Chapter 9 Training or the Lack of It – Innovative Selling


Training or the Lack of It

This chapter deals with the concept of sales and product training, in general, backed up with the overall research carried out in Australia and overseas. The decline of comprehensive training and a move toward e-training methods is disturbing. I put this down to taking the easy way out, namely, relying on students of this craft, learning from a screen. I have no objection to e-training being mixed in with the training curriculum; however, training coaches using this format as the primary learning method are short-sighted in their own craft of coaching. They themselves are in need of re-training.

Importance of Combining Product and Sales Training

Both product training and sales skill training are important to increase the knowledge and expertise of individual sales team members. Which of the two, however, is more important? Which has the larger impact? Before I answer that question, let me define the differences between the two training methods to make sure that we are all on the same page. These can both be conducted simultaneously, and how do we measure the overall productivity?

Product Training on Its Own

Product training focuses on the nuts and bolts and technical product information and features—educating your sales force on the functionality of what the company sells, specifically, what the product (or service or solution) is, what problems it’s intended to solve, how it actually works, and what it costs in its various configurations. Product training should also include competitive products as a measure of what you are up against in the market. In addition, product training provides a sense of company understanding and what philosophy the organization stands for. Finally product training ensures the sales person and there intermate knowledge of what they sell.

Sales Training on Its Own

Sales training, on the other hand, is less about the product than about how to help the prospect or customer relate the product’s capabilities to their needs. Most products and services these days need to be configured or applied, tailored, integrated in some fashion in order to maximize the ROI, (return on investment,) that the client sees in their purchase. In other words, it’s about creating value for your customer.

As a result, sales skill training teaches how to converse with the prospect about their needs and how to collaborate on solutions. The goal is to give sales people the confidence to go out and discuss “how” their products can be used to deliver results. The ideal environment for sales skill training is small groups that promote interactivity, application of what has been learned, and group discussion along with active role-play.

As we have discussed in previous chapters, in-house sales training is useless without field sales coaching on a regular basis; anybody that argues otherwise is either not qualified to coach or is in a 60’s mindset.

So, can you bring together both, product training and sales training? Yes, as long as field coaching is conducted soon after.

Longer-Term Value of Training

Research has found that about 85 percent of sales training has no lasting impact after 120 days. This is a serious concern and puts into question why we conduct training in the first place. Yet companies are spending billions of dollars worldwide on sales training each year. A consideration of the sales training dollars being spent is overwhelming. CSO Insights conducted a study in which they segmented the data on the basis of how sales organizations rated their sales training programs. CSO Insights found that only over 9 percent of the respondents rated their sales training programs as having “exceeded expectations,” while 33 percent rated them as having just “met expectations.” The largest category was “needed improvement,” at 53 percent.

Sadly enough, this percentage of sales people failing to get what they needed from their sales training is a direct indictment of sales training companies and company leaders delivering the wrong training courses.1

The Importance of General Product Knowledge

Product knowledge is the most important tool for leading and closing business. It instills faith, trust, and respect in the customer, creating a positive customer experience. I call this the me in selling. In addition, product knowledge correctly aligned with customer needs creates a closer partnership.

Answering Customers’ Questions with a Degree of Confidence

Answering difficult questions without adequate product knowledge shows you up as someone deficient in product knowledge. Yes, you can say I will get back to you soon with the answer, but if this becomes routine, then you need to readdress product knowledge as soon as possible.

Today’s product training is in many cases fragmented, utilizes online training courses, and deliberately removes the one-on-one training needed to field specific questions that come up during the training sessions. Online training can be good, and I have often incorporated this type of training. However, without a mentor or trainer in the flesh, you are not sure if the direction you are going in is the correct one. Training doubts and unanswered questions slow down training, and information is not connected.

Product knowledge tests are vital but have lately been turned into “select one of the following four answers.” How much luck is involved in this type of test? I would prefer that test answers be put into sentences rather than just picking the selected answer. Having the actual product in our hands and seeing and playing with it is vital to the brain association and formulation of a sales presentation mode.

