Training Your Salespeople

Selling is a craft. Your skill is a direct result of training and experience. 

Selling is a craft. Your skill is a direct result of training and experience. 

Success in sales used to be based on personality more than substance. Gone are the days where carrying a box of donuts in the door will get you a sale. Consultative sales became the new norm, and in fact the most successful salespeople now do more than just solve customer’s problems. They are able to anticipate a customer’s problem before it occurs, relying heavily on a deep understanding of their customer’s business and extensive product knowledge.

Sales training can increase revenue, increase the profitability of closed sales, and increase market share. Training also improves employee satisfaction and engagement and can help with recruitment and retention.

Effective Sales Managers are great leaders. Although a Sales Manager is responsible for the structure of the sales force (i.e. nature of the sales positions, allocation of territories, establishing budgets), the Sales Manager is also responsible to get the greatest performance out of each salesperson. As Sales Manager, you are responsible to help your staff develop the knowledge and skills required to do their job. The following are some of the considerations that often emerge when I help a company design a training program.

Developing training content

Training usually falls into two categories

·      General training for all staff; and,

·      Employee-specific training that is based on that employee’s skill gaps.

For general training, companies typically have a standard training program for new hires and an ongoing training program for all staff. For employee-specific training, the performance appraisal process often identifies areas for improvement.

The categories of information in the training program can be diverse. You have to know aspects of your industry such as background on competitors and relevant trends. You also have to know your customer, such as which potential customers are part of your target market and how those customers buy. Company policies and procedures as well as product or service knowledge is also commonly part of the training program.

Obviously, sales skills are important. Salespeople need to know how to plan their effort, and how to manage communication with potential customers. This might include planning a sales-call and follow up. It might also include conversation skills related to managing the dialogue with a customer. Or it could involve the soft skills related to negotiation or even training on price theory.

The way you train

Most companies choose multiple methods of training, based on the type of information that must be conveyed and the learning styles of the salespeople involved. The following are a few common methods used:

·      Product or Service Knowledge. For salespeople to truly understand what they are selling, they need hands-on knowledge of the product or service. Have salespeople spend a day in a manufacturing facility with staff that build the product or in the field with staff that deliver the service.

·      Peer Sales Calls. Have salespeople shadow each other during sales calls. People will learn from others who have a different way of interacting with customers.

·      Resource Materials. Use a variety of books, podcasts, seminars and webinars. Exposure to a variety of perspectives will help people understand the style and techniques that work best for them.

·      Industry Events. People learn subtleties about their industry from trade shows and supplier information sessions.

·      One-On-One Coaching. A closed door, private, and in-depth dialogue with a salesperson helps ensure training material is related directly to that person’s situation. 

·      Sales Meetings. Even in smaller companies where the salespeople work together regularly, these meetings help by airing concerns, addressing sensitive issues, providing a forum for training sessions, and making sure people are on the same page.

·      Off-Site Training. A day away from the office can help people leave the activity of servicing customers behind and focus on a certain training topic.

·      Use An Outside Voice. Compliment the information you provide directly to your salespeople with a guest speaker or trainer.

The role of coaching & evaluation

Coaching is the process of working one-on-one to help a salesperson learn and develop, with the intent to meet his or her individual goals. Coaching is part of the training process. People can learn skills from courses and books, but the coaching experience allows for discussions about the material in the context of the salesperson’s job and allows for a rich discussion about how that specific salesperson can change his or her own behavior.

Provide feedback on how well salespeople are learning from your company’s training program. Be specific. Are you measuring their process (i.e. number of training videos they have watched) or on results (i.e. how they have scored on an exam based on a training video)? Give people feedback early in the process, and frequently throughout the year. If performance is lacking, have a candid conversation about why.

The training mindset

It can be difficult for someone who has performed well as a salesperson to become a Sales Manager. You are no longer responsible to close the sale. Your job is to help someone else learn to be effective. A big mistake is slipping into the mode of showing the new recruit how it’s done. You’re not there to show off; people learn by doing. They learn from making mistakes, understanding what they could have done differently, and making adjustments. The sooner you can adopt a training mindset, the sooner you will help your people develop.

To keep your salespeople inspired and focused on producing results, you have to create an environment where every team member desires success and where continuous improvement is viewed as a contributing factor to the team’s success. By building a sales culture where training and education is valued, you send a message that success matters and that everyone is able to improve and develop.

An effective way of building this culture is to ensure every salesperson participates and benefits from training, including the company’s highest performers. The best salespeople are always trying to learn, and if your training program is genuinely valuable they will embrace it whole-heartedly. To ensure training is valuable, ask the salesperson what they need from you to increase sales. Experienced salespeople are generally self-aware and will know where they need help.

Share best practices to foster engagement. Recognize what is working and share these insights with others. For example, if one salesperson had success reducing a customer’s sales cycle time then have that person share his or her approach with other members of the sales team.  

