In the United States alone, we estimate annual spend on corporate sales training to be at least $3 billion. Despite these investments, and billions more in sales technology, annual quota attainment is on a five-year decline. In addition, a recent HubSpot survey of 200 enterprise organizations led to the conclusion that $66 billion spent on overall sales enablement has not resulted in any major productivity increases. Further compounding these findings is the existence of a robust economic environment for nearly a decade. Although these numbers are estimates and correlations that should keep us from drawing causal conclusions, it is reasonable to suggest that overall investments in sales training and improvement technology are not achieving their desired outcomes.

At the same time, there have been numerous research and case studies over the past 20 years that purportedly substantiate the return on investment for sales improvement initiatives. However, the statistical validity of much of this data is debatable. For example, much of the widely referenced data related to sales performance tends to use “self-referential” survey approaches, which rely on sellers’ accurate reports of their sales performance. There is rarely any objective validation of the data provided by sellers for key metrics cited, such as quota attainment and win rates. In addition, these studies are typically anecdotal and fail to address or control for important extraneous factors that could have impacted outcomes (either positively or negatively).

Further complicating matters, this research has been conducted in the absence of frameworks or models explaining how salespeople’s knowledge and capability progression result in sales performance. Without such models, sales organizations are left to play a guessing game regarding how they should develop their teams in order to achieve their targets.

Paving the Way for a Better Approach

The sales development industry would benefit from a more definitive, evidence-based approach to understanding return on “capabilities development” for sales. To move forward, sales organizations need to shift from a training-focused mindset (knowledge acquisition) to a performance mindset (outcome attainment).

Sales training --> Performance development

A Data-driven Approach to Optimizing Performance

With thoughtful design and the assistance of technology, it is possible to attain a much more objective understanding of how investments in capability development are impacting specific sales goals.

The foundation of this effort should be a collection of discipline-specific skills, each with an identified progression of skill level from novice to expert. In many organizations, it will be a sales-specific competency model. With this type of “capabilities” model in place, organizations can apply a five-step process to drive continual improvement.

A Data-driven Approach to Optimizing Performance

While some organizations have sales-specific competency models, few intentionally prioritize the development of individual competencies within these models. An especially effective method is to use the organization’s sales strategy as a starting point from which to deduce the most important competencies at a given moment, taking into consideration the go-to-market strategy as well as the sales team’s proficiency level for each of the identified competencies.

For example, if the strategy is to increase sales of existing products to new customers, you would emphasize different competencies than if you wanted to increase wallet-share by selling new products to existing customers.

Considering the importance of job-related sales opportunities to engrain the skills learned in the classroom, sales development efforts should work from models that facilitate a graduated process, starting with the acquisition of knowledge, followed by progressively challenging applications of skills and concluding with mastery-level application in the field.

Foundational Learning and Agile Development Loops to Attain Mastery

This approach moves from typical “memory reinforcement” to a rigorous competency certification methodology that creates high levels of real-world capability. To further ensure successful field-based application of these skills, the organization can provide sales teams with CRM-embedded performance tools that directly support learning and track use of those tools to determine impact on key sales outcomes.

Moving to a Technology-enabled Performance Journey

With today’s technology, it is entirely possible to combine all of these elements in cloud-based software that collects data at each step of the development process and applies integrated analytics to show how sellers are progressing in their development and how their changing capability levels relate to their attainment of specific outcomes. For instance, consider this graph illustrating how the number of outside opportunities a sales team develops relates to their progression across three developmental stages (learn, practice and apply, in this example).

sales training graph

Through the use of well-defined models, integrated learning and development content, and data-driven technology, today’s sales organizations can apply a practical, rational approach to understanding how professional development investments are impacting key business goals and metrics.