Sales training plays a critical role (arguably the critical role) in sales success. Sales representatives who are well-prepared, polished, confident and competent are in the best position to make a positive impact on the bottom line. Yet more than one in four business-to-business (B2B) sales professionals describes his or her sales training as ineffective. What’s more, fewer than one-third of buyers believe that B2B salespeople are well-informed.
What’s throwing sales off course? A haphazard approach to onboarding, training and coaching — as well as common mistakes in these areas — can torpedo sales effectiveness. To develop well-prepared reps and deliver learning that sticks, avoid these 10 costly errors:
1. Making Assumptions
I shudder when I hear statements like, “They’re in sales; they should already know that” or, “They don’t need training on that product; it’s so great, it will sell itself” or, “Sales is so easy; we have plenty of prospects ready to buy.” Don’t assume that a solid foundation isn’t necessary. Rather than turn off buyers with a careless, out-of-touch approach, reps and other customer-facing professionals should be ever-ready to articulate the solution benefits that pertain to the buyer at hand. They need training to do so.
2. Not Letting Reps Get Their Feet Wet
Unleashing new and unprepared reps on real-world buyers can negatively impact deals and brand perception. The last thing a buyer wants to do is train your rep, so before sending reps out into the field, validate their mastery of key skills, looking beyond whether they have consumed training by also assessing whether they can apply what they’ve learned.
A good practice is to start this assessment-based approach in new rep onboarding. Give each new hire a scenario to address and, before “graduating” from onboarding, require him or her to speak with your executive team for 10 to 15 minutes, going over that scenario and how to position your products and services for the hypothetical customer. If reps can’t articulate value in that environment, they’ll need a lot more practice before they’re customer-ready!
3. Implementing One-size-fits-all Learning Paths
Forcing one-size-fits-all learning paths on reps is a waste of time and talent. A green sales rep requires different learning content than an industry veteran. Prior to strategic onboarding and training initiatives, use assessments to determine the baseline for each individual. Then, tailor your curricula accordingly, with the ability for reps to “test out of” various activities. Determining an initial baseline also makes it easier for you to measure subsequent success.
4. Not Making Learning Fun
As adults, we don’t always need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. But why not infuse learning with fun when you can? To drive and inspire learning, you can engage salespeople’s competitive spirits — for example, by hosting a contest to solicit best practices among reps. You can maximize engagement by asking reps to create short videos on topics like the best sales advice they ever received or how they handle price objections and rewarding winning entries, you can maximize engagement. Prizes don’t need to be expensive; use gift cards, a day off, recognition on a leaderboard, a virtual badge, etc. The prize for your organization will be a best practices library!
5. Ignoring Research Skills
Fight “showing up and throwing up” — that is, when reps come to a sales meeting and regurgitate a canned pitch, without any knowledge of and customization for the customer’s company, industry and pain points. A key part of sales training is fostering research skills and making sure reps know how to mine websites, news outlets, financial reports, social channels and other resources so they can articulate why their product will make a difference to a prospect’s organization. A good demo, for example, relates to the prospect’s issues. If an ill-fitting, generic demo doesn’t kill a deal (which it often does), it slows it down.
6. Neglecting Learning Reinforcement
Sales Performance International notes that “without systematic, ongoing learning and reinforcement … approximately 50% of learning content is not retained within five weeks, and within 90 days, 84% of what was initially learned is lost.”
What’s the point of investing time and money to train reps on key skills only to move on, without any plans to reinforce that knowledge? Reinforcement can come in the form of brief refresher quizzes, just-in-time e-learning videos, practice with peers, video coaching activities and more.
7. Not Showing Managers How to Coach
There’s no denying that coaching is important, but you can’t tell managers, who are busy with many other priorities, to coach and expect them to make time. Instead, structure managers’ roles and responsibilities to prioritize coaching, verify that managers are coaching, and instruct and certify them on how to do it well.
Accountability is also key; at weekly all-manager meetings, for instance, don’t just go through forecasts and metrics. Each manager should come prepared with a coaching example that demonstrates how they successfully coached someone on their team.
8. Making Only Managers the Teachers
Managers have a lot of good advice to impart, but it’s a mistake to think that they’re the only people reps can learn from. Look for opportunities to make learning more democratic, with peer teaching opportunities. They could be as simple as encouraging reps to ask a talented colleague to review their presentation or assignment or incorporating brief videos from successful reps (e.g., “how I reignited interest with a prospect who went dark,” “how I handle these five common objections,” etc.) into a curriculum. Reps are often more receptive to learning from peers whose success they want to emulate.
9. Not Setting Metrics
There’s no way to gauge training success if you’re not measuring against a baseline and adapting your strategy and initiatives based on results. It’s also a good idea to customize metrics based on individual learners. For example, you can’t expect a new rep to produce the same results as a company veteran in a well-established territory.
When selecting metrics for onboarding programs, companies often look at time to first-deal, time-to-productivity and time to set up a first appointment. For account managers, you might look at how long it takes them to talk to new customers or to renew or upsell a customer.
10. Procrastinating on “Break-ups”
As a best practice, it’s smart to hire slowly and fire more quickly. There are times when you can tell someone isn’t a fit for the role; in that case, it doesn’t make sense to continue to pour training and other investments into that person’s development. A “break-up” can be the best scenario for everyone involved, often compelling the person to find a role they’re better suited for.
Driving sales readiness isn’t magic. It requires commitment from the top-down, a pervasive culture of practice and sustained work. By making continuous learning an expectation, frequently assessing readiness and avoiding these 10 mistakes, you can foster a sales force that’s ready to deliver maximum value to every buyer.