Organizations in North America spend over $2.2 Billion dollars every year training their sales teams (source: Training Industry, ATD research reports). Unfortunately, many of these initiatives fail to achieve the desired business results.
Over the years we’ve captured many of the recurring themes and lessons learned from numerous prospective clients where their training programs haven’t produced the desired results they intended. Below are some of the common reasons why corporate sales training fails, and more importantly what you can do to mitigate these risks and set your training program up for success.
1) Misdiagnosed the problem
Frequently we see organizations embark on a sales training initiative without a clear definition as to the problem they expect the sales training to solve. Sales training is a great tool to help improve selling skills, but it can’t fix organizational issues, misaligned compensation strategies or ineffective hiring practices. Training should be undertaken only if there is a clear definition of why the training is occurring and what the outcomes are that will define success.
Mitigation strategy: The training team (internal or external) should work with key stakeholder to identify current gaps and challenges in the organization that training can address, and use this as a way of prioritizing the training program and aligning the program with the desired outcomes. Looking out 6-12 months following the training, the team should work with key stakeholders to define what they expect to be different after the training and how they will measure success.
Key Question: What problem are you solving and what is the impact on the organization if you’re able to solve it?
2) Don’t have stakeholders involved
We often see training programs initiated in large organizations because someone identified a need and identified a budget, but there is a lack of clear sponsorship or connection to key stakeholders once the training program is initiated. For training to be successful, the stakeholders need to be part of the initiative before, during and after the training so they can communicate enthusiasm and expectations throughout. Many times we see training programs that seem to have become an end to themselves, as opposed to a means to solve a problem the key stakeholders have identified.
Mitigation Strategy: Ensure sales leadership is involved in sponsoring the program, and is visible throughout. Create opportunities for sponsors to show their enthusiasm (during kick-off meetings, video and email communication, and participation in training) to ensure ongoing alignment and support.
Key Question: Which leaders will be most impacted by the outcomes of the training and how will they be involved throughout the program.
3) Haven’t defined desired outcomes
As discussed above, identifying the problem is a first step, but it’s also critical to define the desired outcomes that are expected as a result of the training. How will the sponsors know if the program has been successful? How will they measure results? The key factors are: did the participants enjoy the training (level 1) did they understand the material (level 2) are able to apply it and create behavior change (level 3) and will it produce business results (level 4).
Mitigation Strategy: Include outcome measures in program charter. Define these before the program is underway. Utilize surveys, coaching and benchmarking to isolate and measure the desired outcomes after the training.
Key Question: What are you looking to change and how will you measure success?
4) Not customized to the business
Another reason programs fail is that they take an off the shelf or one-size-fits-all approach. While there are fundamental selling skills and approaches that work across industries, unless the program is customized and aligned with the business, we find sales professionals resist the program, feel it’s too generic or have a difficult time figuring out how to apply the concepts to their specific situation.
What to do about it:
Working with key stakeholders and a representative sample of the participants (managers and sales professionals) the organization should identify specific exercises and role plays that can be customized for the business. The program doesn’t need to be built from the ground up, but skill application, case studies, role plays and terminology need to resonate. Identifying common challenge areas and then building in scenarios that provide for skill application with live accounts helps participants feel like they’re getting real work done. It also helps prepare them to apply the concepts when they get back into the field following training.
Mitigation Strategy: Create a customization plan at the start of the project that will identify key areas that can be tailored and aligned for the business needs. Ensure key stakeholders understand and agree to this plan.
Key Question: Where can the training program be customized to align with the business (e.g. prospecting role plays, call planning tools, key discovery questions, common objections, etc.)?
5) Solution is too complex
We hear it again and again—we like the XYZ methodology, but our people don’t use it or have forgotten the concepts. In an attempt to define the steps, organizations tend to over-analyze and overengineer the solution. Sales professionals want tools and concepts that help them close more business and make life easier, not more complex.
Mitigation strategy: involve stakeholders and sales participants as part of a training input group and use them to validate the program. Strive to make the program easy to implement by providing provide quick reference guides, tools and key take-aways to help assist with the application of the concepts.
6) No reinforcement program and managers not coaching the skills after the fact
Finally, one of the biggest challenges is making sure sales managers provide ongoing coaching and reinforcement. Regardless of how good the training is, it will fail if the managers aren’t reinforcing and coaching the skills in the field.
Mitigation strategy: Ensure that a comprehensive reinforcement plan is part of any sales training program and that managers have the coaching skills and tools to support the participants. Involve the managers before, during and after to help ensure success. Have recurring reinforcement sessions focus on skill application to ensure the skills are kept top of mind and the managers are part of an ongoing strategy to improve selling skills.
Key Question: What will happen following the initial training event and what is the expectation for the managers to coach and reinforce the skills?
These are some of the common challenges we seen and heard working with hundreds of sales organizations over the years. Identifying these challenges and taking steps to mitigate them in advance can go a long way to setting your program up for success.
About Ray Makela