The Sales Training Programs of the Future

The Status-Quo … Each year U.S. companies spend millions of dollars on sales training for their salespeople. And, by sales training we are talking about sales skills training not product training. An equal amount is spent on product training as well.

Sales skills programs come in all shapes and sizes. Internal training departments develop some programs. Others are purchased from one of the ever-increasing number of sales training companies. Some are delivered in the classroom – others by online training. Some are short half-day courses taught as part of a national sales meeting and others are highly-crafted sales training engagements incorporating sophisticated instructional designs and reinforcement protocols.

While the shapes and sizes are different if one looks more closely, the content of the programs are strikingly similar. Most sales skills programs are developed around classic sales topics that have been around for a very long time. Three topics constitute a lion’s share of what is delivered.

Holding the number one position are classic sales call execution programs. The program labels vary from consultative selling to customer-centric selling to some branded name, the models have different numbers of stages – for example four types of questions or five types of questions; however, the content is more similar than different. The programs are about subject areas like: selling value, asking questions, active listening, handling objections, call planning, building relationships, and closing.  Sometimes these topics are augmented by modules on emerging topics like: team selling, using social media or storytelling.

Although some might argue, we suggest the other two dominant programs are sales strategy and negotiation. Again the programs look different and do teach different models; however the actual skills and best practices being taught are more common than different.

To complete this part of the story, we should note there are clearly some exceptions to the “they all look a lot alike” position. However, we do think the basic theme of the story holds pretty well.

We should also note this is not a story about sales training being ineffective and that it is dying a much-deserved death. Nor are we saying that companies should discontinue doing sales training in these foundational topics. Regarding the first point, when you add everything up sales training has been a good investment for most companies and has earned its keep. And, it is certainly not dying.

Sales Training Challenge. So what’s the message – the message is times are changing. Today what customers expect from salespeople is changing dramatically. Today customers want sales reps to be trusted advisors not product facilitators. They expect sales reps to be knowledgeable about their industry, company, and issues at a higher level of proficiency than ever before. Customers need fresh ideas and creative insights for addressing a set of needs and opportunities that are both new and challenging.

If one believes the “times are changing dramatically” message, then the question for those of us concerned about the field of sales training becomes: What are we going to do about that? What do we think companies ought to do in addition to their present work in the foundational skills to help sales reps adjust and adapt to the changes in the buying environment?

What’s our answer? Is it about coming up with higher impact instructional designs for delivering the same content? Is it coming up with more advanced models for framing the existing content? Or perhaps we should wait for a revolutionary technology to emerge from our colleagues in educational technology?

The answer is not so easy and there may be more than one alternative. However one answer that is probably not a good bet is to suggest that simply doing what we are doing is enough.  And, of, course re-labeling what we are doing and calling it new is even worse.

To get the discussion going we suggest the focus should be on content. What are the guideposts that could be used to direct what that new content should be? Two make the short list.

First, focus on how customers are buying in today’s market and their changing expectations about how they want to interact with salespeople. If we believe the story about customers wanting trusted advisors and not product facilitators, then lets address the skill sets that will help them do that.

Second, turn to the changes that are occurring in how people function in today’s world of work.

Future Snapshot. So what might be some of the subject areas that could be incorporated into future sales training programs that would help sale reps adjust and adapt to the changing market demands? Recently we came across an interesting article in HR Review that explored the top 10 most important work skills in 2020.  We borrowed from the list some we thought would be particularly important for salespeople and then added a few of our own. Let’s take a look:

Business Acumen. Being able to integrate a business and economic perspective into customer interactions.

Adaptive Thinking. Coming up with creative and innovative solutions that are not rule-based.

Computational Thinking. Being able to translate vast amounts of data into useful information.

Virtual Collaboration. Working effectively and efficiently as a member of a virtual group.

Transdisciplinary Competency. Knowing how to integrate knowledge and concepts across disciplines and areas of expertise.

New Media Literacy. Being able to leverage new media technologies for creating and delivering persuasive conversations.

Summary. We suggest these six skill sets are candidates for subject areas to incorporate into sales training programs that would help sales reps adjust and adapt to changing customer expectations and work demands. Clearly there are others and we would be interested in hearing from our readers as to what they think the other areas might be.

Photo by Sam Howzit CC BY 2.0