September 30th, 2013

Sales Training Programs: Mission Impossible or Mission Accomplished?

Sales Training Programs

Sales Training Programs: Mission Impossible or Mission Accomplished?

Let’s face it.  For learning and development leaders without a sales background, being assigned to develop sales training programs can feel like the kiss of death.  Even for seasoned sales training leaders, it isn’t a walk in the park.

When you consider that…

  • ES Research Group, Inc. estimates that 80 to 85 percent of sales training programs produce no long-term impact (after 90 days) and 20 to 33 percent of sales people do not have the capabilities to do their job
  • Sixty-five percent of top sales leaders surveyed by CSO Insights said their top objective for the year was capturing new accounts, yet 67 percent of those same leaders felt that their sales team “needs improvement” in generating leads
  • ASTD’s recent State of Sales Training research reported that half of the respondents felt that 50 percent or less of the sales training programs they received was relevant to their job
  • Sales leaders don’t count “butts in seats” or care much about level 1 “smile sheet” ratings… they want sales to actually increase after training…

…it can seem like Mission Impossible.

Layer the difficulty of diagnosing performance levers and driving change in a complex organization, or the overwhelming nature of all the moving parts in the Sales Performance Ecosystem, and it can become even more daunting.

Effective Learning Systems

There is a way to tame the beast. You can follow a system and produce great results for your internal sales clients and your company.  In the process, you can establish yourself as an organizational leader who deserves the coveted “seat at the table.”


There are multiple ways, but my favorite recipe is to create what I call an “effective learning system.”  I spoke about this at the ASTD 2013 International Conference and Exhibition and at a local Dallas ASTD Lunch and Learn recently, and the concepts resonate with learning leaders and sales performance pros at all levels.  It also works.

The concept, simply, is this:

  • Create the right Content
  • Use sound instructional Design principles
  • Engage sales Managers in multiple ways
  • Plan purposefully to orchestrate training Transfer
  • Foster sales Coaching excellence
  • Get the right metrics and Measures in place
  • Plug into the organization’s larger Sales Performance Management system
  • Integrate and Align with other business leaders to develop and execute a Change plan

Create the Right Content

The best instructional design, the best learning system, the best plans for transfer… none of it makes any difference if the content, when used, won’t get results.  If you want to improve performance through sales training programs, you need to start with the right knowledge and skills, and the accurate judgment about when to use them.  If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I’m a big fan of top-producer practices and comparative analysis.

  • Analyze your sales force
  • Document the validated patterns of behaviors in your top-producers (exemplary performers)
  • Compare their behaviors to the other performers
  • Create Continue | Start | Stop lists and use the top-producer practices to fuel your content for training courses
  • Use sales managers as a content source, too… we’ll touch on that in a moment

Use Sound Instructional Design Principles

This topic alone is deserving of a series of posts, if not a book.  See this Instructional Design Primer for more detail, but…

  • Focus on outcomes and use the top-producer inspired content
  • Teach the prerequisite knowledge first and use elearning or virtual ILT to prepare participants for any ILT skill practice
  • Chunk, sequence and layer content with reinforcement and assessments built-in to increase retention
  • Reserve the time spent in ILT for complex topics and skills/behaviors with intense skill practice, exercises, activities, and role plays with feedback loops
  • Design for instructors to coach, shape and redirect learner behavior as much as possible in the time they spend with your participants

Engage Sales Managers in Multiple Ways

Frontline sales managers are the strongest performance lever you have for improving sales performance.

  • Involve vetted managers, who were usually top sales producers before promotion, in your data set of top-producers, as appropriate
  • Gain sales manager buy-in to your rep content upfront, because you need them to reinforce it later
  • Assess top-producing sales managers and also build sales manager training
  • Develop very-specific programs to help managers coach and support the rep training programs
  • Teach managers how to train, coach, and develop reps – if possible, certify the managers on the rep course content and coaching – you need them talking the talk, and walking the walk

Purposefully Plan Training Transfer

Training transfer, or the widespread use of what is taught in class once back on-the-job, doesn’t happen by accident (except with a small percent of highly-dedicated, learning-oriented and ambitious sales reps).  You need to orchestrate it.

  • Build training transfer plans into your learning process
  • Use managers to reinforce training (throughout the curriculum, whenever possible) and encourage the use of performance-support tools
  • Build those performance-support tools into other systems and use post-learning reinforcement and assessments to increase retention after class (mobile reinforcement is the latest rage and more importantly, can work very well)
  • Use social/community tools and consider gamification principles to improve retention and reinforcement
  • Connect reps and managers before, during and after training, with expectations for each, at every stage

Foster Sales Coaching Excellence

This is part of engaging your managers and fostering transfer, but important enough to call out separately. Research has proven two things about coaching … it makes a tremendous difference in performance, and yet it’s still not done frequently enough or well enough.

