Every company wants to grow sales, and using sales training to achieve that goal is certainly plausible. Unfortunately, whether the programs are developed internally or purchased from a supplier, most sales training initiatives fail to produce truly worthwhile results, such as increased revenue, higher margins or expanded market share.

Thought leaders in the sales training industry cite a thousand reasons why the dogs don’t eat the chow. Frequently blamed culprits include the program’s content (it’s poor or wrong), inadequate reinforcement, lack of buy-in from learners, lack of accountability for learning – and the list goes on.

After decades of arguing about what causes sales training to flop, it’s about time for those of us in the training business to gather factual data on what does and doesn’t work and to chart a course that ensures success. But what kinds of data are truly persuasive?

The lowdown on research

Typical research, even by folks in the research business, is based on surveys. We’ve all participated in these SurveyMonkey questionnaires. And we’ve all probably stretched the truth; at the very least, we’ve made honest errors and omissions.

For example, a survey might ask individual salespeople (or their managers) to rank their effectiveness at planning sales calls. So everyone provides an opinion. When enough opinions are gathered, the survey somehow translates those opinions into facts.

Is it possible that this type of data is biased – or maybe downright useless? After all, who wants to look bad or make someone else look bad?

How about some validated data?

In my opinion, survey data cannot be regarded as validated data when it comes to measuring mental capabilities and processesTherefore, survey data should not form the basis for developing fact-based, data-driven solutions.

Validated data come from validated assessments. Validated assessments are developed by credible professionals in the business of psychometrics (the science of design, administration and interpretation of quantitative tests for the measurement of mental capabilities and processes). Validation further requires that these psychometry tools are administered to a statistically significant number of people: a whole lot of people.

Self-grade inflation

When salespeople are asked to rank themselves in certain critical selling skills, and these rankings are then compared to hard data from validated assessments, the data show only 60 percent congruence. What does that mean? It means that for skills such as sales call planning, questioning and closing, salespeople perceive themselves to be far more skillful than they actually are. If you use surveys as the basis for sales training decisions, you are 40 percent wrong coming out of the starting block.

Which sales skills will you measure?

You can’t teach salespeople a hundred different skills and expect their performance to improve in a significant or consistent way. When designing sales training, it makes sense to start by identifying a handful of measurable and trainable skills to teach. But who cares whether you can measure sales skills in a validated way unless the skills you’re measuring are, in fact, the ones most critical to real-world sales success?

Based on research, here are the five selling skills that offer the greatest leverage for performance improvement in real sales environments:

  • Buyer/Seller Relationship: When sellers understand the incremental buying decisions that every customer makes, they can improve their use of an effective sales process to succeed at each incremental decision.
  • Sales Call Planning: Data show that 99 percent of salespeople fail to consistently establish the right type of objective for every sales call. This error is the most common mistake in selling.
  • Questioning/Listening Skills: Two-thirds of salespeople need significant help in this area. As a consequence, they sell themselves poorly and present unimportant capabilities to their prospect when they describe their solutions.
  • Presentation Skills: Even though salespeople generally know what they ought to do, they apply best-in-class skills at a miserable rate.
  • Gaining Commitment (Closing): Salespeople (and their managers) agree that closing is their weakest skill. This problem presents the greatest opportunity when it is fixed.

Big Data’s big questions

Once you’ve defined the critical skills – and you have accumulated a large number of validated assessments of those skills, before and after training – you can answer some interesting questions about your sales training:

  • Which skills are most deficient in a particular sales team?
  • How much can training improve the skills of sales teams in any particular industry?
  • What do the data say about knowledge gains in training courses versus gains in skill application back on the job?
  • Which skills, when improved, produce the greatest ROI for salespeople and their companies?

the tip of the iceberg: Data mining for sales skills

The big data we’ve been discussing for the sales training world now exist. Over the past 20 years, 3,500 companies have measured more than 400,000 salespeople before and after training, using validated skills assessments that measure gains in both knowledge and application. Here are just a few findings from this study.

Sales Call Planning

  • Salespeople have a reasonable amount of knowledge (64 percent), but the ability to apply sales call planning skills is surprisingly low (37 percent).
  • A post-training application score of 82 percent shows that salespeople are using nearly all of the new knowledge (83 percent) they acquire in training.
  • A 121-percent skill gain in application suggests that sales call planning is the most important skill on which to focus. 

Presentation Skills

  • We expect salespeople to be great presenters, so it was surprising to learn that they were only applying 37 percent of what they knew before training. With a 111-percent skill gain, it is the most surprising skill development opportunity turned up by the study.
  • This skill had the biggest pre-training gap between knowledge and application (30 points). Training dramatically closed the gap to eight points.

Gaining Commitment

  • Salespeople and sales managers admit that this skill represents their greatest weakness. With pre-training knowledge and application scores of 56 percent and 36 percent, respectively, the study agrees with their assessment.
  • Since gaining commitment from buyers is the principal duty of all salespeople, this skill gap is a huge problem. After training, salespeople improve by 119 percent – a big win for everyone.

What’s next?

More studies are in the works using this treasure trove of data. With 78 million data points and 20 years of history, the analytics opportunities are endless. Here are some topics currently under investigation:

  • The data are being sorted by industry, providing remarkable insights into the uniqueness that exists within each industry’s sales challenges.
  • Learning trends are being measured to gauge the effects of sales training innovations such as e-learning and different reinforcement techniques.
  • Tribal learning (in which all customer contact employees receive sales training) is being compared to situations in which only the sales force is trained.


Thanks to this mountain of validated skill measurements, sales training ought to evolve at a rapid pace going forward. With more than two decades of historical data, we’ll quickly be able to understand what’s working and what isn’t.

Until this big data became available, the sales training world had only hunches based on opinion, not solid knowledge based on facts. We couldn’t know whether or how sales training would produce reliable gains in job performance. Now we can.