Sales Skills Training to Combat Skills Deficiencies

sales training challenges

Four out of five companies worry they are not giving as much sales skills training to salespeople as they need

Companies are struggling to train as many salespeople as they want on the skills they need, but it’s partly a product of their own doing.

According to a new joint survey between my company, Corporate Visions and Sales & Marketing Management magazine, nearly 80 percent of companies say they are not able to train as much as they want primarily because of pressure not to take salespeople out of the field.

Ironically, when we asked “who is the primary decider of what training salespeople should get,” the No. 1 answer was “their manager.” In other words, the very same people who struggle to justify time out of the field.

Sound like a conflict of interest? That’s because it is one.

Faced with the contradictory pressures to drive the business or take time to hone their team’s skills, the majority of managers are opting to take a pass on the training, according to 56 percent of respondents. The next-highest reason for limiting training reach was budget constraints, which ranked a distant second at 37 percent.

Three big training challenges and possible solutions

Faced with this kind of pressure, senior sales management and training leaders need to reconsider their options when it comes to providing the necessary skills development. Here are three considerations in the form of challenges/solutions your company will need to wrestle with if you are struggling with this same dilemma:

  • Competency models tied to key performance indicators vs. generic roles and responsibilities curriculum
  • Custom learning paths vs. arbitrary learning paths
  • Flexible, just-in-time and online options vs. rigid, scheduled and classroom-only option
  • Competency model-driven training curriculum

According to Sirius Decisions, 70 to 80 percent of companies do not follow a competency-based training model, meaning there’s no standard set of skills that salespeople need to master, and no agreement about what level of proficiency they must show.

What’s a reasonable roadmap for developing a competency-based training program? One idea is to build a competency model around the three “value conversations” salespeople must master across the buying cycle. These value conversations are tied to the critical moments of truth in any deal cycle.

•   Pipeline (Create Value™) – Provide training, practice and coaching on the ability to disrupt the status quo, convince a prospect or customer of the need to change, and then effectively differentiate from competitive alternatives to create more qualified opportunities.

•   Proposals (Elevate Value™) – Provide skills development and tools to improve the ability of reps to connect external factors and key customer initiatives to your solution, and then build a meaningful business case that communicates value and passes muster with key executive decision makers.

•   Profits (Capture Value™) – Provide concepts and techniques to make sure your reps don’t let value leak and margins suffer as the deal makes its way through the process and you confront the inevitable pricing pressures as you run the procurement gauntlet.

By ensuring reps are being trained, coached, measured and certified on these value conversation skills, you’ll improve the relevance of your curriculum relative to sales’ key performance indicators.

Custom learning paths based on performance indicators

With a competency model in place, you can now replace your outdated “arbitrary learning paths” with custom learning paths designed to up-skill salespeople in the areas they actually need, as opposed to relying on unreliable manager opinions or generic role- or tenure-based development plans.

Helping to make this easier is the fact that data is available from several sources, which can help determine each rep’s specific area of training needs. For example:

•   You can look to your CRM system to find which reps are struggling to create pipeline sufficient to meet their quota.

•   You can see which reps tend to have deals and proposals get mired in the middle of pipeline because they struggle to get executive-level buy-in.

•   You can look at deal data to see which reps are the most unscrupulous about discounting and pricing.

Using these performance indicators, you can begin to assign the appropriate training to your reps, helping you address the areas of greatest concern. You can also consider behavioral outcome type assessments that help determine the skills gaps associated with each of the competencies in your sales model. Well-written surveys that include benchmark data for comparison to low and high performers can help you prioritize which reps need help in which areas.

Flexible learning modalities

Competency models and custom learning paths won’t help your reps unless you can get the right training to the right reps at the right time. As the survey revealed, time is the biggest enemy of a great training program. In traditional classroom learning, reps are often waiting to attend a scheduled class in a city near them that may be months out from when you have determined their need, only to have that date come and the rep’s manager decide they can’t leave the field (or, perhaps a travel freeze could keep them grounded in their home office).

Imagine being able to push virtual, modular content to each of your reps, as soon as you determine gaps and deficiencies in their performance? The idea of just-in-time, situational learning is a reality with modular online sales training options, which can intercede in real time when an acute performance challenge is identified, creating a custom learning path.

Classroom training may still be perceived as the standard when it comes to driving behavioral change in the field. However, valuable as that format is, it will have zero impact if you can’t get reps into the classroom when they need it.

That’s why companies need virtual training formats that aim to replicate the training rigor of a classroom setting. This virtual format should be based on competency models, custom learning paths and situational learning modalities that improve reps’ performance without removing them from the field.

Evidently this is becoming more obvious to companies, with 65 percent of respondents indicating they plan to increase spending on virtual, modular training formats. Meanwhile, investment in instructor-led classroom sales skills training — perceived as the most effective in terms of driving behavior changes — is set to remain flat, according to the survey.

Clearly, there’s growing interest in virtual training, but the survey results suggest that the quality of the format hasn’t caught up to the demand. In fact, only 9 percent of respondents rated virtual training as the most effective for behavior change compared to classroom (45 percent) and manager-led coaching (39 percent).

But, given the choice between getting no training and getting some training — in particular, training that is tied to key competencies and customized to performance indicators, and can be pushed immediately — we may have reached a fundamental tipping point in the area of sales skills training.

Check out Corporate Visions’ State of the Conversation Report: “Beyond the Classroom,” to learn more about how these trends are driving significant changes in sales training.

This article originally published in Sales & Marketing Management Magazine.

Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer

Chief Strategy Officer

Tim Riesterer has dedicated his career to improving the conversations marketers and salespeople have with prospects and customers. His books, “Customer Message Management”, “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale”, “Three Value Conversations”, and "The Expansion Sale", focus on improving market-ready messages and tools that marketers and salespeople can use to win more deals. As chief strategy and research officer for Corporate Visions, he sets the direction and develops products for this leading marketing and sales messaging, content and training company.

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