  • Train your managers first on the rep programs, and then train the managers how to coach
  • Have managers track rep performance throughout any prerequisite courses
  • Have managers attend training with their reps, as a coach, when possible (yes, I’m aware of the adult learning theory arguments against this, as well as the “managers can’t afford the time away” smokescreen, and will debate both vigorously with anyone)
  • Develop manager toolkits or “meetings-in-a-box” to help managers use tailored, post-program sales coaching
  • Develop ongoing support for coaching and sales manager development – coach the coaches and develop a coaching culture

Get the Right Metrics and Measures in Place

You can use measurement for both your learning efforts and to track, report, predict and influence results.

  • Agree on leading and lagging indicators for learning progress and post-class performance progress and define verifiable outcomes for both
  • Report on progress throughout training and develop reporting that compares learner performance pre- and post-class. (Consider gamification and leader boards for an improvement race.)
  • Identify leading indicators for performance and track and report them to better predict performance levels, and reinforce or coach as needed to ensure improvement
  • Report progress and challenges regularly and transparently to business leaders and stakeholders – foster a shared responsibility for results between all stakeholders: trainees, their managers, trainers, training leadership, sales leadership, and senior leaders (each own various pieces of “sales performance improvement”)

Plug into the Performance Management System

This is a separate and special call-out from the below integration efforts.   In organizations, new ways of working (replacing the status quo) rarely become “how we do things around here” on their own.  Work your way into the fabric of the business.

  • Establish a cadence of check ins, review of reports, activity, results, and methods – based on a mix of reporting, dialogue and observation – make it a habit and expectation
  • Managers coach and counsel rep performance as needed, holding reps accountable
  • Senior managers hold sales managers accountable
  • Establish goals, MBOs, or performance metrics that are woven into regular performance reviews

Integrate and Align with a Change Plan

Change rarely happens by luck.  The larger and more critical the change, the more likely that achieving it will require change planning, change management, and change leadership.

  • Link training to business strategy and involve stakeholders
  • Ask for top-down support and proactively suggest ways to help
  • Work with stakeholders to create a change leadership and change management plans
  • Communicate plans, rationales, goals, risks, measurements, and impacts through regular and open communication
  • Share success stories and find and address issues quickly

Mission Accomplished!

It is possible.  It’s not always easy, but if anyone could do it, we’d all be earning a lot less.  One challenge, I know, is to garner the attention and focus required to create and sustain an effective learning system.  It’s far different than just creating and launching a course or curriculum.

Often, people nod their heads at the principles but shy away from the actual work involved, or the commitments it requires (this especially applies, oddly, to the top-producer analysis and investing equally in sales management – the two very things that yield the best results).

People’s intentions are usually great, but the crazy-busy world we work in, often finds us focusing on the urgent, to the detriment of the important.  I’ve found it helps to remind leaders of shared goals, risks of not doing it, how the investment could be maximized instead, and the power of aligned action in getting phenomenal results (which everyone – or at least most successful people – want to be a part of).

I wish you the best of success as you work to create effective learning systems at your company and would enjoy hearing about your successes or troubleshooting your challenges.

As always, I’ll leave you with some additional related reading.

Related Reading


Click the following to learn more about Richardson’ award winning customized sales training programs.


About The Author: Mike Kunkle

Mike Kunkle is Richardson's Director of Product Development. Bringing over 25 years of experience in the sales profession, Mr. Kunkle is a training and organizational effectiveness leader with special expertise in sales force transformation. After his initial years on the front line in sales and sales management, he has spent the past 16 years as a corporate director or consultant, leading departments and projects with one purpose — to improve sales results. He led major sales optimization efforts in both B2B and B2C environments, producing significant results for both employers and clients.

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6 Responses to “Sales Training Programs: Mission Impossible or Mission Accomplished?”

  1. September 30, 2013 at 11:46 am, Christian Maurer said:

    I agree with the ingredients of the concept. Not sure I would though put Content as the center piece for success. To me Integration Alignment and Change applied to management are in the center.


