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Posted: September 20, 2011

Five sales training lessons I learned the hard way

Is it a waste of money?

Steve Sorensen

Having hired many a trainer and experienced many a training in my 30-plus years of leading teams, I was once asked, "If you had to do it all over again, what would you do about sales training?"

The flashbacks kicked in: How many millions of dollars I had wasted sending my sales team out unprepared, or worse, with ratty sales training. I wanted a cheap fix, an afternoon of sales 101 that would somehow transform my people into world beaters focused on high profit and loyal customers.

Big mistake - and wasted training dollars. Here are five lessons I learned the hard way.

1. Leaving the customer out of the equation.

Oh so many sales training programs focused on selling; so few focused on customer solutions. Sales training programs exhort the salesperson to prepare for battle, crush the competition, love rejection and parrot the buyer. Transaction sales training is the problem, not the solution. Chasing the wrong customer is too expensive these days, and runs counter to delivering solutions and being a trusted advisor.

 Lesson learned: Think strategically. Great sales managers use market knowledge and customer intelligence to define the best/highest profit-producing customer. From this knowledge, they provide their salespeople a highly focused, customized sales approach that means higher win rates and above average customer retention.

2. Not focusing on the organizations strategic value proposition.

Sales training programs seem to push finding someone with a pulse to sell. High profitability is not about more customers - it's about quality of customers. There is less time and money to waste on a random sales process. The question should be, is that customer good for our business, and why?

 Lesson learned: Salespeople justify their targeted customer base. Sales leaders define companies that fit the product and service offering best. Data mining of existing customers saves big with market intelligence/market analytics coupled with customer metrics and scorecards. Sales leaders know down to the penny their customer acquisition costs and customer defection rates.

They know it's very expensive to acquire customers and customer defections are a huge hit to the bottom line. They need Customer Lifetime Value programs (CLV). CLV trainings focus on how to identify the "right" customer providing an 80 percent win ratio, and a sub 3 percent customer defection rate. This also leaves behind price wars and into customer loyalty programs. Loyal customers spend more, stay longer and refer you to others.

3. Cotton Candy training...buying the quick training fix.

It's cheap, comes in a couple of colors and provides a 30-minute high before your team crashes back to reality. There are two reasons why companies still buy off the shelf sales training: first, it's cheap. Second, sales managers endured this inane, page-by-page, repeat-after-me, memorize-this-phrase training and now get twisted pleasure from making their people go through the same mind-numbing programs. They lock them in a conference room for an afternoon, deliver "cheap" sales tactics, the send them out to call on the future of your business - your hard-won customers. Those who go "cheap" will pay much more in the long run.

 Lesson learned: Cotton candy training is bad for business. Effective managers use customized repetitive learning programs to help their people actually learn great skills. Effective managers are well-trained in the art and science of coaching their people (after all, that's their highest priority). Focused, well trained, professional sales people will grow your organization exponentially - but not on a diet of cotton candy.

4. Lack of skill set assessments.

Before you spend big money on training, make sure you have the right people in the right seats on your bus. Today's assessment tools provide a low cost view of capability and degree of success of an individual. There are assessment programs designed specifically for sales professionals and sales managers that provide a predictive level of success. Forgoing these programs invites costs in turnover, poor job performance and customer/employee defections.

 Lesson learned: Effective leaders use assessment tools to save money. They perform cultural audits and assessment reviews every year, minimum, quarterly is preferable to ensure team quality. They use assessments that outline effective methods to motivate the individuals within their team.

5. Lack of measurement.

I've got decades of experience working with Fortune 500 companies, and in all of those years I learned three little words that I use to create high-performing people, teams and organizations. Plan - do - check. It's that simple. Plan it, do it, then check your results. In the corporate world, we did a lot of plan and do but not much check. Sales training also has a lot of plan and do but very little check.

Some managers rely on CRM software to measure performance. These are static indicators, and until I see CRM software physically shake a customer's hand, it's just more data. Experienced sales managers know this phrase well: Garbage in, garbage out; those who live by funnel die by funnel.

 Lesson learned: Focus on developing great salespeople and less on buying more software. Great sales managers are proactive and spend as much time in front of customers as their salespeople; they do not live by reports (check). They spend every waking moment helping their people become better at their jobs (check). They have a direct communication line on what's happening with customers and the marketplace (check).

They perform customer 360's quarterly without fail and ensure customer needs are captured and used for continuous process improvements. (check)
Good sale training, such as Customer Lifetime Value training, doesn't cost - it pays. But until organizations strategically identify the best customers based on well thought-out criteria, sales training is a very expensive band aid.

Market intelligence + customer intelligence + organizational assessments = long-term profitable customer relationships.
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Steve Sorensen has spent more than 30 years helping companies achieve a competitive advantage by improving their sales strategy. Steve's experience includes Vice-President of a Fortune 500 company, Manager of Corporate Accounts for a Fortune 500 company and Western States/Western Canada Regional Sales Manager. As president of Enlighten-360, LLC, Steve uses his wealth of experience to help companies achieve increased revenue and velocity of growth through improved sales strategies. He can be reached at 720.343.0033 or steve@Enlighten360.com.

 

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Readers Respond

And while TC North is correct in the TQM PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), the key point is to follow what Steve says in #5: measurement. But be careful about measurement. I once worked for a company that "targeted" customers and wanted goals and measurements around their numbers. Problem was, because of their "strong leadership" people began to "force" the data to fit management's "targets" and "goals" (fear based leadership) rather than let customers, and the data, determine the story for management and leadership. Bottom line: let the data tell the story, you might find unintended opportunities in the data if you don't force it, otherwise, you're making good business decisions on bad and forced data. Accuracy of data is much more important than fitting it into our business prejudices. By Kevin Cullis on 2011 09 27
Steve, good article. Like the plan-do-check! It's been a while since TQM was in favor as a management system, but if I remember correctly it added a fourth step you might like: plan-do-check-act. Act was take corrective action after the check. Thought you might like this extra step. By TC North on 2011 09 26
Fantastic article!!! On the surface, sales training is obvious treatment for revenue shortfalls, client attrition, and a lack of market penetration. But when the key ingredient is left out of the training equation....it fails miserably. It’s not the trainer’s fault; many sales trainers really do know how to sell. The culprit is a fundamental flaw in human behavior...Desire to change! People can change but there must be a deep desire to want to create change. I have seen it with my own eyes. My favorite clients are the business owners and salesperson that say "I really want to succeed and grow my business" and then do everything in their power to do so. Minus all the reasons and the excuses why it's so hard to change. Thanks for sharing your insight. Liz Wendling By Liz Wendling on 2011 09 20

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