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What Does Customized Sales Training Really Mean, and Why Does It Matter?

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Amy Smalfus, VP Content & Learning StrategiesJanuary 30, 2013Blog

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Last week, we won a very competitive and hard-fought deal. The difference came down to our ability to deliver a customized sales training solution for the client that fit their exact needs.

Many sales training companies claim that they provide customized sales training programs, but from our experience, this ranges from superficial changes (logo and a few words) to off-the-shelf content to ground-up development. I’d like to paint a picture of what customization means to us and explain why it is so important.

We work with a number of very large, sophisticated clients to create and deliver customized sales training programs. In fact, in 2012, we delivered sales training to nearly 75,000 people and interviewed several hundred senior executives. In many of these situations, sales training is a key activity within a greater strategic initiative to realize an opportunity, counter a strategic threat, or improve business performance.

One client, for example, is owned by a large private equity firm and will likely be sold this year. Their private equity owners wanted to make sure that the business performs well leading up to and beyond the transaction. They worked with a well-known strategy consulting firm and determined that they should hire more sales reps to improve coverage and begin positioning a higher-value solution to their installed base. These changes required all new hires to be trained in the company’s sales process and for all sales reps, managers, and leaders to be trained in the dialogue and skills necessary to position the new solution successfully.

Our client didn’t want to disrupt their entire sales force by changing a sales process that worked well, but they had never developed a formal process training program that was scalable across a large number of new hire reps. We took their sales process and had one of our senior instructional designers create a custom sales training program to teach and support it post-training. We didn’t come in with a canned process and push them to it. Rather, the development of the custom program was informed by expert instructional design methods to transfer knowledge and develop the necessary skills to execute that were specific to the client’s situation.

We approached the dialogue training a bit differently. We have many years of experience training selling professionals (such as reps, bankers, accountants, consultants, and asset managers) to have impactful customer conversations. We have proven frameworks, models, and methodologies that we continuously refine and update. And, we have over one hundred outstanding facilitators who teach our programs with an incredible degree of expertise. So, in this situation, we customized our IP to apply 100% in our client’s world. This enabled our client to leverage what we know works but also to integrate their own language, challenges, and sales nuances which ensured that the training program helps the sales team deliver the strategic initiatives the leadership expects.

Creating highly customized sales training is no easy feat. It requires seasoned instructional designers who can quickly learn your business and ensure everything we do in the training is strategically relevant to your situation and packaged in a manner that is both teachable and learnable. Our designer will interview sometimes more than ten stakeholders from the client, including line-of-business and sales leaders, learning and development leaders, sales managers, top performers, and customers. And, our designers will often leverage reports and work done by outside strategy, process, and brand consultants to shape the training solution. This upfront work manifests itself in a document we call a “customizing summary” that contains all of the background, discovery, and recommendations for the client. Our clients often use this document to ensure that we are on the mark and that they are aligned internally before taking the next steps of creating the actual program, cases, exercises, role plays, and performance support tools.

Our designers connect the dots between our IP; our facilitator’s requirements; and, most importantly, the client’s objectives, requirements, and nuances. This often means creating exercises, cases, and role-play situations for skill practice. The design process alone can require over 40 hours of an experienced designer’s time. The experience needed to teach and sustain the effort is equally deep. However, it is a major investment and commitment that we believe is worthwhile. This is what we consider customization.

Why does this all matter? Why not just get something cheap and off-the-shelf (like maybe changing a logo)? Customization is important because experienced, intelligent people will immediately discount training if they don’t see the connection to their world or if they detect they’re being served a cookie-cutter approach. As a sales leader, your credibility is on the line. If the training bombs because it is off the mark, you will damage your credibility. As a learning leader, you will catch tremendous grief from the sales team, who are never shy about voicing their concerns when their time is wasted. If your organization has a lot riding on the success of the program and you simply cannot risk failure, then it is worth the investment.

When it is done right, a salesperson who goes through training and participates in a skills practice will think, “Wow, this exercise is right on the mark. I had this same challenge last week and wish I had the training earlier.” And, a week later, they report to you, “The role play we did last week? I just faced it today, and I handled the situation much better.” That’s when you know the training was on the mark, and that’s what we strive for in customizing solutions for our clients.

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