    • Mike Kunkle

      September 30, 2013 at 11:39 pm, Mike Kunkle said:

      Hey Christian, nice to see you here! I can certainly see your point. It takes all the elements to really blow the doors off, so in the end, I wouldn’t debate it too heartily. At the same time, since you were kind enough to comment, I will at least share why I did what I did:

      1. This is a post about training, and making an impact with it. The training content is fairly central to that.
      2. If you align with the best integration and change management possible, but are doing all that in support of the wrong content (practices and methodologies), you will never have the maximum possible impact.
      3. I consider the alignment, integration and change leadership/management to be the final bow that ties it all together, so I had that in mind when creating the visual.

      So, for me, that’s why Content is central and why I sort of “tied them all together” with the Integration, Alignment and Change piece. But again, they’re all needed.


  2. September 30, 2013 at 5:23 pm, Dave Stein said:

    You nailed it.
    It’s no wonder that Richardson is a sales performance improvement industry leader.
    I’ll over-simplify: Am I wrong in suggesting that this is more science than art? (In other words, are the days of trainers saying, “This is what I used to do when I sold and I made a lot of money, so you need to do this…” over?)
    Cue: Chime in right now, as I know you will…


    • Mike Kunkle

      October 01, 2013 at 12:20 am, Mike Kunkle said:

      Ha! You know me well, Dave. And thanks. This is foundational stuff that Richardson does exceedingly well and produces big results.

      We’ve seen a lot of views published lately on the art/science thing. On the frontline of sales, there’s an element of art with communication and dialogue skills, at the highest levels. But even those are still logically orchestrated, follow patterns and models (like we teach at Richardson), which can be discovered and replicated, as well as honed and developed through purposeful practice and ongoing reflection, toward mastery.

      Figuring it all out takes science, but I’ll concede some “art” for the execution, perhaps like a jazz musician in the state of “flow.” But with that exception, I think we’d be far better served with a much heavier focus on the science of sales, sales management, and sales enablement/effectiveness/training. The science and “figuring it out” is what fuels the right Content (in this post), guides managers on what to focus and coach — and beyond the scope of this post but critical to overall success — helps organizations get the right people in the right roles. Art is cool, but science rules. And as a sales leader or training leader, if I’m betting the future of my company and career, you better believe I’m placing my bet on science.

      I only WISH that the “fraternity hazing” mindset (“I did it this way and you should too”) mindset were gone, but I do believe it’s diminishing. It remains a weakness for many sales managers… possibly because many companies still promote their best reps into manager roles, without regard for the necessary wiring or capabilities for success in the role. Then, when the pressure is on, they resort to “faster, harder, longer” flailing, rather than step back, take a scientific, logical approach to problem-solving, analysis and solution development, and address the issues. I wonder if this isn’t the primary reason that the average tenure of sales leaders is 18-24 months? That’s a completely different topic, but food for thought.


  3. October 01, 2013 at 5:57 pm, Paul Lanigan said:

    I’m glad you mention Jazz musicians in flow Mike….but Jazz musicians practice over and over and over and over.

    I know Dave is an accomplished pilot. Learning to fly is easy. It’s learning to keep you cool and operate under pressure. often in counter intuitive ways while your plane is stalled and heading south……

    Training in both cases (for the most part) is one one one.

    Both disciplines have clearly defined levels of competency.

    But putting all that to one side…….the biggest hurdle in any sales training endeavour is that you have to start with people who want or are open to change AND will stick with it when the going gets tough.


    • Mike Kunkle

      October 02, 2013 at 9:09 pm, Mike Kunkle said:

      Hi and thanks for your comments, Paul.

      Yes, I agree that jazz musicians (and other musicians who reach mastery) do practice regularly, and purposefully, with discipline, to reach a point where they can experience peak performance and flow. I believe sales professionals should do the same, and wrote about that here:

      If training is orchestrated and designed well, with knowledge acquisition prior to classroom ILT, a great instructor can focus on exercises, activities, role plays (practice, drill, rehearse, with feedback loops and re-application) when the class is together. Behavioral observation reports can be passed back to sales management, who can continue the post-class reinforcement and coaching… all part of the type of learning system we endorse in this post.

      It’s been along day, and I’m fuzzy, so I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “one one one” (do you mean training doesn’t often layer or grow competence in attendees?) or if you’re disagreeing with something or not, or whether you’re just commenting that most sales IS ineffective, which I’d also agree it is. Feel free to wake me up, if I didn’t understand something as you intended. 😉

      Also couldn’t agree more about having the right players in place, to start with. That’s always part of our recommendation at Richardson, too, it just didn’t seem to fit in a post about “effective learning systems” (as opposed to one on “effective sourcing and selection practices”). When you can get the right people in the right seats on the bus, and THEN train them well, it’s a double whammy. Gets even better if you have the other elements of the effective learning system in place.


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