Competency Based Training

As a competency-based trainer, to me there is no other way to train. In the end as a student you need to explain what the answer is and not take a stab at a selection of 4 answers. Having the key knowledge ensures the company has at least done their job of product knowledge.

See, Touch, Fiddle, Play with Is Real Learning

Studying from a manual is, to a degree, limited until the product materializes and you are able to see the product in action. The combination of feel, touch, volume size, color, and mechanical workings puts together a picture each student needs. Progressing from this point onward is far easier to dig deeper into this product knowledge process.

Is There a Need for Qualified Sales and Product Coaches?

I urge all coaches and sales managers who do not hold a Cert 4 in T&A (training and assessment) to incorporate continual verification testing (CVT). Having a design, training, and assessment qualification sets the coach up for competency-based training and can issue a certificate of learning and competency, legally. Any person in a coaching or training position must have this qualification now. If you are being trained by a coach that does not have a Cert 4 in T&A, then bring it up for discussion.

What If You Feel Your Training Is Insufficient?

If you feel your training is insufficient to progress to the field for full-on sales engagement, tell your mentor or coach that you do not feel adequately ready for field sales. List the specific areas to review. Provide this list to your coach and see what response it brings. You will get one of the following responses:

  1. That’s great, but your training has been completed, and you will need to pick up knowledge some other way. (they are saying time has run out sorry).
  2. We will put you on the next training course in 3 months for review; you start next week in the field. (saying see how you go and bring back questions in 3 months).
  3. We understand; next week, we will schedule several more days to bring you up to date. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

One does not need to spell out the right answer. If you do not receive the right answer, keep asking. If, however, your company refuses to listen, then this sends you a clear message they are not interested in the quality of their representatives.2

Should I Study at Night during Training?

I see no reason why a little post-days training review wouldn’t be useful. It needn’t be hours of review but just a recap of the material and making a few notes to help ask for clarification the next day. Training is not just about sitting there and taking in lots of information; allowing time out to review on your own time and making additional notes is smart. If however, you are not getting the product message, review back and start again.

Taking Training from the School Room to the Field

Are corporate sales training courses failing to translate into real wins for sales?

Many salespeople do like attending sales training courses; however, when it comes to their boss or coach working in the field, they “cringe.”

When you scan the web, you find a wealth of sales training courses available, with a variety of styles and “proven selling methods.” Very few, if any, disclose the failure rate of their selling method, but commonly, a sales coach or qualified sales manager working with sales team members in the field has significant results, not only in sales but also in selling skills and happiness. However, our local research study indicates that a high proportion of companies fail to provide ongoing field sales training. Most respondents said that their direct manager worked with them only once every 6 months, if that. This is alarming! If your sales manager or coach is being seen only once every 6 months, ask why?

Out into the Field for the First Time

Stay calm and trust yourself to perform.

Many managers in this circumstance tend to let you go to see what you have absorbed and fumble around. Far too many companies (especially agents or distributorships) lead this way and take shortcuts on this very important training need; in fact, I think in some companies, induction seems to play a more important role than product training; my research showed this clearly. Induction played a greater role than comprehensive product training.

What your company is doing is saving money by expecting you to fumble around, make all the mistakes, and come back with a list of product questions. This process is widespread and needs to be stopped. The research found that only a few global organizations carried out training differently.

One example of this stringent training system was the one followed by a surgical company selling tissue staplers. Training in this company was often carried out overseas. The reason was that they were not employing sales staff primarily from the medical profession, in general, so clinical and surgical training was imperative to sell in this space. This did set the benchmark for product training; the only restrictive element was the cost.3

What Does the Customer Expect from Your Product Knowledge?

In my own experience, customers, have indicated to me, they expected the following from their salesperson:

  • Honesty regarding product performance.
  • Truthful representation of the product and its capabilities and availability of the product.
  • Respect for the customer’s time and avoidance of the tendency to knock the competitor
  • Meeting the customer by appointment instead of making cold calls, and avoiding being pushy; also, following up quickly with the customer’s request.

The key fundamental here is product knowledge and sales attitude. If you have product knowledge and can answer key product questions without having to refer to an iPad, you have automatically improved your customer respect level. A good hint is not to over answer or oversupply information. Answer the customer’s questions and be alert to customer needs.

