Estimates of the size of the sales training market vary but are typically measured in billions. One estimate for the US alone put the total annual spend on formal sales training in excess of $10billion (Hair et al, 2009). If you’re a business leader thinking about undergoing a sales transformation programme consider this. Less than a third of transformations succeed as expected, with a staggering 70 percent of failures due to an organisation’s inability to adopt the required new behaviours quickly and completely (Keller and Price, 2011).
So, why does sales training so often fail to deliver the returns it promises? We set ourselves two key exam questions:
- What are the most effective methods to embed learning and development in the workplace?
- Can the impact of this learning and development be measured in terms of improved sales performance?
To answer these questions we carried out a comprehensive review of credible sales studies and academic behavioural research to identify the best ways to embed learning and to drive a change in sales behaviour that will deliver an increase in top line sales.
Sales Training Best Practice
In this first blog of the series, we explore what features of sales training make it more likely to succeed.
A meta-analysis of 144 research studies (Huang et al, 2015) found that to ensure that individuals put in maximum effort to transfer learning into their job, learning should focus on knowledge and skills. Crucially, knowledge should be tailored to the job, bite-sized and then tested on the job. It is through giving the individual opportunities to practice and to receive feedback on their efforts that will help them to turn knowledge into skills. A further meta-analysis of 117 studies by Taylor et al (2005) looked at the impact of Behaviour Modelling Training (BMT) and identified four key components:
- Training should describe specific actions
- It should show individuals how to use them
- Trainees should have opportunity to practice these
- Trainees should receive feedback on their efforts
Factors that increased the chances of an individual successfully learning a new skill included the following:
- Rule codes- these explain what to do and why e.g. “Listen carefully and respond with empathy to reduce defensiveness” rather than simply describe the behaviour e.g. “Listen carefully”
- Mental practice- encourage participants to imagine scenarios and role-play these before they act out new skills in real life
- Real life practice- provide opportunities for individuals to practice, receive feedback and adapt.
To increase the chance of that new skill changing behaviour, training should incorporate the following:
- Provide examples of both good and bad behaviours,
- Encourage individuals to create their own real-life scenarios,
- Encourage individuals to set goals that relate to the behaviour they have learned
Overall, BMT was found to be effective in enabling individuals to learn new knowledge and skills and had a smaller but more sustained impact on behaviour and job performance.
The Impact on Sales Performance
In their study Kauffeld & Lehmann-Willenbrock (2010) found that an identical sales training programme delivered in a modular or ‘spaced’ format resulted in superior implementation of the training content, self-assessed sales competence and crucially increased new customers and gross revenue performance when compared to training delivered in a single block. Spaced training delivery is defined as a number of units of training with time intervals in between as opposed to massed training where the entire training content is delivered in one tranche. The authors concluded that the results supported the theory of situated learning whereby the training was perceived to be relevant to the working environment, enabled participants to apply the learning in different situations and gave them opportunity to interact with their colleagues thereby creating an environment of support and collaboration.
In their study of 115 organisations that engaged in sales training, Roman et al (2002) found that training content was a key factor and that salespeople gain “higher performance and customer orientation when training content deals with company policy and sales techniques” whereas training that focused on product knowledge alone actually reduced salespeople’s effectiveness. The authors suggest that this is because the product training was focused on features and benefits rather than on seeking to understand the needs of the customer. Interestingly, when the sales training covered sales techniques, customer knowledge and computer knowledge, the performance of the sales force and their customer orientation increased further. In the words of the researchers “salespeople need not only to know how to make the sale, but must also understand customer needs and provide greater value by applying new technologies in order to translate their behaviours into higher sales outcome.” This is consistent with a separate study (Pollitt, 2010) whereby sales training that focused on the customer and his or her buying experience led to “additional sales that far outstripped the cost of the training.”
So, if you are choosing between training providers, consider the following summary of the evidence:
- Sales training that encompasses knowledge of the customer, the buying experience and sales techniques increases the performance of the salesforce
- Content should be delivered in bite-sized, modular format with intervals between each module to enable theory to be put into practice
- Participants should be encouraged to set goals that are linked to desired behaviour change
- Participants should have the opportunity to practice what they have learned through role-play and then on the job
- Feedback should be given after the individual has practiced so that they can learn and adapt
Bloojam are business psychologists who take an evidence-based approach to selecting and developing salespeople, leaders and sales leaders. To learn more about our Academy approach to developing sales capability in your workforce take a look at our website.
Hair, J. F., Anderson, R. E., Mehta, R., & Babin, B. (2009). Sales management. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Huang, J. L., Blume, B. D., Ford, J. K., & Baldwin, T. T. (2015). A tale of two transfers: Disentangling maximum and typical transfer and their respective predictors. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 709.
Kauffeld, S. & Lehmann‐Willenbrock, N. (2010). Sales training: effects of spaced practice on training transfer. Journal of European Industrial Training, 34(1), 23-37.
Keller, S. and Price, C. (2011) Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage, first edition, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Pollitt, D. (2010). BT Business Sales dials up a customer-focused coaching culture: Program combines new technology with tailored training. Human Resource Management International Digest, 18(4), 7.
Roman, S., Ruiz, S. & Munuera, J.L. (2002) “The effects of sales training on sales force activity.” European Journal of Marketing.
Taylor, P. J., Russ-Eft, D. F., & Chan, D. W. (2005). A meta-analytic review of behavior modelling training. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(4), 692-709.