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Improving Performance Through Training & Development of Sales Employees

Updated: Jun 18

An examination of what training can to do help increase sales performance, through knowledge, skills and attitude improvements

By Art Shore

Minneapolis Business Mentors

Let’s start by clarifying terms. Sales training can be defined as those things that are done to help salespeople gain mastery of the skills, concepts, behaviors and attitudes that will enhance their ability to influence customers to make a positive buying decision. Sales training should concentrate on how buyers and sellers interact and how to make those interactions more productive for both parties. It should also provide tools and techniques that assist salespeople in learning what they must know, in order to persuasively present their products and services to buyers in terms those buyers will understand and favorably respond to — in other words, buy.


Typically, when sales managers are thinking about providing a training intervention for their salespeople, l’ll get asked a question like, “What can you do to improve my salespeople’s performance?” My counter is that selling, like any field of endeavor, has three elements which are necessary in order for people to be successful: knowledge, skills and attitude, “Do you know which element is lacking?”


Think of it this way, in order for a salesperson to hit a goal, all three of these basic elements must work in harmony.


1) Knowledge — Salespeople must be knowledgeable about all of the products and services they sell. Further, they must know as much as possible about the customers they are calling on — their business and how they make a profit, and how what the salesperson is selling fits into the customer’s operational strategy.


2) Skills — Salespeople must have the necessary abilities to find the decision-makers; make a meaningful, impactful, and profitable presentation. They must be able to show and explain the advantages and benefits of their products and services. They must be able to make profit proposals that appeal to their buyer’s needs, wants, concerns and buying interests. Ultimately, the salesperson needs the skills to influence their customer’s buying decision.


3) Attitude — Salespeople must have a positive outlook and enjoy what they are doing. In addition to a strong desire to succeed they must possess perseverance and resiliency in today’s highly competitive business environment.


This is the starting point for any sales training intervention. One needs to know which of these three elements is lacking. If you’re uncertain where the problem lies, ask yourself this question: “If the salesperson’s life depended on it, could he or she do what I am asking him or her to do?” If the answer is “yes,” then you are dealing with an attitude problem. If, on the other hand the answer is “no,” that person needs additional knowledge and/or skill training. If the issue is attitude, coaching and counseling is needed, not training. To differentiate between knowledge and skill a simple definition is; knowledge is understanding what to do, skill is the ability to actually do it.

With this as a foundation, let’s look at what training can do to help increase sales performance, whether it’s knowledge or skills and how it can affect attitude.


What Sales Training Can Provide

In today’s competitive market- place, it is a given that everyone wants to increase sales either from current customers or by locating and selling new ones. Almost everyone agrees this goal is becoming more and more elusive. Why? It could be your customer’s buying decisions are being impacted by growing internal costs and this is driving them to constantly ask for lower prices. Or possibly your market is maturing, and no new customers are popping up at every street corner. Or, perhaps your salespeople need to improve their sales skills to reflect the changing customer environment.


So, unless your products and services are one-of-a-kind (if they are - rest assured a competitor will be out there in 90 days or less), you’re looking for an edge, some sort of advantage — something to make your company stand apart from everyone else. Perhaps sales training can provide those points of difference.

Here are five ways training your salespeople can help your organization:


1. Sales training can enhance the performance of salespeople. It can do this by preparing salespeople to make each customer encounter a beneficial one for both parties. This is accomplished by teaching a customer- focused sales process that provides a consistent and effective sales planning tool. A great salesperson gradually sharpens his or her skills by repeating the same process over and over until it is second nature. This isn’t the same as making a “canned” sales pitch. It’s the process that is repetitive, not what the salesperson is saying. We believe an effective sales call must always be oriented to the customer — their objectives, style, needs, etc. To maintain that focus, we suggest salespeople use a checklist, just like a pilot does, every time she or he enters a the cockpit of a plane — or in a salesperson’s case, gets ready to make a customer call.


2. Sales training can improve customer relationships. Training can help salespeople understand their customers’ underlying buying motivations and enable them to deal more effectively with customer concerns. Training can also provide insight for understanding human behaviors and how to read the different personality styles people have. By having a better understanding of why people act and react the way they do. It can provide salespeople with the skills they need to understand, respect, appreciate, and value individual differences.


3. Sales training can reduce turnover of new salespeople. A lot of costly and unnecessary turnover happens in the first year of sales employment. When asked, too many salespeople will say they left because they weren’t provided the initial training they needed to be successful. This is a typical scenario: the new hire is brought into the office, introduced to co-workers, told to complete the paperwork for payroll and benefits, given the product manuals and told to go out and “sell ’em!” And yhat’s called orientation training!


4. Effective new hire sales training is getting the person up-to-speed through a pre-described process of teaching the new salesperson the knowledge they need to be successful, the skills they will need to be effective and an introduction to the people they can rely on and learn from. This training process should include the time the new hire spends with other salespeople who are doing the job well, and a lot of time with their immediate sales manager who coaches the new hire through the initial training period. Not only will you have a more knowledgeable and better skilled salesperson—you’ll have one with a great attitude about the company they work for, thereby reducing unwanted turnover.


As an aside, one more reason why you may want to keep turnover down, according to employment experts, it takes upwards of 60% of an employees’ compensation to recruit and train a new sales employee. Think about that figure for a moment—if you have just 10 salespeople, and your annual turnover averages 20%, and your average sales employee earns $50,000, that’s a whopping $100,000 being spent each year on turnover alone! If properly training new salespeople reduces your turnover by even 5%, those savings will go directly to your bottom line — and more than pay for cost of the training.


How’s that for a return on your training investment?


4. Sales training can increase sales from experienced salespeople. With a training process in place for the new hires, what can you do for your experienced salespeople? Ask them! You may be surprised to find out what they really need is additional knowledge and skills in areas such as understanding how to better prioritize all of their activities, negotiation skills, enhancing presentation skills, dealing with multiple buyer contacts in one organization, team management skills, selling to the top levels of their customer organizations, etc. All too often we take our experienced salespeople for granted and think they don’t require training. Training shows you are paying attention and willing to invest in and develop these folks to their fullest potential. Think about this, if one of your salespeople were to leave tomorrow—who would you not want it to be? Probably not your best one — the one with lots of experience and who uses that experience to make big sales. If that’s true, what have you done in the past 90 days to show that person you are interested in their continued growth and development?


5. Sales training can increase the professionalism of your organization. If sales training is designed and applied as an ongoing process, it will certainly increase the professionalism of your salesforce thereby increasing the professionalism of your entire organization. What we mean by an ongoing process, is to institute a system that can meet the needs of varied experience levels of your sales organization. Just as people are different, so are their needs when it comes to understanding and applying knowledge and skills over the course of their sales career. A well-defined sales process takes into consideration that training needs to change over time —as the salesperson learns, grows and develops.


As describe above, the skill needs of a new hire are different from those of an experienced veteran. The new hire must learn to plan calls, build relationships, sell the benefits of their products, handle resistance and close sales. As salespeople learn from their experiences, they understand the need for something more than the basics. As they move into larger accounts, they discover what’s required is a more strategic approach to the business. The relationships are more complex, the planning more intricate, the selling may be team-based, the decision makers are at a higher level, and closing often doesn’t happen in one call.


By establishing a training process that provides what the salesperson needs as they advance to different and more complex accounts, you can be sure they are getting what they need when they need it. For example, would you send your new hire salesperson into your largest account to negotiate the terms and conditions of a major buying agreement? Probably not. What is needed is an overall training strategy that addresses the needs of salespeople as they progress from one level to the next. By instituting such an approach, you are ensuring your salespeople, who represent your company, are the best they can be.