Why Sales Training Fails: Interview with Dave Stein

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 8:51 AM EDT

I frequently hear complaints from sales professionals about lousy sales training. In many cases, the classes are just a waste of time, teaching techniques that are irrelevant to the challenges that the team faces.

To find out how to fix this problem, I called Dave Stein, the world's top expert on sales training and a frequent commenter on this blog. His company, the ES Research Group, studies the sales training market and provides recommendations to companies looking for the right training firm.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

  • Geoffrey James: Why does sales training fail?
  • Dave Stein: A lot of it has to do with the attitude that sales professionals have going in the training. A sales trainer almost tell immediately who in a group open to learning and who isn't. You'll see some people sitting back with their arms crossed, determined not to get anything out of it.
  • GJ: Why would they have that attitude?
  • DS: Sometimes it's because they're just distracted. Maybe they have issues at home like sick children. Or maybe they're worried about making their number for the quarter and they see the training as an unwelcome interruption. Or worse yet, maybe this is the day before they find out their commission structure for the year. Under those circumstances, it's not reasonable to expect sales professionals to focus on training. On the other hand, a lot of the time, they're resistant because they've been burned in the past.
  • GJ: How so?
  • DS: What happens a lot is this: a CSO in an airport picks up the latest and greatest business book and reads it on the flight, and decides, then and there, that this is exactly what the sales team needs to be successful. So he call the author, and they hit it off, and he hires the author to train the sales staff. The author comes, gives a seminar, and gets everyone pumped up. Then the sales team goes off and tries to use whatever techniques were taught and finds out that they don't work in real life situations.
  • GJ: That sounds like a great way to create lousy morale.
  • DS: It is. Sales people they get a signed copy of a book and a few ideas that didn't prove useful. And then the CSO does the same thing again, with a different author. It's flavor of the month and the poor sales guys end up feeling like their time is constantly being wasted by training that doesn't make any sense.
  • GJ: Which authors are a waste of time?
  • DS: It's not that business authors don't add value. In fact, all of them have something to teach. However, whatever is being taught does not necessarily match the needs of the individual or the needs of the sales team in general. So while it may create a minor improvement in one area of the sales process, it doesn't have enough positive impact to justify the time and expense of the training.
  • GJ: Can you give me an example?
  • DS: Sure. Let's suppose you're selling into an industry, like retail, where most of the purchasing is done by professional purchasers. In this case, many of the techniques of traditional B2B selling - like creating elevator pitches -- simply aren't applicable. Similarly, if your company is selling primarily to people who access your website, traditional cold-calling techniques are likely to be of limited use.
  • GJ: Does all sales training need to be customized, then?
  • DS: If it's going to have a major impact on revenue, then yes, certainly. Ideally, a sales training program should be implemented only after you've researched how your customers want to buy, and assessed the ability of the current sales team to address that group of customers. Only then can you know what needs to change in order to sell more effectively.
  • GJ: Beyond customization, what else is needed?
  • DS: It's actually quite challenging to implement real behavioral change in an organization. It requires not just research and customization to ensure relevance, but also a program of monitoring, measuring and reinforcement. That's why the "flavor of the month" sales training programs usually prove useless. They're promoted as a panacea, when in fact they're just a bromide.
  • GJ: Are there any sales skills that are generally useful that are always worth training?
  • DS: Yes. There are some basics that are valuable in every situation. If you're going to be in sales, for example, you need to be able to establish a relationship, assess needs, provide a solution, and so forth. Just as with an athlete, or anyone else, there's certainly some value in training those basics. However, taking your selling to a higher level generally involves precisely targeting the training to the unique situation.
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