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Sales Training: Beyond the Hype

How to find training that best fits your company and culture - and how to measure results

Business New Haven
by Deborah Nason  

Sales training delivered by third-party trainers is hardly new. And it's a very big business: U.S. firms spend more than $2 billion per year on these services.

But it's a jungle out there.

So says a report released this July by the ES Research Group, a niche consulting firm in Massachusetts that advises businesses on how to evaluate and choose what it calls "sales performance improvement programs."

The ES report cautions that "Less than ten percent of that [$2 billion] total is spent with the largest of providers, leaving corporations to make training decisions from an extremely fragmented, and often incompatible pool of suppliers."

While the market selection may be challenging, the report finds that "externally provided sales training yields a higher training effectiveness than internal-only sales training."

"It can be good for an established business," agrees Ward Thrasher. "If their sales methodology is not working, they can get a fresh perspective."

With a 25-year corporate career behind him, Thrasher is assistant dean and MBA director of the University of Bridgeport School of Business. He also owns his own technical consulting firm.

Thrasher says outside sales trainers are also important resources for new companies that want to get their sales staff ramped up quickly, and for specialized companies that need training to sell technical products.

Another reason for bringing in an outside consultant is that "It gives you the '25-mile' expert [from out of town]," says Maureen Campbell, vice president of corporate services for North Haven-based H. Pearce Co., Realtors. "Someone who is not on the team [often] brings outside credibility."

And that credibility is manifested in a broad continuum of training vendors and program offerings, from large to small, customized to off-the-shelf, local to national.

Representing a small, regional sales training vendor is Gene D'Agostino, vice president of TEM Associates, based in Rocky Hill. His firm is a licensee of a national player, the Sandler Sales Institute.
"We take a non-traditional approach to sales strategies," D'Agostino explains. "My issue is not the intricacies of [trainees'] products - [instead] we help them to clear their minds."

He adds, "It's not about [sales technique] but so a buyer and a seller can have a conversation with mutual understanding, so they both know why and if they're taking the next step."

That very point resonated with TEM client David Bailey, senior partner with Franklin Management Advisory Group, a small consulting firm in Fairfield that provides advisory services to new ventures and early-stage companies.

"I wanted a better sense of the dynamics of the selling process," Bailey says. "Unlike selling [tangible] products, we're in the business of selling ideas and concepts."

Bailey attends ongoing monthly seminars offered by TEM, likening the process to learning music. "You can't just have one music lesson," he says. "You need to come back and review - you're learning a new skill."

Bailey says the return on his investment is his increased effectiveness.

"It's easier to have business-focused discussions with people," he explains. "I have a better sense of how to phrase questions; how to dig below the surface to determine what's really going on with a company. It helps me help the client focus better, which leads to better proposals."

Bailey adds that sales training has helped his communications in general and bolstered his confidence.

Virtually synonymous with building confidence is the Dale Carnegie name. Bob Dixon is president of Dale Carnegie Training of Western Connecticut, a franchise based in Naugatuck.

While Dixon's firm works with Fortune 500 companies, it mainly services companies with ten to 250 employees. Training takes the form of customized, in-house programs and "public sessions" serving participants from different organizations throughout the region (typically eight-week evening sessions on sales basics).

"We teach a piece of the sales process," explains Dixon. "We coach [participants] and have them practice so that they can go out the next day and apply what they learned. The following week, there is feedback. Everyone sets a goal for themselves."

The training is followed by a 12-month "e-learning" component, Dixon says, which consists of online reinforcement and reminders. Follow-up sessions, such as high-impact presentations and other more-specialized seminars, complement the basic sales course.

For some companies that use third-party trainers, reinforcement is an internal process. "We use outside sources to jump-start [sales training], and we use inside sources to support it" on a continuing basis afterward, says H. Pearce's Campbell.

Indeed, reinforcement is key, according to the ES Research report, which says, "Ninety percent of all sales-training programs result in a 90- to 120-day increase in sales productivity. Our research also shows that this is a temporary productivity blip, and fewer than 20 percent of companies show a sustainable productivity gain that lasts a year or more."

So, how much productivity gain is enough? For small companies, return on investment is a pragmatic matter, notes Dixon. "They just want increased sales."

However, large corporations are more focused on measuring and managing to specific results.