An example of over answering customer questions is the salesperson spewing out product performance or features and benefits without keeping a few in reserve for a later date.

A More Detailed Examination of Training

Sixty-nine per cent of Australian survey respondents said their company did not provide appropriate product or sales training. Of those respondents, the majority said they did not receive appropriate product training fitting the customer’s need. Of the remainder, 31 percent said their product training could have been much better. A very small percentage said their product training was sufficient.4

Not one research respondent said their training was outstanding or comprehensive.

As a sales coach, I firmly believe the two are intertwined at inception. I do not believe you can separate the two unless it is, for example, sales process update training, drawing out a specific sales skill to learn. This is greatly dependent on when and where. Both product and sales training cohere well together when the new salesperson is undergoing initial training. Product update and sales training can thereafter be separated and carried out on the basis of a specific need. This process is based on the frequency of salesperson turnover, skill level of selling, and the rate of product information uptake. New product introductions come and go, so bringing together both sales and product training is a natural process. Separating the both is a fruitless exercise.

Where Else Are We Failing with Training?

Many sales training programs neglect to provide a process and methodology that salespeople can follow to systematically move prospects through the pipeline. Without a process or methodology, training gets forgotten, and salespeople end up reinventing the wheel over and over again. For instance, if your sales manager is your coach, expect that the manager will give you limited time in the field; this is a fact seen every day in sales. I recommend that you be persistent if you are not getting attention. Keep asking for further training, and be specific in regard to the area you need to review.

Why Is Sales Training Not Universal and Consistent?

Working for 4 global companies in my career, not one sales training course was consistent with any other. The versions did differ greatly and as time went on, RTO’s came up with many different sales training themes so they were seen as new and exciting. Without having to mention the key sales training themes, they are all talking about the seven steps of the sale in their own format. To have sales training globally uniform would be impossible as too many RTOs what the business of training and will sell their own brand.

Failure to Deliver Training That Engages

Salespeople are known to leave training programs, saying things like:

“Boring, needed to engage all of us”

“Not applicable, what are they doing, it is not what I needed”

“The instructor wasn’t so hot, did not inspire me, seemed to be on another planet”

“What a waste of time, should have been at work selling”

Very few salespeople say that their training was exceptional and gave them a shot in the arm to go out there and put the new information into action. However, I have heard on a rare occasion, students saying “that was great”.

The Place of Role-Play in Training Now—Competency Training—Positive or Negative?

Adults learn by practicing, and you need a training program that engages and gets salespeople to put the new skills to use. It must also be relevant to their skill needs. This is where role-play is important. Gone are the days of sitting for hours and being lectured to for meager results.

My early memories of being picked out to do role-play was daunting, and if you performed badly, management would single you out for a serving. This leaves you crumpled but does not help you realize you have to do better. As a coach, I have used role-play on a regular basis, putting myself up first to show how it is done. Leading by example is necessary to conduct training effectively. Sales coaches should demonstrate how it is done first before asking the group to follow themselves.

Role-play is generally detested by salespeople as it leaves them with a degree of anxiety waiting to be called up next. What I suggest is to put your hand up first, offering to do a role-play with the boss or another colleague. My thought is to get it over first so you can sit back and relax for the rest of the session.5 Embrace role play as it puts you right into the actual sales situation.

Follow-Up Field Training Is Essential to Cement the Overall Message

Without reinforcement, salespeople forget learned skills and knowledge and how inspired and motivated they were, with the result that the learning effectiveness decreases.

It is a sales manager’s responsibility to conduct follow-up training. A sales manager should work with each team member 3 days per month and no less, depending on the team size. If you have a sales manager that never rides with you in the field, he or she is doing both of you an injustice. Having the company pay very high fees for outside training courses is criminal if the sales manager or coach is not conducting a structured post-training-field coach session. The more they work with you, the better sales improve.

Failures of Evaluation, Accountability, and Continuous Improvement

Few companies actually evaluate the effectiveness of their sales or product training. Sales training can fail simply because companies have no idea if it has succeeded or not. Furthermore, without evaluation, it’s nearly impossible to hold salespeople accountable for changing and improving behavior or for taking actions and achieving results.

