improve sales force development.
Why Traditional Sales Training Doesn’t Work
It may well be the worst kept secret in business – just search for the phrase “sales training doesn’t work” and you will see several thousand articles, many written by sales training companies, about the reasons so few people adopt new behaviors after attending training events.
From the forgetting curve to the lack of effective reinforcement and coaching, nearly every organization that has invested in sales training has experienced the disappointment of positive class reviews that only result in 20% to 30% adoption of new skills and behaviors.
So why do companies continue to spend billions of dollars annually on sales training? Two key reasons:
- First, some impact is better than no impact at all. While it certainly isn’t ideal, elevating the skills of 20% of the sales people can improve the performance of these people and, in many cases, to a sufficient degree to justify the cost of the training.
- Second, the profession as a whole is generally led by people who HAVE applied skills they learned in traditional training events – either because they participated in training programs that lasted much longer (IBM and Xerox built word-class sales teams by enrolling new sales people in six to twelve-month training programs) or because they were among the relatively small percentage of people that could effectively manage their personal development AFTER the training event ended.
Unfortunately, it is their personal experience and associated success that often keeps these sales leaders from fully appreciating the underlying reasons why most people won’t change as a result of a training event.
Armed with a better understanding of the root cause, it is likely many of these same leaders would work to drive the conventional sales training providers to deliver more innovative solutions.
How Time and Budget Constraints Destroy Training Effectiveness
As mentioned above, there was a point in time and an approach to sales training that did produce dramatically better results. Back when organizations such as IBM, Xerox and AT&T decided to bring the sales effort in-house and invest in developing professional sales teams, training programs lasted months. During this extended period, participants in the program could acquire new skills and behaviors using the proven sales learning cycle of Learn, Practice, Apply, and Evaluate (LPAE).
As each new skill or behavior was introduced, sellers would explore it intellectually, practice it in a controlled environment, and then apply it in real-world selling situations. In addition, these same sellers were working with sales coaches who were skilled at evaluating their performance, identifying any gaps and providing the feedback and corrective action to shrink the gaps and further refine their execution.
More recently, neuroscience has helped further explain the underlying reasons why this approach is so effective, including the critical role sleep cycles play in learning and development. Which leads us directly to the business change that destroyed sales training effectiveness – budget constraints.
Budget & Time Constraints
Through the past four decades, businesses have been forced to cut costs in an effort to compete and deliver the returns investors require. As a direct result of this pressure, sales training programs that once lasted months are now relegated to days. In fact, many training and development professionals are hamstrung by their internal customers who demand comprehensive sales training programs but will only commit to “pulling the team out of the field” for two to three days.
In this amount of time, even an exceptional instructor delivering the best training program will likely only be able to lead students through the LPAE cycle once or twice. No wonder training is less effective now than it was in the past – we have gone from dozens of LPAE cycles and continuous improvement over six to twelve months, to a couple cycles over two days with little to no effective follow-up after training.
In other areas of the business, such as manufacturing, when budget constraints forced companies to find ways to do more with fewer resources or in less time, technology adoption helped bridge the gap. However, this hasn’t yet taken hold in the area of sales force development.
Not that there isn’t a sea of new selling technologies, many of which will in fact help increase the efficiency of sales people who use them. From CRM and CPQ to intelligent content delivery solutions, these technologies can help improve selling efficiency. What they do not do, is actually help improve the effectiveness of the sales professional.
There simply isn’t technology to help sales organizations embed the LPAE model into their normal operating cadence so that sales teams continually improve while they work. Instead, we continue to rely on outdated methods and settle for marginal improvements. It’s time for business leaders, sales operations professionals, and workforce development people to demand more.
Bringing a High-Tech, High-Touch Solution
The advent of the CRM as the “system of record” for sales organizations presents a tremendous opportunity to leverage technology to embed learning and development into the normal cadence of the sales organization. Further, the growth of Salesforce.com and their investment in a development platform for outside parties has provided an ecosystem to support new solutions to this decades-old problem.
Thanks to Salesforce.com, it is now finally possible to embed the LPAE skill development model into the normal cadence of sales operations. To do this, companies will need an integrated solution that includes:
- Comprehensive models or methodologies for coaching and selling that are customized to their unique selling environment. The selling model should help sellers to become their best selves by building collaborative relationships with prospects and customers while the coaching model should help managers deliver true value to their sellers by helping them realize their full potential.
- Micro-learning content based on these models and built based on a consumption paradigm so that each module is independent and delivers value to the learner in 20 minutes or less. This content should also support both concept introduction and mental practice.
- Learning technology and applications for selling, coaching and account management that trigger the need for learning, deliver learning at the point of need, and track learning and behavior.
- A partnering model whereby the solution provider is invested in helping the sales team drive sustainable change that gains momentum over time. The engagement team should be evaluated based on the same objectives as the client sales team to ensure this alignment.
This high-tech, high-touch model is already allowing some of today’s leading sales organizations to make the transition from training events to continuous learning and improvement. The rewards for making this shift can be significant. One global technology company was able to improve revenue per rep by nearly 16% over a two-year period while simultaneously reducing the travel expense and ramp up time for onboarding new hires.
Let’s Wait Until Everyone is Using Salesforce.com
Perhaps the most significant barrier to this new approach is the status quo. While the number of companies implementing Salesforce.com grows daily, many continue to struggle with adoption of their new high-powered CRM solution.
Contrary to common perception, integrating a continuous learning solution into Salesforce should not be sequenced AFTER adoption, this solution will actually DRIVE adoption.
The same company referenced above implemented the solution in coordination with their initial Salesforce.com deployment. By doing so, they were able to dramatically reduce implementation expenses and enjoy exceptional adoption of their Salesforce solution.
Sales operations and learning and development professionals finally have an alternative to traditional training events. This radical new approach has the potential to transform the sales organization through continuous learning and improvement, engaged coaching, improved selling behaviors, and even greater CRM adoption.
Bob Sanders has more than 25 years experience in sales, sales management, and marketing. Bob has served as President and CEO of AXIOM Sales Force Development since 2006. His passion about sales behavior and coaching helps develop people into their best selves. Since Bob joined AXIOM as a partner in the fall of 1993, he's helped dozens of companies around the world generate hundreds of millions in additional revenue. Bob holds a degree in Marketing from Miami University. He has been a keynote speaker at numerous corporate events and industry conferences. He is a founding underwriter and frequent contributor to the Sales Management Association. He co-authored AXIOM's “Selling Sciences Program™” workbook and audio program, and is a contributor on "A Journey to Sales Transformation". When Bob is not advocating on behalf of buyers and sellers worldwide, he is an avid cyclist, father, and husband.