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What Do You Want In an External Sales Trainer?

As Corporate Director overseeing sales training for a Fortune 500 company, I heard a lot of sales pitches from a lot of sales trainers. I had the opportunity to review a wide variety of training approaches and programs. And I saw a lot of mistakes being made in the 31 properties that had autonomy in hiring their own training vendors.

At the root of those mistakes were some prevalent and recurring misperceptions about trainers and about training.

In the 7 years since I struck out on my own, I’ve seen these same misperceptions in a wide variety of forms.

Among the most common ones:

  • Training is the magic bullet. A few good hours in the classroom will fix things.
  • Training doesn’t work for salespeople. They’ve either got “it” or they don’t.
  • Training sales people costs us money because classroom time cuts into selling time.
  • Training for sales people needs to be cut down, stripped back to the bare minimum of time.
  • Training that works in one place will work in every place.
  • Training isn’t for managers. They’re too busy to include and they know it all already.
  • Training needs to be high energy with lots of action and lots of laughs.
  • Training needs to be tough and serious. It’s a good way to separate the men from the boys.
  • Training happens in the classroom alone and is the sole responsibility of the trainer.
  • Training is optional, and we’ll pull people out to handle sales and issues that pop up.

Any one of these misperceptions can cause training to be a colossal waste of time and money. Unfortunately, in many organizations the misperceptions stack up until there is no real chance of success, no matter how qualified the training provider is.

When I conduct a needs assessment with potential clients, I probe to find out about training perceptions. I’ve turned down requests for training when I didn’t see a genuine commitment on the part of the entire team and when the misperceptions are insurmountable. Naturally, I make attempts to educate and inform, but some people hold tightly to these beliefs – probably because they’ve had some past experiences that caused them to think this way.

The simple truth about sales training is this. It does not work any better than reading a book about selling techniques. Until sellers put into practice what they have learned, nothing changes. An external trainer has zero impact on what happens after training, no matter how charged up participants are when they leave that classroom.

How many times have you heard (or said) something like this the day after training? “Great training. But we need to get back to work. We’re behind and we’ve got to get out there and sell!” What happens next is that the pressure to sell and catch up on missed work causes training participants to lapse back into old routines. They may leave training with the best of intentions… But reverting to old methods instead of immediately applying what was learned results in forgetting the training.

Training has to be reinforced by the management team, the peer group, and the culture. You can’t ask sellers to do business one way while paying them to do it another way. You can’t realistically expect them to change their selling behaviors when only a couple went to training and no one else is speaking the same language or applying the same skills. You can’t ask them to sell consultatively when your morning meetings are all about pitching product features, fire sales, and next-close contests.

The most effective external sales trainers will frankly discuss this with you on the front end. They’ll help you construct follow-up activities, field coaching, contests, and incentives that reinforce training. They’ll be there for your reps after the training, coaching them via phone or e-mail if that’s what it takes to help them work through their individual challenges when they try to apply what they’ve learned. They won’t claim that their training stands alone and will magically work by virtue of their classroom presence.

When choosing a training vendor, you should also look for one who shoots straight and has high expectations of your management team. If managers don’t support the idea of training and don’t participate in the customization of content, then this will be apparent to every sales rep. Naturally, they won’t invest themselves into anything their managers don’t take seriously. Why would they? They know that it will be something else next week, and they have to pick and choose where to invest their effort.

Your trainer needs to consult with you to understand your specific learning objectives. Even off-the-shelf programs should be customized to meet the needs of your team, your market, your industry and your product. At a minimum, role plays and case studies and skills practices should be highly relevant. A trainer is not being realistic is they think your team is going to stretch to use their imagination in class and then stretch again to figure out how to make concepts apply to their situation.

After understanding your needs and demonstrating willingness and ability to customize content for you, your training vendor should also discuss the role of the management team with you. Yes, managers should be a part of all sales training. That may mean a manager-only preview of the program or it could mean that managers train alongside sales reps. Managers cannot reinforce what they do not understand, so this is an absolute must.

Expectations for the sales team participants need to be clearly outlined, too. Training should be delivered in manageable chunks and scheduled in such a way that there is adequate coverage for participants. Uninterrupted immersion training is far more effective than in-and-out participation that is disruptive for everyone. In order to achieve the learning objectives, dedicated blocks of time have to be set aside and this investment of time needs to be clearly explained to participants. Attending portions of training isn’t going to improve anyone’s performance. The amount of time needs to be determined by the learning objectives, not by what’s palatable. If training is needed, it needs to be done right.

Finally, you want a trainer who is going to connect with your team and deliver on your learning objectives in real, measurable behavior change that accelerates sales performance. That requires more than entertaining the team. It requires being engaging and challenging the team while also adapting to meet the needs of each participant.

Good sales training can and does impact the newest sales reps and the most seasoned ones on a team. What you want in an external sales trainer is someone who knows how to put all these pieces together.  

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