Julie Thomas, president and CEO of ValueSelling Associates, Inc., compares a sales methodology to a recipe: “We follow recipes when baking a cake in order to predict the outcome of the cake. In sales, sales leaders identify the ‘recipe’ for the engagement of prospects to predict the likelihood of the outcome.” Like recipes use a common language (tablespoons, cups, sifting, stirring), tools (measuring cups, blenders) and skills, sales methodologies also provide a common language, toolsets and skills for sales teams.

Tim Sullivan, corporate vice president of business development for Sales Performance International (SPI), says that the terms “process,” “methodology” and “skills” are often misunderstood, but confusing them “can lead to inaccurate conclusions about what a sales team actually needs.”

“Process describes what to do,” he adds, and methods describe how to do it. “A sales methodology is a collection of methods that produces a desired sales result.” Sales methodologies could be comprehensive of an entire sales function, or specific to one aspect of selling, like negotiation.

Determining Needs

To determine what skills and training your sales team needs, Thomas recommends using observation as well as assessment tools, including self-assessments and manager assessments of reps.

Sullivan cautions that many assessments measure personality or characteristics that training can’t improve. More useful, he says, is to measure current knowledge and skills, and compare them to a pre-determined standard. Then, use that standard to identify the competencies the sales reps need to be successful, and measure them using scenario-based questions as well as self-, manager and “informed peer” evaluations. After identifying the competency and skill gaps for individuals and across the sales organization, you can determine the types of training you need to focus on.

The key, Thomas says, is to determine the barriers to success. If it’s a skill or knowledge, training will help. If it’s salesperson attitude, commitment or motivation, “all the training in the world won’t solve the problem.”

What to Look For

“The quality of the learner experience,” Thomas says, “should be a key consideration when selecting a sales training provider.” Will your salespeople enjoy the experience? Will it motivate them? Does the provider’s facilitators have actual sales experience, and will they be able to model the methodology? “I wouldn’t take a golf lesson from someone who knew and loved the game but never played it,” Thomas says. “The same holds true for a sales trainer.”

When deciding on a sales methodology and associated training program, Sullivan says the most important question to ask is, “How well does this methodology align with how my organization’s customers want to buy?” If the methodology doesn’t enhance the customer experience, or it goes against buyer preferences, it will not be effective.

Also consider the following questions:

  • Does it work?
  • Does the training fit with your overall sales strategy?
  • Is it logistically feasible for your organization?
  • Can you incorporate your own best practices into the methodology?
  • Will your team be able and willing to use it?
  • Will your managers be able to support it?
  • What experience does the training provider have?

What skills should your sales training provider be able to teach your reps? Thomas says that because sales is fundamentally “all about communication,” communication skills – questioning, listening, writing and presenting – are key. The most important of those skills, she adds, are questioning and listening, “the combination of which leads to engagement and understanding.”

Sullivan, meanwhile, says ensuring salespeople are trained in sales process execution is “of utmost importance.” Sales reps must be able not just to plan but also to execute a plan with their customers, and sales process execution training is therefore “the foundation upon which sales development programs are built.”

Sales training providers should also be using current best practices, including using technology that supports individualized and continuous learning. “In the very near future,” Sullivan says, “no two sellers in the same organization will have the same developmental experience. This will provide more rapid improvement in sales organization development and performance and give a significant competitive edge to those companies who embrace such approaches.”

Maximizing and Measuring ROI

Thomas recommends approaching the implementation of a new sales methodology or sales training program like a change management process, including developing a communication, measurement, and alignment and integration strategy. Similarly, Sullivan says to look at sales training “not as an event, but as a journey. Even the simplest selling skills training represents a behavior change for salespeople – a change that will affect how they make their living and take care of their families.” Recognize how important that is to your salespeople, and communicate often before, during and after implementation. He also recommends creating a steering committee of stakeholders and vendor resources to meet throughout the implementation process.

The most important thing to look for in a partner, Sullivan says, “is a track record of delivering business results.” The best sales training providers “monitor and measure how [their] content and experience [are] applied in the real world to produce tangible results – for the seller, the company and, most importantly, for the customer.” Make sure the provider will be able to help you measure impact at all levels, including the sales reps’ behavior change.

Identify how you will measure success at the beginning of the implementation of a sales methodology or training program. SPI recommends using “a complete metrics framework” that includes the following metrics:

  • Reaction to training
  • Understanding of content
  • Field application
  • Leading performance indicators
  • Lagging performance indicators

But the most important measure, Sullivan says, is “the degree to which a methodology enables sellers to connect with buyers [and] where they are in the decision process, and then enhance that experience with value.”

Ultimately, working with a sales training vendor is a relationship like any other, and “all relationships are successful when they are based on trust and transparency,” as Thomas points out. Sullivan agrees: Don’t look look for just a sales training vendor, he says, which are “a dime a dozen, so to speak.” Instead, look for a company that will partner with you to deliver the business results your training is aimed at impacting. These companies are “worth their weight in gold, both today and in the long run.”