Back in the 1970s, IBM was the gold standard of sales training. They would put their salespeople through a program that lasted up to six months and relied heavily on high-intensity role plays and simulations. While brutal for the students, the end product was salespeople who were accustomed to high pressure selling environments and who weren’t afraid to work whatever hours were necessary to successfully navigate a sell cycle.
When I got into sales in the late 80s, companies were still, for the most part, willing to invest heavily in training their salespeople on the best practices of the day. Many programs that I went through -- including my introduction to ones that specialized in how to sell complex, often disruptive, expensive offerings to diverse buying committees -- were the proverbial “walk of fire.” Although not six months in length like the IBM model, they were nonetheless multi-day, intensive programs that required commitment, focus and late nights of casework.
Then, as time went on, I noticed the length of time of most training agendas -- and coincidentally the corresponding investment requirement -- began to erode. Sales organizations and the executives who ran them seemed to come to the conclusion that employees didn't need a whole week of training; they could accomplish the same in one or two days. The advent of CBT -- that's Computer-Based Training for any of you who are not old enough to remember the term -- and its sexy successor, e-learning, became the excuse everyone needed to justify what would ultimately prove to be an ineffective solution.
Over the years, I have seen companies fall into a disturbing pattern of “train-fail-rinse-repeat.” In other words, when faced with underperforming sales organizations, someone, usually the VP of Sales, decides the company needs to train their salespeople. They then venture forth into the marketplace, much the way their buyers do, and evaluate various sales methodologies and approaches based either on the recommendations of their peers on LinkedIn, general internet research or worse, becoming enamored of whatever the “bright and shiny” methodology du jour is.
Then they face a real challenge.
Often times, the vendors in the sales training space fail to effectively communicate the value they provide, usually by not even following their own approach, and they immediately cave to not only price pressure, but more significantly, time pressure. Their customer demands that what used to take a week to accomplish must now be done in a day or two and sadly, the training vendor acquiesces. But logic says that you can’t magically compress 96 hours into 48, so something has to give.
And that something is usually the most time and resource-intensive part -- the role play, skill development and case study exercises. Without these components, the training becomes an intellectual experience that makes sense to everyone, but since no real behavior modification has taken place, salespeople leave with some interesting knowledge and perspectives, but then default back to their old ways of doing things.
With no real behavior modification and often, only lip service support from first line management, nine months go by and nothing changes. No improvement in revenue production. No improvement in forecast accuracy. Long sell cycles that continue to die the slow death of no decision. Then management decides they must have done the wrong training.
Train. Fail. Rinse. Repeat.
In order for companies to break this vicious cycle, they need to recognize that as much as their salespeople need training, they need behavior modification more. Salespeople will only embrace and succeed with a new approach when they believe they can be more effective, make more money and achieve their personal goals and objectives by changing the way they do things. That will only happen when they experience that change firsthand through the self-discovery process of leaving their comfort zone and actually trying to do things differently in a controlled and facilitated environment.