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Sales Training Programs: Mission Impossible or Mission Accomplished?

agile selling training programs

richardsonsalestrainingSeptember 30, 2013Blog

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Let’s face it.  For learning and development leaders without a sales background, being assigned to develop sales training programs can feel like the kiss of death.  Even for seasoned sales training leaders, it isn’t a walk in the park.

When you consider that…

  • ES Research Group, Inc. estimates that 80 to 85 percent of sales training programs produce no long-term impact (after 90 days) and 20 to 33 percent of sales people do not have the capabilities to do their job
  • Sixty-five percent of top sales leaders surveyed by CSO Insights said their top objective for the year was capturing new accounts, yet 67 percent of those same leaders felt that their sales team “needs improvement” in generating leads
  • ASTD’s recent State of Sales Training research reported that half of the respondents felt that 50 percent or less of the sales training programs they received was relevant to their job
  • Sales leaders don’t count “butts in seats” or care much about level 1 “smile sheet” ratings… they want sales to actually increase after training…
…it can seem like Mission Impossible.

Layer the difficulty of diagnosing performance levers and driving change in a complex organization, or the overwhelming nature of all the moving parts in the Sales Performance Ecosystem, and it can become even more daunting.

Effective Learning Systems

There is a way to tame the beast. You can follow a system and produce great results for your internal sales clients and your company.  In the process, you can establish yourself as an organizational leader who deserves the coveted “seat at the table.”


There are multiple ways, but my favorite recipe is to create what I call an “effective learning system.”  I spoke about this at the ASTD 2013 International Conference and Exhibition and at a local Dallas ASTD Lunch and Learn recently, and the concepts resonate with learning leaders and sales performance pros at all levels.  It also works.

The concept, simply, is this:

  • Create the right Content
  • Use sound instructional Design principles
  • Engage sales Managers in multiple ways
  • Plan purposefully to orchestrate training Transfer
  • Foster sales Coaching excellence
  • Get the right metrics and Measures in place
  • Plug into the organization’s larger Sales Performance Management system
  • Integrate and Align with other business leaders to develop and execute a Change plan

Create the Right Content

The best instructional design, the best learning system, the best plans for transfer… none of it makes any difference if the content, when used, won’t get results.  If you want to improve performance through sales training programs, you need to start with the right knowledge and skills, and the accurate judgment about when to use them.  If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I’m a big fan of top-producer practices and comparative analysis.

  • Analyze your sales force
  • Document the validated patterns of behaviors in your top-producers (exemplary performers)
  • Compare their behaviors to the other performers
  • Create Continue | Start | Stop lists and use the top-producer practices to fuel your content for training courses
  • Use sales managers as a content source, too… we’ll touch on that in a moment

Use Sound Instructional Design Principles

This topic alone is deserving of a series of posts, if not a book.  See this Instructional Design Primer for more detail, but…

  • Focus on outcomes and use the top-producer inspired content
  • Teach the prerequisite knowledge first and use e-learning or virtual ILT to prepare participants for any ILT skill practice
  • Chunk, sequence and layer content with reinforcement and assessments built-in to increase retention
  • Reserve the time spent in ILT for complex topics and skills/behaviors with intense skill practice, exercises, activities, and role plays with feedback loops
  • Design for instructors to coach, shape and redirect learner behavior as much as possible in the time they spend with your participants

Engage Sales Managers in Multiple Ways

Frontline sales managers are the strongest performance lever you have for improving sales performance.

  • Involve vetted managers, who were usually top sales producers before promotion, in your data set of top-producers, as appropriate
  • Gain sales manager buy-in to your rep content upfront, because you need them to reinforce it later
  • Assess top-producing sales managers and also build sales manager training
  • Develop very-specific programs to help managers coach and support the rep training programs
  • Teach managers how to train, coach, and develop reps – if possible, certify the managers on the rep course content and coaching – you need them talking the talk, and walking the walk

Purposefully Plan Training Transfer

Training transfer, or the widespread use of what is taught in class once back on-the-job, doesn’t happen by accident (except with a small percent of highly-dedicated, learning-oriented and ambitious sales reps).  You need to orchestrate it.