The end result of this problem is low sales results. When this happens, fingers are pointed at the sales managers and sales staff, not at the lack of appropriate sales training. The blame for low sales always falls on the sales person or poorest performer and not up the ladder, where approval of poor training is signed off—from top downward.

A good coach should plot incremental salesperson improvement and plan field training days to cover off on specific sections required for performance. Sales managers, on the other hand, do not and have a lot of time to operate such complicated training methods. As a sales person, you need to explore your improvement and log your training future needs.

Your Skills and Performance and How They Are Plotted

Your sales performance is generally plotted by your sales manager in a confidential file. Progress, sales results, new customer opportunities, team cooperation, closing sales, and general knowledge of product and sales process are just a few items you are judged on; including your personal profile is also kept in human resources. Reviews of this information are updated and produced for a formal performance review either once or twice a year.

Apart from your sales results, you should, during your one-on-one meeting with your manager, be honest and candid.

Working in the Field Training—The Best Place for Fun

Field coaching is the most important training of all. As pointed out in this chapter, we tend not to do training well; however, if we do it reasonably, then why waste all the time and money by not measuring the results.

These results of field training, are measured in three ways:

  1. Overall sales results
  2. Sales performance assessment matrix sheet
  3. Salesperson satisfaction

When you feel you are adequately skilled and trained for your sales job and have a good and ever-improving product knowledge base under your belt, the job function seems much more enjoyable and satisfying. For those that have not experienced this field coaching style, it goes like this: Your manager will arrange a day or several days together in the field meeting customers. A good manager will ask you to prepare a mix of new and existing customers to sell to. Make the appropriate arrangements, and prepare your car, selling tools, updated customer information, and day’s sales objectives. Be very careful to review each sales call later with your manager. The review critique process is discussed later in the book for study reference. Also make sure you know where your customer resides, being late is a no in coaching.

A Notable Example of Poor Preparation Visit

When coaching interstate in my last coaching position, I arranged the above and was picked up at my hotel at 8 a.m. The salesperson did not provide me with the day’s agenda, but only confirmed the pickup time. The day progressed without an agenda .The salesperson said that this next sales call was their largest customer and that he knew the account “like the back of his hand.” We were to visit the nurse unit manager in intensive care. When we arrived, he proceeded to look at the ground floor address board for the ICU floor, and we took the elevator to the third floor, as instructed. He walked out of the lift and hesitated, not knowing whether to turn left or right.

What Do We Learn about This Common Situation?

The representative did not know his key account at all, down to the floor the ICU account was on and the direction to take on the third floor. Even the most astute representative would have done a pre-reconnaissance a week before to make sure about the floor and position of their customer, avoiding embarrassment on the day. Note that the day’s activities were confirmed a month in advance.

What we learn from this is that you must cover off on preparation right down to the basics; you need to be clear about where to drive and how to locate your customer and identify who is your target. Never go ahead without sending your coach or manager a day’s agenda a week ahead.

Check off the following tips if your boss or coach is spending a day in the field with you soon.

  • Agree on date and time for fieldwork with your boss or trainer.
  • Have agreed appointments set up and copy your boss or coach.
  • Do a small sales plan for each sales customer visit and an objective outcome.
  • Be on time for customer visits, plan sales call visit distances carefully.
  • Make sure your iPad or device is well charged.
  • Introduce your boss to the customer, and then engage the customer in conversation.
  • Keep in mind the key sales training points you need to show.
  • Remember that you, not the coach, are in charge of the sales call.
  • Post sales call, you should perform a critique so you are able to show where you did well and where you could improve, then engage your coach.
  • Endeavor to show improvement for the next sales call.
  • Always be aware of your sales plan and monthly budget with your manager, and be able to identify where you can see sales to plug the gap.
  • Do not drive to the next sales call until you have completed your own critique.
  • At the end of the day, discuss with your manager or coach key items to work on.
  • Always accept training and coaching advice.

If you can follow the foregoing ideas, you will do very well.

