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08 February 2013
Is Sales Training pointless?

Is Sales Training pointless?

By SalesProEd @ 06:15 :: 3204 Views :: 5 Comments :: Article Rating :: Featured Articles
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The purpose of the paper is to serve both as a record of an event that took place on 27th September and a personal narrative. It will attempt to bridge the sterile nature of an academic paper and a muse from a periodical.

Some disclosures. I am a director of a boutique (read small) consultancy firm founded in 2007 (Meta-Lucid Ltd) and have some 20 years’ experience of sales and sales management in the IT market place. It is hoped that this experience is not one that befalls many individuals in being 2 years’ experience repeated many times over!! I advise and consult in the areas of sales strategy and talent strategy, provide advisory and coaching services to sales management.

My focus is B2B with field based sales organisations involved complex, multi-level relationship selling. Here is a statement from the highly respected journal Personal Selling & Sales Management:
“And yet there are barriers to progress in sales research that limit generalisability of our findings, hinder the development of new theories, and create gaps in our understanding that are hidden from general view. Many big questions still plague managers and researchers alike, in spite of the progress made as the field matured.”
My interpretation of that statement is that we still don’t know what really works and why, and what can be implemented into the commercial reality to get predictable results. I like to think that if you have a process/approach (theory) and that the execution of that process/approach produces predicted and repeatable outcomes, you have a discipline. I see this as a specific aim for sales leaders and management.
What I see in practise however is different and close to the blind leading the blind. Yes a provocative statement but it appears to be reasonably accurate. Let me quote you a statistic from the American Society of Training and Development… ”it is estimated that around $20 billion a year is spent on training the sales force”. Then I read numerous claims from other commentators (Chally, ES Research, CSO Insights, IDC to name a few) of how ineffective the sales organisation is, or how many sales people attain targets; (48-55% is a roughmark quoted).
You will begin to understand where my thinking is going when I say the blind leading the blind or the uninformed leading the wanting to be informed. Many attempts by sales leaders to solve a whole host of performance related issues continue, but in my experience these are nothing short of a wet sticky plaster on a bleeding wound. They may have some short term affect but they lack any real understanding of what causes low performance. As someone once told me, “I know that 50% of what I do works, I just don’t know what 50%!!”
I am not averse to trying out new ideas or theory, but there is a big difference between trying something out (if recommended to you), versus setting up an experiment to help discover and understand what works or does not in your environment or unique circumstances.
Experimentation is called progress, when there is no right or wrong but data and what Chris Argyris
termed, double loop learning takes place. So am I levelling the blame or focus at sales leaders and management with this perspective.
Well not entirely, more that I am not sure who is more at fault or mis-guided, the buyer or the seller. When I say the buyer I mean the sales leader/manager and the seller is the consultant, practitioner or training company who is in possession of the mythical silver bullet. Which in itself is a strange term to use… I thought bullets could kill!!
I spend a reasonable amount of my time ‘industry scanning’… it is a thankless, tiring and often frustrating pursuit. I do this for several reasons; what is happening, alternative perspectives, seeking reality, to be better informed. This scanning happens in various mediums, from journals, webinars, research symposia, email newsletters, books, portal websites and blogs.
And I see more and more outlandish claims from the suppliers. From some internal contacts of these suppliers, I understand that these more traditional suppliers are struggling to get close to revenue targets or revenue streams of previous years.
If the suppliers are struggling there can only be two reasons; they have become less effective in convincing the buyer to invest. Or that the buyer has decided that years, if not decades, of training stuff and mythical silver bullets is no longer good enough or acceptable.
I believe this leaves the opportunity of a paradigm shift to occur in either the buyer demanding something truly different in content and approach or the business model of engagement between the supplier and buyer changes. A bit like what happened in the software market when the SaaS model was developed.
I am not sure how these paradigm shifts occur, but I sense they are glacial in speed, unless you get some level of discontinuance based interruption into the market place.
What is really happening is the basis of my ongoing journey of discovery and I have a number of tracks that I am following. One of those is with ISMM who graciously agreed to support my idea of a forum which is not unique, but different, and to my knowledge not done before or not in recent living memory in the UK with the invited audience profile.
Question of Time
A collaboration between Meta-Lucid and the ISMM was an opportunity to explore related subject matter (on sales performance) using the well-known format from BBC’s Question Time, in addition the use of tablet technology supplied by Live Group would provide the backdrop for a unique and interactive debate.
The panel was made up with;
John Iandolo -Sales Director at Dimension Data
Mark McCarthy - Director at Meta-Lucid
Andy Hanselman – Andy Hanselman
Richard Stone - Director at Spearhead Training
Chaired by Professor Gary Akehurst
The format was as follows. A question was present by the Chair, and at the same time this was revealed on a screen and downloaded to each table’s tablet. Each panel member was asked for an opinion and then this was opened up to the floor for comment and further questions to the panel on what they heard.
Finally, each table would then work on a final statement to the presented question.
Collecting Feedback
In total the event lasted 5 hours with 3 hours dedicated to the Question of Time activity. We used several methods to collect both anecdotal and informal written feedback; closed questions feedback form from the ISMM, post event tablet questions and video commentary.
Conclusion / Summary
The purpose of this report was to conclude on an agreement with the participants to share what data we had collected. As stated at the top of this paper this event was never meant to be scientific in its endeavours but to simply engage with sales leaders and managers on a very important topic.
I will refrain from direct interpretation of the data collected. I could make many comments on both what I experienced, heard and read, but feel that this is up to you the reader to do. Importantly I hope that you find the data of some value.
Given the feedback, on the question “would you attend another such event such as this?”, was
100% affirmative I will indeed investigate the possibility of doing this again in early 2013, probably first quarter.
Such a time in the business calendar offers an intriguing perspective from the participants such as a New Year and maybe new targets, the feelings on the challenges crossing from another years effort of either failure or success, and what might change to help achieve those new targets.
On a personal level and reflecting on the event and its outcomes, I feel that we could have better positioned the use of the technology at the tables and that we were some handful of people short of creating a very different type of dynamic in the room.