  • Build training transfer plans into your learning process
  • Use managers to reinforce training (throughout the curriculum, whenever possible) and encourage the use of performance-support tools
  • Build those performance-support tools into other systems and use post-learning reinforcement and assessments to increase retention after class (mobile reinforcement is the latest rage and more importantly, can work very well)
  • Use social/community tools and consider gamification principles to improve retention and reinforcement
  • Connect reps and managers before, during and after training, with expectations for each, at every stage

Foster Sales Coaching Excellence

This is part of engaging your managers and fostering transfer, but important enough to call out separately. Research has proven two things about coaching … it makes a tremendous difference in performance, and yet it’s still not done frequently enough or well enough.

  • Train your managers first on the rep programs, and then train the managers how to coach
  • Have managers track rep performance throughout any prerequisite courses
  • Have managers attend training with their reps, as a coach, when possible (yes, I’m aware of the adult learning theory arguments against this, as well as the “managers can’t afford the time away” smokescreen, and will debate both vigorously with anyone)
  • Develop manager toolkits or “meetings-in-a-box” to help managers use tailored, post-program sales coaching
  • Develop ongoing support for coaching and sales manager development – coach the coaches and develop a coaching culture

Get the Right Metrics and Measures in Place

You can use measurement for both your learning efforts and to track, report, predict and influence results.

  • Agree on leading and lagging indicators for learning progress and post-class performance progress and define verifiable outcomes for both
  • Report on progress throughout training and develop reporting that compares learner performance pre- and post-class. (Consider gamification and leader boards for an improvement race.)
  • Identify leading indicators for performance and track and report them to better predict performance levels, and reinforce or coach as needed to ensure improvement
  • Report progress and challenges regularly and transparently to business leaders and stakeholders – foster a shared responsibility for results between all stakeholders: trainees, their managers, trainers, training leadership, sales leadership, and senior leaders (each own various pieces of “sales performance improvement”)

Plug into the Performance Management System

This is a separate and special call-out from the below integration efforts.   In organizations, new ways of working (replacing the status quo) rarely become “how we do things around here” on their own.  Work your way into the fabric of the business.

  • Establish a cadence of check ins, review of reports, activity, results, and methods – based on a mix of reporting, dialogue and observation – make it a habit and expectation
  • Managers coach and counsel rep performance as needed, holding reps accountable
  • Senior managers hold sales managers accountable
  • Establish goals, MBOs, or performance metrics that are woven into regular performance reviews

Integrate and Align with a Change Plan

Change rarely happens by luck.  The larger and more critical the change, the more likely that achieving it will require change planning, change management, and change leadership.

  • Link training to business strategy and involve stakeholders
  • Ask for top-down support and proactively suggest ways to help
  • Work with stakeholders to create a change leadership and change management plans
  • Communicate plans, rationales, goals, risks, measurements, and impacts through regular and open communication
  • Share success stories and find and address issues quickly

Mission Accomplished!

It is possible.  It’s not always easy, but if anyone could do it, we’d all be earning a lot less.  One challenge, I know, is to garner the attention and focus required to create and sustain an effective learning system.  It’s far different than just creating and launching a course or curriculum.

Often, people nod their heads at the principles but shy away from the actual work involved, or the commitments it requires (this especially applies, oddly, to the top-producer analysis and investing equally in sales management – the two very things that yield the best results).

People’s intentions are usually great, but the crazy-busy world we work in, often finds us focusing on the urgent, to the detriment of the important.  I’ve found it helps to remind leaders of shared goals, risks of not doing it, how the investment could be maximized instead, and the power of aligned action in getting phenomenal results (which everyone – or at least most successful people – want to be a part of).

I wish you the best of success as you work to create effective learning systems at your company and would enjoy hearing about your successes or troubleshooting your challenges.

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