How Do We Stack Up as Sales Trainers versus Our Overseas Counterparts?

Sales training as it is today appears not to be working. The e-learning industry reports that 47 percent of training hours were delivered by instructor-led classroom setting, suggesting that face-to-face training seems to be declining. It is much easier to ask students to watch a video or take an e-training course that frees up management’s time. Believe it or not, this number increased 3 percent as compared with that in the previous year, and one would suggest that in 2020, it would be greater. The yearly spend on sales training is increasing year after year. American companies are spending about twenty billion dollars a year on sales training, but I wonder how much is spent on follow-up field training. A lot of companies are making huge profits from engagement in such training. This is not accounting for in-house company-based sales training; some companies use both.

Figure 9.1 Sales training engagement

Miller Heiman Group makes a case for sales training and have published results saying that training from outside companies “meet some of our expectations.” Only 26 percent of the survey exceeded the majority of expectations, and many reported few or low initiatives taken home.

From the salesperson’s point of view, your company will choose the registered training organization (RTO) to come in and run sales training. With regard to product training, your company will, generally, perform such training. The sheer fact that your company is employing outside sales training says several things. For example, the company is not equipped to perform sales training from within, and it relies on outside RTOs to keep up to date with current market sales trends.

How Do We Improve Training?

Improvement starts with management and budgeting. Sales and product training are core functions, apart from securing sales. Training and sales go hand in hand, but some companies see this differently, even to the point of diminishing the need to train, usually for budgetary reasons (which is understandable) or not having a trainer in-house. However, leaving sales staff to their own devices in the field allows bad habits to continue and become entrenched with the end result of the wrong company message being passed on.

Sales results continue to diminish, and field happiness diminishes to the point where either a few leave or many leave en masse. One company I was close to during the 2015 to 2017 period lost over thirty-five sales staff nationally for a myriad of reasons, including gross unhappiness, poor sales, overbearing senior management, overpricing and not being competitive, and a feeling of superiority to others. Customers picked up on this and started to abandon the product.

Tick Off Some of These Suggestions When Applying for a New Position

When seeking to join a new company for the first time, make a list of important questions regarding training. Some of the following questions may get you offside, but you have a right to seek the information. These questions can be asked closer to the selection time, perhaps when the company has you present for a third interview.

  • How long is the training period? This depends on how technical the products are.
  • Do I need to go interstate or overseas for training?
  • Is training partly in-house and partly in the field?
  • How long do I need to be in field training before running solo with customers?
  • What level of knowledge do I need as a minimum to go solo with customers?
  • What level of selling skills do I need to go solo?
  • Is the training competency based or theory based or both; are there tests involved?
  • Who will be the trainer, and are they adequately qualified?

The last point is contentious but necessary. Perhaps you can find this out in another way.6

In conclusion, training provides you with all the basic requirements that will give you some confidence in the product you are about to sell for many years to come. You have to know a lot about your product to be sales savvy and successful. Here, we are talking about pure product knowledge and product performance along with its limitations.

Once you know the basics, then sales training incorporating your competitors and their features and benefits with a selling program aligned to your products gives you an early start to engage the customer.

Without this early quality start, engagement with your customer base will oblige you to play catch-up forever. Your customers will know that you are guessing all the time and turn their back on you. However, if your product knowledge and selling skills are honed well, you will sell very well.


1 By Norman Behar, interpreted from this paper—CSO Insights. A great paper which pulls apart training and exposes the down and upside of coaching.

2 The current state of sales training US. Lack of Corporate Training as #1 Driver of the “Skills Gap” Sept 2015/This paper makes a clear case for the need for effective sales training.

3 Preparing New Sales Reps for Success: The Importance of On-the-Job Field Training and Coaching/May 1, 2017Taryn Oesch, CPTM0

4 Australian research.

5 Posted by Carole Mahoney/The science of role play to improve sales.

6 By Ashok Sharma/May 10, 2017/Corporate learning 5 Key Strategies to Improve Sales Training and Development Within Your organization/Simply, this paper describes five ways to improve sales training. Keeping it simple, following this example, is fundamentally sound.