Finally, a thank you for giving up your time, presenting your views and thoughts, and putting up with a panel that had some of its own strong points of views.

For a full copy of the report visit

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comment By Anonymous User @ 08 February 2013 15:32
Sales training like any type of training is only effective when it is part of an overall change strategy.

It’s hard to empirically justify this, but we generally retain 4-7% of any training we take – think about your own experience of the last training session you attended, after (say) 6 months, how much did you actually implement? especially if was a soft skill training like sales. Probably one or two things?

It is very hard to get people to do new things and booking a bit of training is only a small part of the solution. If organisations are going to invest their money in developing their people they must also invest more of their managerial time and not just at the immediate sales management level.

Bigger organisations will call in the McKinsey’s and PWC ‘s for a few millions and therefore by its scale will have full senior management visibility and support. But when spending the annual sales T&D budget I wonder how committed senior managers are to that training? If they were they would regularly review their sales managers to understand what they got for their money, in terms of sales, metrics, sales efficiencies through planning, new sales activities etc. They would be demanding to know what their sales managers were now going to do differently themselves to support their sales team develop in the new way. What is next on the development path?

Senior managers set culture and drive change by the visibility of thier actions – keep asking these questions and they soon demonstrate that this topic is important.

The sales managers of course have their role to play in the change process by being inquisitive about what the sales people are going to do differently and then monitoring that they do it until such time as it becomes second nature. If you have passed your driving test, remember how long it took until driving became natural? 6 months? a year? When we return from a training course and go back to work to catch up, we "know" what we should be doing but in the maelstrom of things to do, it’s often just plain easier to do things the old way – this is the critical point where a sales managers need to stop the drift back to old ways. This is where they earn their corn, otherwise those training £’s just got wasted right there.

Training and Development one of the steps of continuous people improvement built into the fabric of the management structure so it serves our clients well if we look them in the eye and ask, “how are you going to make sure this is really going to make a difference when the sales people finish the course?” And then help them / hold their feet to the fire to ensure this happens.

Mark Jacobs (Mdina Partnership)

comment By john19smith86 @ 14 March 2013 09:15
I feel sales training is never pointless. Training makes us well prepared for future problems that we may face. Its like saying prevention is better than cure. That's what a proper training does.

comment By alice @ 31 March 2014 11:40
I believe this leaves the opportunity of a paradigm shift to occur in either the buyer demanding something truly different in content and approach or the business model of engagement between the supplier and buyer changes. A bit like what happened in the software market when the SaaS model was developed.
MN Designer

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