There are many technological and social trends impacting the role of marketing and sales. But for most companies, personal selling still does the heavy lifting when it comes to generating revenue. An effective sales training program can have a positive impact on a company’s performance.

Linking Marketing and the Sales Force

The following is a chapter from the book Pursuing Growth


Theoretically, marketing and sales should be naturally aligned. Marketing defines many fundamental aspects of your business model, such as selecting a target market, defining the core value you will offer the market, and shaping how that value will be communicated to customers. The sales force management process then organizes salespeople to provide any necessary personal contact and helps facilitate a sale.

Reality is much different. Salespeople often lack a clear understanding of the value their employer is trying to offer. Marketing strategies are often overly complex and have little chance of being implemented because they lack coordination with the sales effort.

Take a close look at how your sales force interacts with your overall marketing effort. Consider how the following concepts would apply to your company.

Explain the big picture

A well-functioning sales force is just like any other major system in your business, such as production. For a manufacturing company’s production floor to function at peak efficiency and effectiveness, the people involved must understand what they are working toward. They must understand how their actions relate to a broader goal, such as improved quality or reduced material cost. Systems and processes impose controls and direction, but human judgment is often the magic that drives performance.

The sales management system is no different. Salespeople make frontline decisions every day. They represent your company to the customer and choose which points to discuss and which points to avoid. Ultimately, they craft the reputation your company has in the industry and directly affect the volume of products and services produced. Understanding the company’s broader objectives allows salespeople to focus effort on products and customers that are crucial to the company’s long-term future.

Imagine your salespeople ignoring your new product line because it distracts from traditional technology that is easier to sell. Salespeople may have revenue targets to meet, but no direction or understanding of the importance of this new product to the company. They may have no idea if this product is a passing fad that will not be a priority next year, or if the company is betting its future on this technology and needs to establish a foothold in the market. It is crucial that salespeople understand how their actions relate to the company’s long-term vision.

Listen to your salespeople

Your salespeople have access to remarkable information. They interact with your competition and customers daily. This information can be valuable in crafting marketing decisions such as setting prices and developing your company’s brand image.

Useful data is often overlooked, such as customer feedback on new products. You may have a centralized technical support system in place, but customers will still call their salesperson because of the existing relationship. It would be useful for those in charge of marketing to have some understanding of the number of calls received and the nature of the technical questions that emerge.

Salespeople are busy, and expectations for them to collect information must be realistic. Simplified reporting systems have the best chance of being implemented. Also, it can be useful to reward salespeople for digging up information that has a meaningful impact on future strategic decisions.

Compensate your sales force properly

Compensation format is a fundamental component of sales force management. It is crucial to design sales force compensation to align with your marketing goals.

Let’s return to our previous example of a company involved with a product launch. One of the major decisions will be to determine the selling price. Many companies consider discounting price as a way to inspire consumer demand in the short term. In some situations, focusing the salesperson’s effort has a far more dramatic impact on success than lowering the selling price. It may make sense to maintain the original selling price while increasing sales force compensation.

When implementing this approach, provide financial incentives to salespeople for meeting specific goals. For example, certain technical products require salespeople to invest time in educating customers during the launch process. This may reduce the salesperson’s compensation during the launch period, because they spend less time promoting traditional products and there may be a delay in sales volumes as customers begin to adopt the new product. One solution can be to provide a bonus or a larger commission on the new product for a short-term introductory period. A bonus helps the salesperson justify spending the additional time on customer education, while also ensuring the product is embraced as a priority.

Support your sales force

Marketing is often responsible for building awareness and ultimately is far removed from the sales effort. Instead, use your marketing effort to enhance the sales effort or to replace steps in the sales process that are a poor use of your salespeople’s time.

Some companies have successfully replaced cold calling with sophisticated direct marketing campaigns that can generate qualified leads from a large number of prospects. Seminars can educate clients in a social and credible environment while allowing salespeople to use their client visits more productively. White papers on difficult technical issues can be posted on your website for customer reference and used as a reference tool for salespeople during sales visits or when following up on a sales call.

Agree on what makes you unique

Business owners often choose to focus on a niche market. They focus on offering something unique that is important to those customers. Surprisingly, salespeople and marketing staff often disagree on what is important and will promote entirely different benefits. This split confuses the customer and can be detrimental to sales.

Perhaps the salesperson is right and marketing decisions were made without properly understanding the customer. Perhaps marketing is right and salespeople are too focused on what has worked in the past or do not properly understand the unique benefits of the product. Whatever the problem, marketing and sales staff are most effective when they base their decisions on the same information and work together to close a sale.

Any department that operates in isolation rarely makes profitable decisions consistently, and your sales and marketing staff are no different. Tie the sales force closely to the marketing effort and you’ll benefit from satisfied customers and a more profitable business.