Advances in technology have changed the sales cycle, with buyers taking more ownership over the process and educating themselves on products and services. In fact, the average customer completes more than half of their decision-making before ever speaking with a salesperson. As a result, sales professionals require different skills to engage prospects effectively. They must be able to adapt to each customer’s individual needs and position products and services accordingly. In other words, they must be able to align with customers’ needs.

When they understand their customers’ needs (not what they think they want), salespeople can become “innovative problem-solving partners” who engage their customers in a “provocative dialogue,” according to Ron D’Andrea, managing partner of Global Performance Group. By looking below the surface for “the why behind the want,” reps drive new solutions and solidify their relationships with their customers.

Strategic sales onboarding, training and coaching are more important than ever to prepare sales professionals for this new world. Fortunately, new tools and techniques also make those development processes more efficient and effective than ever. By aligning reps with customer needs at every stage of training, organizations can ensure success in the 21st-century sales cycle.

Aligning New Sales Reps with Customer Needs: Strategic Sales Onboarding

The number one topic new sales reps must understand is the problems their company’s products or services solve. Tim Ohai, president of Growth & Associates and co-author of “Sales Chaos: Using Agility Selling to Think and Sell Differently,” says that this understanding should be the top priority during onboarding. First, train new sales employees on their customers’ problems. Then, teach them how to navigate your organization on a “just-in-time” basis. Aligning new reps with their customers’ needs from the start will help them get up-to-speed much more quickly.

D’Andrea says that organizations can use technology to develop self-paced product and market training. Then, in-person onboarding can help new sales professionals develop in two crucial areas: confidence and competence. When reps have developed critical sales competencies and the confidence to use those competencies, they can become more effective partners to their customers.

Leveraging Technology for Real-World Sales Training

One of the keys to effective sales training is using real-world sales situations. Sales professionals are busy and focused on the bottom line, Ohai says. If they can learn new skills and acquire crucial knowledge on the job, they can not only make the time for training but also reap the benefits of just-in-time, situational learning.

Technology enables the learning process, from mobile content to machine learning, which makes recommendations based on sales reps’ needs and learning styles. E-learning and virtual meeting tools mean that even highly interactive distance learning is possible—though D’Andrea says that learners must be kept engaged by participating in an activity every three minutes.

Integrating sales training content into the existing sales process and CRM also helps to ensure that training is sustained—and makes it easier to collect data. Sales managers should use that data to analyze and benchmark performance and change their training approach when necessary.

Sustaining the Impact of Sales Training: The Importance of Coaching

“Absolutely the most critical” way to sustain the impact of sales training, according to Ohai, is on-the-job sales coaching. By observing, motivating and providing developmental feedback, he says, sales coaches can provide the support that sales professionals need to continue developing their skills and aligning with customer needs. Ohai adds that coaching should be tied into the organization’s broader sales management approach; sales managers should also be sales coaches, and they should use coaching metrics (Where do reps need the most support? What topics are talked about the most?) when evaluating their programs.

D’Andrea says that organizations should bring coaches into the training process beginning in the onboarding stage and continuing as they help reps identify their objectives and plans for each customer interaction. Most importantly, since most sales coaches become coaches because of their selling skills and not their coaching skills, it’s crucial that organizations provide training on effective coaching. The frequent argument that there’s no time to coach is a false one: “Good coaches,” D’Andrea says, “don’t have time not to coach.”

In 2016, research by Training Industry and Richardson identified seven best practices for sales coaching programs:

  1. Coaching should be frequent.
  2. Sales coaching programs should have a formal structure.
  3. External professionals, leaders and high performers are effective sales coaches.
  4. Organizations should provide training in coaching skills to their coaches.
  5. Gamification can encourage employee participation.
  6. Coaching should be supported with multiple modalities and learning tools.
  7. Coaching programs should meet the needs of all generations and experience levels represented in the sales organization.

Through strategic onboarding, training and coaching, training organizations can leverage technology and best practices to prepare sales professionals for the new reality of selling. Aligning salespeople with customer needs is necessary so they can differentiate themselves from their competitors and, perhaps more importantly, problem-solve with their customers.

Training Industry, Inc. released its 2017 Top 20 Sales Training Companies List today. See which companies made the list here.