Leonardo DiCaprio, as 1990s penny-stock tycoon and convicted fraud Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” addresses a seminar of aspiring brokers on how to make a sale. He opens the presentation by asking attendees, “Sell me this pen.” No one’s answer is adequate, and he goes down the front row as each man fumbles with unsuccessful pitches.
In the real world, sales training leaders focus not only on the skills they need to develop in their employees but also how they deliver content, who they target and what they need to do to get buy-in from learners. A study conducted in July by the Rapid Learning Institute, a Pennsylvania-based training provider, showed companies that offer robust sales training programs can outsell organizations without training by 20 percent, yet only 36 percent of managers surveyed said their companies devote enough time and training to employees.
Why the disparity? Stephen Meyer, CEO of Rapid Learning Institute, an online training company, said starting any training program is risky because employees might not like it or the organization might not have time to deploy it correctly. Many managers lack the confidence to start a program, fearing failure. Others see it as a time vampire that will suck efficiency from the sales force. To make sure sales representatives learn what they need to and embrace the learning experience, first leaders need to make sure they teach the right skills.
Skills on the Syllabus
The real Jordan Belfort said in an interview shortly after the release of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that the secret to selling the pen lies in learning the customer’s habits and needs, then explaining how a product or service can solve his or her problem.
Whether that’s the sales approach an organization wants to take, or if there’s a method it prefers, success in sales comes down to establishing a relationship. To do that, the representative has to be able to communicate.
“After the nice-nice chitchat occurs, what are you going to do next?” said Charlie Brennan, president of Brennan Sales Institute. “The high performer always knows what to do next. They can anticipate, they tend not to be at a loss of words, and more importantly, the high performer does not deploy too many words.”
Midlevel performers, however, lack the ability to conduct a solid conversation and tend to avoid having difficult interactions, such as working with an uncooperative or uninterested customer.
Brennan said these communication errors can be fixed and productivity can increase if the sales representative recognizes that for the most part customers generally say and do the same things. For example, if one person points out to the other that he or she hesitated while answering, the second person will elaborate.
Understanding that and other patterns can help salespeople take control of a conversation by helping them know what to say next. “What’s my response, where will that lead me, what’s my end goal?” Brennan said. “This is where it becomes fun. It’s a nice choreography.”
Knowing the dance steps to conduct meaningful conversations sets the foundation for a relationship between the rep and customer, but it doesn’t end there. Once rapport is established, it’s up to the salesperson to continue building it. When customers know what a product can do for them, they feel they no longer need to move forward with the company. Keeping the relationship up to date takes diligence, confidence and product understanding, Brennan said.
Of that list, knowing what’s being sold seems to be the easiest; however, it can often be a roadblock for reps who already communicate well. At software company SAP’s education division, products consistently change. Brandon Chisholm, senior manager for global and go-to-market sales channels, said the organization’s training efforts have to adapt quickly to teach the sales force a growing portfolio of options for clients.
Effective salesmen are often thought leaders and they have to be, said Lori Williams, vice president of marketing and channel sales for SAP’s North American education division. With increased access to online resources, many customers already have done product research by the time a rep gets to them. “You need to come to the table with not just a novel product but also a point of view on how all those things fit together,” she said.
Calling Class to Order
Teaching the right people is as important as teaching the right skills. Delivering training to the lowest performers seems obvious, but it may not be the best approach. At SAP Education, the bottom 45 percent of sales performers engage in more training than anyone else but still fail to make the numbers. “That tells us no matter how you slice it, some people are not meant for sales in that particular organization,” Williams said.
Don’t assume every low performer is doomed to poor performance for life. With the right encouragement, a few could jump into the midlevel performer group. Williams said 70 percent of her “B”-players participate in at least 80 percent of the programs.
The best performers use very little training at all. “If you gave them nothing but a stone tablet, they would find a way to get the information they needed to help their customer,” Williams said. “If they ask for it [development help], just give it to them because they’re going to rarely ask.”
Once leaders identify who to train, then it’s time to sell training to the salespeople. If someone is performing adequately, it can be a tough task; they may not feel they need help. To get buy-in, learning leaders need to show learners how their programs can help close deals and open new ones.
Getting management on board helps. Ryan Casey, manager for global curriculum design and development at pelvic device and therapy company American Medical Systems Inc., said partnering with management was critical to his organization. The marketing and sales teams develop the content, and the learning function delivers it.
“To make learning happen, you need to prepare the canvas for the paint,” Brennan said. “If the management team isn’t prepared for the learning, there’s a good chance it won’t stick.”
Sell programs to management by outlining what it can do for the organization. Better trained reps make more sales and therefore generate more revenue. But reps trained to communicate and create relationships help in several ways. They make better managers, drive productivity and help an organization stand out as one that aligns with changes in product and client needs.
Life of a Salesman
Although the traditional 70-20-10 learning delivery model points to on-the-job experience as the best way to develop professional skills, Brennan said a sales representative’s high activity level doesn’t always allow improvement. Instead, being in a high-demand environment can turn bad behaviors into bad habits.
To combat this, learning should be controlled but still experiential, interactive and relevant. Brennan said learning has to mirror day-to-day activity. When teachers start to describe scenarios students faced, they show them how to remedy their actions.
“It’s not trial and error, it’s trial and editing, trial and growth,” he said. “There’s that nice give and take, and that’s what happens when you set up a learning scenario in a safe environment … but then challenge people to get to that next level.”
Classroom sessions can be great to give a true-to-life example but the pace of the work and bringing in reps to draw on past knowledge is not only tricky, but also impractical as well. Mobile learning can help. SAP Education’s learning management systems give employees chunked out information on their devices so “reps now in the parking lot ready to go in to see someone can quickly refresh by a quick video, a white paper, a write-up on a sales play … right from their iPad,” Williams said.
Casey’s team uses a similar approach at American Medical Systems to help employees retain information learned in a formal setting. Using a program called QStream, leaders were able to evaluate employees weeks after an event to find out what lessons stuck. Every answer an employee gives is returned with an explanation as to why it’s right or wrong, which refreshes and reinforces the curriculum.
But as literally and figuratively handy as mobile learning can be in a sales arena, real-life interaction is still the most effective teaching method. “Never let it be thought that something I pick up on my mobile device through a creative app is ever going to stop me as a rep from calling back on those experts and friends I met in training,” Williams said. “As much as things change, things stay the same, and at the end of the day people really do learn from people.”
Learn about how SAP trains its sales force in the sidebar to this article, "Sales Training the SAP Way."