"If you are not getting a 20- to 30-percent sustainable increase in sales productivity - then what is the point?" asks Derek Hann, manager of strategic learning for Pitney Bowes.

Measurement is critical in areas besides productivity. Says Campbell. "We have a [before and after] measurement tool that takes 45 minutes," she explains. "It assesses skills related to listening, closing, cognitive areas, personality type (e.g., sociability, ability to bounce back). We measure new [real estate] agents against experienced agents across the U.S. It shows us where to focus training."

In addition, she says progress is measured during the sales training process in the form of assignments, meetings with managers, internal formal mentoring, and evaluations given to managers.

Some training output resists easy measurement, however.

"There are a lot of soft benefits [of training] that you can't see on a financial statement," says Thrasher. "For instance, customer service, a critical part of sales, can't be readily captured on a balance sheet. How do you measure the financial value of a more positive attitude? Sales training takes that attitude and moves it into the customer relationship."

Thrasher refers humorously to what he calls "sales weasels." He says it often takes outside mentoring to get these fast-talking, hard-sell types to unlearn certain behaviors, changing from "selling" to problem-solving and relationship-building.

Behaviors are changing on a macro level, too. ES Research reports that, "Over the past three to five years, the way buyers buy has changed. Now the Internet, independent third-party sources, and even the selling company's own Web site delay the entry of the salesperson into the buying cycle until after significant information and knowledge is already in the hands of the buyer."

Another big change is that selling per se is becoming more of a science. According to ES Research, sales is "approaching the level of discipline and design in other methodology-intensive areas such as accounting, software development and product management. A clear delineation of process versus technique is emerging, allowing a best-of-breed strategy to get established."

But is so much choice and complexity a good thing? Yes, says Campbell.

"Businesses go through cycles of philosophies," she says. "Each company has its own personality, and the best thing is to blend different people with different styles and find the right [fit] for each person."

But even with the evolution of the selling discipline, Thrasher says it comes down to something very basic: "At the end of the day, every product is replaceable by another competitor. Ultimately, you're selling yourself."

Third-Party Training: Wading Through the Options

Wading successfully through the myriad of training options requires a rigorous process says Derek Hann, manager of strategic learning for Pitney Bowes in Stamford. "There are several things a company has to [examine] before even thinking about evaluating any sales training vendors," he says. Here's his list:

Methodology. "Do we have an established sales methodology?" asks Hann. "How adaptable is it? Does the sales team follow it? Is it relevant to their activities?" Hann adds: "A sales methodology goes beyond simply having a customer relationship-management tool. Folks mistakenly believe that the technology is a panacea for any sales problems they have."

Alignment. "Is the methodology aligned with customer needs and buying patterns?"

Capabilities. "What are the sales force capabilities? Will the sales training teach the relevant behaviors?"

Massachusetts-based ES Research Group performs research on sales-training programs. In a July 2006 report, the firm offered other questions companies should answer:

Selling environments:

Do you sell big-ticket items in small quantities, or low-priced products in large quantities?

Do you make one sale per customer or many? Is your product complex or simple to explain?

Do you have many competitors or only a few?

Do you sell on price or value?

Salesperson profiles:

Are your sales people experienced or inexperienced?

Do you have high or low turnover within your sales team?

Do they function as inside sales or outside sales resources?

Do you have individual reps, account teams, or both?

Learning goals:

Do you need to improve basic or advanced selling skills?

Do you need to increase account-management effectiveness?

Do you need to improve opportunity-management capabilities?

Do you need to improve prospecting, presentation or closing skills?

Hann, who is on the board of the southern Connecticut chapter of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), advises consistency.

"If you just spread out training, [employing] the 'flavor of the month,' you'll be developing different skills in different people depending on what seminar they sat through."

After addressing the above issues, "There are some fundamental measures to use when shopping for a vendor," says Hann. These include:

Technical capability. "Is the vendor company 'e-capable' in training delivery and tracking? This is especially important if you have a sales force that is everywhere." Hann makes a point about freshness of content. "Audiotapes, for example, might have been made years ago, versus content delivered through an iPod could be made today."

Educational design. "Is the content fundamentally, educationally sound?"

Scope and breadth. "How many different topics are offered? How many levels - basic, advanced? Is the material translated into different languages?"

Reputation. "What have other customers said about them?"
ES Research also advises those shopping for training to consider how well potential third-party training firms rate with respect to program customization, emphasis on change management and results measurement.