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What Do You Want In an Internal Sales Trainer?

Approximately 10 years ago, I accepted a corporate role and approval to bring on 22 new sales trainers and coaches. These trainers and coaches would be hired at local properties across the country with a “dotted line” reporting to me. In my mind, filling these jobs was a simple premise – just promote high performing sales reps or managers into these new roles as an internal sales trainer.

As it turns out, there was nothing simple about this. The perceptions I was up against included:

  • Moving from sales or sales management into a training role was not viewed as a promotion.
  • Trainers should make far less money than people who sold and no variable pay was possible.
  • This was a good way to move a sub-par seller into a different role to avoid firing them.
  • To be a trainer, the main qualification was a sparkling personality and a focus on fun.
  • No training experience was needed so long as the trainer knew all about the product.
  • No selling experience was needed so long as the trainer knew how to conduct training.
  • No industry experience was needed so long as you brought in an experienced sales trainer.
  • Coaches are “spies” in the field so we need people who will help us get rid of underperformers.
  • Having a trainer or coach would alleviate sales managers of most people responsibilities.
  • Trainers could also take on recruiting, special initiatives, reporting and administrative tasks.

In most of the markets, we sorted through these misperceptions and hired good sales trainers and coaches who (mostly) were able to focus on the work of training and coaching. In some cases, the local markets learned by trial and error. Making the case for dedicated sales trainers who had experience in sales, training and the industry was tough. In most places, I pushed for selection of people with selling and industry experience and the right traits to pick training up quickly. We ended up with a fantastic team of people that I was truly blessed and honored to work with.

Since then, I have worked as an independent consultant in 20 more companies that were bringing on sales trainers. Their misperceptions have been similar and were sometimes magnified in a climate of budget cuts, a weak economy, and increased competition.

The Most Prevalent Misperception About Hiring an Internal Sales Trainer

Out of all these misperceptions, the most prevalent is this one – if you put someone with sales experience into the role, they will magically be able to train others (even with no training in how to be a trainer). Note that this does not say someone with a stellar track record in sales, because most sales managers resist the idea of taking their best off the street. Unfortunately, the majority of people initially proposed are those with lackluster sales performance but a long history with the company. This is the last stop before retirement.

When I’m in the mix early enough, I try hard to educate the decision maker about what it really takes to be a good sales trainer. I share my competency model that outlines the traits needed for being successful in teaching and transferring skills to others. I show the impact a solid sales trainer can make vs. one who is filling a seat because the company thinks they have to offer training but isn’t really making a genuine commitment to it. I help them to see that there are, indeed, some top performing sellers who are willing to make the move to training because they see it as a higher calling for them. And, whenever possible, I strive to get the compensation for the job at a level that is truly commensurate with the contribution a good sales trainer will make to an organization.

It isn’t easy.

What surprises me is this. Informally, I’ve asked colleagues and even polled sales discussion groups about their preferences in a sales trainer. Almost unanimously, the feedback I get says the right person must have sales experience and a successful track record. Everyone seems to want this, but no one seems prepared to pay for it or to recruit seriously for it. The “best” sales reps and managers are frequently discouraged from making moves like this, either by steep pay cuts or by denial of the opportunity to take on these roles.

But there are people who have made the move into training roles despite pay cuts, the loss of perks, and the loss of organizational esteem. When I talk to them, they say they’ve made the move because it gives them a new challenge or it satisfies an intrinsic desire to give something back or to leave a legacy. Every once in a while I do run into someone who says they were burned out by the selling grind and/or they wanted more stable pay. But the vast majority of top sellers who leave selling for training had noble reasons that most people just don’t understand.

In my book, that is a strong indicator of the right person being selected for the job. That internal drive carries them a long way as they develop expertise as trainers. That “fire in the belly” makes them go after training to equip them for their new roles. They don’t pretend to be trainers just because they are able to stand up and entertain a crowd while they recite product features. Instead, they buckle down to learn about the science behind adult learning principles, the principles of instructional design, the methods for learning transference and sustained behavior change, and the competencies of being a bona fide internal sales trainer. Many pursue a formal education and credentials that demonstrate their commitment.

Along the way, some of them get derailed. That’s usually by an internal misunderstanding that the only time they are actually working is when they’re in the classroom. The assumption that they have lots of free time means they end up wearing multiple hats. Ultimately, this dilutes their training impact and curtails their self-development. Training goes back to being an afterthought even though someone is now the Manager or Director of that afterthought.

So what do you want in an internal sales trainer? Has your organization set them up to be successful by selecting the right person and enabling them to do the job well? If not, why not?

Next week, we’ll look at the misperceptions and mistakes made when hiring an external sales trainer. 

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