How to train salespeople

Salespeople stop improving because they stop learning. Recent studies show that there are many ‘environmental factors’ in which learning cannot produce significant personal growth. Many companies in the UK are inadvertently creating these environmental factors, resulting in wasted training budgets, ineffective training courses and little or no improvement in sales performance.

However this can be corrected...

Key factors to improve the learning environment

The key factors which improve the learning environment and therefore stimulate development are:

  1. An environment where salespeople feel supported. In a sales setting, the sales manager can either reinforce or hinder behaviour changes. For this reason, managers need to be trained in how to support learning (they need to learn to coach effectively).
  2. A culture in which openness, experimentation, challenge and creativity during the training programme are encouraged. When salespeople have fun they learn fast and they learn properly.
  3. Salespeople being treated as peers whose opinions are honoured and appreciated. In truth a sales manager can learn as much from salespeople as salespeople learn from the sales manager.
  4. In addition to company / HR driven training, salespeople should be able to take responsibility for their own learning and have the resources they need available to them.
  5. Salespeople are challenged just beyond their present level of ability. Measuring their pre-training selling skill level is required. This is sales assessment and is critical to the development of the learning process and to the development of the sales person.
  6. There is active involvement during the training programme itself through interaction, exercises, role-plays, team discussions and games.
  7. Included are regular feedback mechanisms that tell sales managers what has been learnt and what there is yet to learn. Re-assessments, sales manager observations and peer feedback are examples of this.

The four critical learning issues & techniques to overcome them

  1. Issue - Motivation: Without sales person motivation there can be no learning at all. If the experienced salesperson does not recognize the need for the information, then the sales training programme will be in vain. How salespeople perceive the rewards of learning form the basis for the motivation to learn. For example, heightening the salesperson's performance expectations can have an impressive effect on their achievement in learning! An assessment workshop prior to the training programme, which identifies clearly (to the sales manager, to the company and to the sales person) the skills gaps which require development / correction, is invaluable.

    Technique: according to research when salespeople are made aware that their learning will be assessed, their motivation to learn as well as their ability to transfer learning will be enhanced. As the saying goes: "what gets measured gets learned." Provide a pre-training assessment workshop that clearly and accurately identifies and explains skill gaps and development needs that exist.

    It is also advisable to give salespeople a clear understanding of what they will be learning, in advance of the onset of training.

  2. Issue - Reinforcement: Follow-up reinforcement after training has proven to prevent relapse into old behaviour. Reinforcing behavioural change starts prior to the training programme and is reinforced in the training room by clearly explaining why certain behaviours need to change. In addition, the sales manager needs to follow-up the training. This signals to the salesperson that the transfer of learning is important and that the salesperson will be held accountable after the event. Technique: Provide sales managers with ‘reinforcement tools’ in the form of exercises, case studies, questionnaires and work-based assignments.
  3. Issue - Retention: Research suggests that over 80% of learning can be forgotten only a month after a training course. This demonstrates the poor impact of any training programme which lacks a process for learning re-assessment, reinforcement and learning transfer. Without these elements, possibly 80% of learning is forgotten only 31 days after the training event! Similar research indicates that even when the reactions of salespeople were positive to the training, the same can still apply.

    Technique: Provide an assessment process that measures both knowledge gain and the salesperson's ability to apply the learning. Do this about 3 months after the initial training workshop. Give salespeople and their sales managers the assessment feedback as well as additional exercises and work-based assignments that will fill any learning gaps that are uncovered by the assessment centre.

  4. Issue - Transference: Transference is the salesperson's ability to use the information learnt on a training course in their day-to-day work activities. There are three critical factors to learning transference:

    1. Salespeople must have expectations of follow-up activities and assessment workshops that measure their ability to use the skills learnt.
    2. The training content must be relevant and practical enough as to allow the salesperson to immediately practice the skills in their work environment.
    3. Sales managers must observe the skills demonstrated in the workplace.

    Technique: Training exercises, material and examples, which help make the connection of the learning to the work place, are vital. However, sales manager support post-training is a critical factor that impacts the transfer process. Therefore, sales managers must be trained to coach the sales person and must be fluent in the specific sales techniques and approaches that were used in the training.

    So, if your Sales Training programme doesn't include provision for the issues discussed above, then don't do it! Stop and ensure you are using all of the techniques described; otherwise you will be wasting your training budget...fact!

In summary

What is needed is a complete, on-going assessment, training and learning plan that helps salespeople...

  • Learn proven sales skills that apply directly to the relevant industry / role
  • Apply and master these skills consistently
  • Measure their effectiveness through assessment and coaching

With each phase of the learning plan, a variety of sales tools must be used to maximize the learning experience. The selling skills of each salesperson must be assessed...

  • Before training
  • Following initial training
  • At completion of the training programme

Assessment is the starting point to assess skills gaps and development needs. Training follows assessment. Reinforcement follows training. Re-assessment follows reinforcement. Re-training follows re-assessment...and so on.

Only this approach provides sufficient feedback and learning opportunities for each salesperson to master the skills that lead to success in the workplace. This means achievement of your company's learning objectives and more importantly increased revenue and profit growth for your business.

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