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Five Sales Training Best Practices from Industry Leaders

By Debbi Conger

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One of the benefits of attending industry trade shows is being able to learn best practices from industry leaders.  For us in the sales training industry, it is always useful to see how clients (i.e., sales organizations) develop and implement sales training programs.

At an ATD International Conference and Exposition in Washington DC, Sales Readiness Group hosted a panel discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of sales training. The panelists were Jenny Dearborn, Chief Learning Officer and Senior Vice President, SAP, Robby Halford, Learning Architect, Sales Enablement, ExactTarget, Maria Leggett, Director, Learning Design, Time Warner Cable, and Ray Makela of the Sales Readiness Group.  Roxy Torres, the ASTD Sales Enablement Community of Practice, moderated the discussion.

Our goal in hosting this panel discussion was to learn how training leaders were incorporating the following five factors into their sales training programs: Motivation, Spaced Learning, Customization, Reinforcement, and Measurement.

Here are some of highlights from the panel discussion:

#1 Motivation

Motivating sales people is always a challenge, and motivating sales people to pariticpate in sales training can be particularly challenging.  Nevertheless, our panelists agreed that motivation is a key driver of the success of any sales training program and in a lively discussion shared ideas on how to increase motivation.

Jenny noted that the surest way to motivate a sales team to participate in a sales training program is ensure that you have executive sponsorship.  If the senior executive team believes that sales training is important, then the sales reps will also believe it is important.  In that regard, Jenny noted that she views her primary “client” as the Chief Sales Officer and tries to understand what his or her business goals are for the sales training program.  Jenny further emphasized the importance of engaging the Chief Sales Officer in business/sales terms, not training terms, in order to be viewed as their strategic partner.

Robby explained that his approach to increasing motivation involves positioning the training program as a key driver in the sales team’s success.  He does this by first positioning himself as the sales person’s advocate. In order to gain credibility with the sales team, Robby advocates that training professionals get out into the field or into the call centers to observe the sales team in action.  Only by direct observation can you develop training that is relevant and addresses the sales team’s pain points.  And, ultimately, this drives motivation. 

Ray added that it is important to communicate the message that the training program is important, and why it is critical to the sales organization.  Accordingly, the CEO or the VP of Sales should kick off the training, even if it is just video message. This imparts the importance of training and motivates the participants to apply the training on the job.

Maria reminded the audience that motivators can vary greatly among individuals as well as sales teams.  For example, if you are training a telesales team, they may highly value specific tools that help them have better sales conversations in real time such as a knowledge base or quick reference job aids.

#2: Customization

How important is customization to the overall effectiveness of a sales training program?  Not surprisingly, all of our panelists agreed that customization is important

Ray said that by including customer case studies, scenarios, and examples from the salesperson's business is essential to making any sales training program relevant to the participants. This type of customization causes the participants say, “I see you understand my challenges and how I have to sell to my customers.” This better engages the participants so that they will apply what they learn when they return to selling to their customers.  

Robby offered a clever strategy he uses for customizing sales training: prior to the training he offers a reward to sales people for the best sales presentations and sales aids that they were already using.   He then selects the best, modifies the messaging and branding if necessary, and uses these tools in the training.

Jenny discussed how she helped developed a highly customized training program to help solve a common sales problem: inconsistent messaging among the sales team.  The highly customized training program required each member of the sales team to watch a video, read a script and white board their solution presentation before recording their own presentation. The rep’s presentation was then uploaded and the product managers listened and graded the each presentation with a pass/fail system. The incentive to pass this test was that the rep could not go on a call for a deal on that product until they passed their presentation test. The result was a 98% improvement in win rates for reps that passed the presentation test.

Maria observed that in the telesales environment, sales training programs must be designed to provide information in the “moment of need.” You need to know the focus of the call, whether it is improving customer satisfaction or trying to ensure first call resolution, and have access to the right information or training at your fingertips.

#3 Spaced Learning

For many sales organizations, Sales training has traditionally been offered in concentrated two day workshop format.  The panel spoke about the challenges this training format has on learning and utilizing new technologies to deliver the sales training over a longer period of time.

Robby discussed the impact of cognitive load on learning when a sales organization concentrate too much sales training into too short of a time period.   He added that sales trainers should try to counter the “pasta” method of training: let’s throw training at the participants and see what sticks.

Robby also suggested that sales trainers should focus on simplifying training programs to reduce “clutter” and “noise.”  One method he likes to use is blogging on a weekly basis on sales training topics, giving him the ability to share information and training content with the sales team on an ongoing basis.  Robby noted that in his organization, 60% of the sales force uses his blog to get information.

Ray discussed how effective virtual instructor-led training (VILT) programs can be when the content is “spaced out” over a period of time.  For example, Ray explained how a traditional 2-day sales training program can be delivered via VILT in 90 minute or 2-hour modules, one module per week over a six or seven week period.  Ray also discussed how Sales Readiness Group is successfully using blended training programs that combine an in-person training event with multiple VILT reinforcement sessions.

Jenny observed that irrespective of how the training is delivered, nothing replaces good instructional design.  It is important that the training be fun, engaging, and inspirational, and connect with what the participants care about—driving results. 

#4 Reinforcement

Our panelists all emphasized the importance of ongoing reinforcement to maximize the long-term effectiveness of a sales training program.  If you are going to roll-out a major training program, it is key to make sure the management and leadership are going to support and reinforce the training in a programmatic way.  A consistent theme among our panelists was the crucial role sales managers play in post-training reinforcement, particularly sales coaching.

Maria emphasized the importance of post-training sales coaching and how frontline sales managers are best positioned to do this.  A comprehensive sales training program should also include sales coaching training for the sales managers.  Maria added that sales organizations should measure the manager’s coaching time.

Jenny brought up Jeannie Meister’s work several years ago about what made training stick. A critical variable was that sales managers discussed the training with the rep before and after the training. Post-training, the manager asked the rep “What did you like?” and “What did you learn?”, and took a lead role in coaching.  Jenny recommended that sales managers devote at least 3-4 hours of coaching time per rep per month.

Ray discussed how sales managers need to clearly define behavior expectations for their teams. If the rep doesn’t know what to their responsibilities are and the manager doesn’t know what they should expect from the sales rep, you are not going to get the desired business results. He suggested that organizations should develop tools to help coaches set the right expectations and coach the right behaviors. He reinforced the point about creating a programmatic way to reinforce training by requiring the managers to do on-going sales coaching as well as structured post-training reinforcement sessions at 30, 60, and 90 day intervals.

#5 Measurement

The final topic discussed by the panel was measurement.  Measurement is always challenging for sales trainers since numerous variables can influence sales results that are outside the scope of the training.  Nevertheless, the panelists agreed that measurement is the way that training departments must ultimately prove their worth. CRM data and results are good tools to use to support training measurement.

The panel recommended that before any sales training programs gets launched, the business owners should define how it is going to get measured and provide a baseline.  Ray discussed all of the practical challenges of measuring the effectiveness of a sales training program and reviewed the types of measurements the SRG customers use; many of them are using some combination of Level 1 (participant satisfaction), 2 (learning outcomes) and the more sophisticated programs use some combination of those plus level 3 (behavior change) and level 4 (business results).

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Written By: Debbi Conger

Debbi Conger has over 25 years of experience in instructional design and development of customized training program for sales professionals, marketing organizations, and technical teams. She spent over 12 years at Microsoft where she developed and taught a wide selection of courses covering product knowledge, partner programs, and selling skills. Debbi also was responsible for Microsoft's world-wide new hire sales onboarding program.

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