How Not to Start a Sales Training Initiative

Thinking of starting a sales training program within your organization? There is a wealth of information available on best practices and steps to implementation success. But do you know what NOT to do? The following is an excerpt from the ASLAN Training whitepaper: The Six Pitfalls of a Sales Training Initiative. Here we will cover the first of six mistakes organizations tend to make when implementing a sales training program. For a copy of the full paper, please see the link at the end of this post.

6-Pitfalls-of-Sales-Training-InitiativeThis paper is designed to be a simple checklist of the top six pitfalls to be avoided (all learned from implementing hundreds of sales training initiatives over the last 18 years). It’s not a comprehensive list of “how to’s” but rather the most common mistakes organizations make when rolling out a training program. It can be helpful in evaluating potential outside training partners or in ensuring that your internal program is a success. Or maybe you’re an experienced learning executive who just needs a little support in convincing your “client” to embrace your recommended path. Regardless of the need, our hope is that the information provided will ensure you successfully transform your organization.

Pitfall 1 – Focusing on the What vs. the Why

All too often when developing a program, we overlook the fact that if the participants don’t believe they need to change, then training, regardless of the level of quality, is irrelevant. The first hurdle of any change initiative, whether in a one-to-one coaching session or in a classroom, is ensuring there is actually a desire to change and grow. With so much to learn, most programs are designed to jump into the learning without investing the appropriate time to ensure participants: (a) understand that change is needed and (b) understand that it’s in their best interest to change.

Often those who are behind the change initiative (very often senior leadership) are so connected to the problem that they rush, or skip altogether, the steps required to “get the troops on board.” If you are concerned that engaging the learning will be a challenge, consider the Four P’s to ensuring participants will embrace the need to change.

The Four P’s:
1. Personal Goals

People change for two simple reasons.

One – because they believe it’s in their best interest to change and two because they believe that change is possible. We will focus on the latter when we dive into Pitfall 5. As for the first, it is critical to position any sales training initiative as a resource to help reps ensure they reach THEIR personal goals and not a workshop designed to “fix them” for the sole benefit of the company – with the underlying message, “If you learned how to sell, we would hit OUR number.”

It’s critical that the tone of the program is not about “fixing them” but rather providing a resource “for them.” And the best way to accomplish this is to start with what’s on THEIR “whiteboard” – not what’s on yours. Now that’s a pretty easy concept to grasp – but if you have a large sales force, it sounds like a daunting challenge. The key? Delegate it to the front line managers.

If possible, have the managers align the sales training to the rep’s personal goals prior to the workshop. Gaining this knowledge (their personal goals) is critical to the manager’s ability to lead most effectively and should already be part of their approach to motivating their team. If involving the front line leadership is just not an option, then allocating time at the beginning of each core component of the program to ensure participants understand the personal payoff for change is a must – a non-negotiable.

Another benefit to this approach is that you will expose those who resist change simple because they have nothing on their “whiteboard” – those participants that are desperately holding on to the status quo. By doing so, you’ll help avoid future arguments about the new way to sell. If they do arise, you can quickly defuse them by returning to your other-centered objective – “We all agreed earlier in this section that if you were able to _____ it would help you ____.” In my experience, if you successfully establish an other-centered objective for change, the “unconverted resistors” will quickly determine that it’s better to remain silent than expose their emotional barriers to change.

If you plan to conduct pre-training assessments (always recommended), be careful of the message you deliver. Assessments are often designed to expose gaps vs. uncover the challenges reps face every day. It’s a subtle difference but one that greatly shapes the underlying message – on the one hand – we are here to “serve you” or on the other – we are here to “fix you.” By focusing on their challenges, you will expose the sales gaps while ensuring the appropriate message is delivered – “We just want to make sure we understand the challenges you face every day.” If this is your approach, participants end up feeling heard and see this as an initiative for them.

The Four P’s:
2. Principles

The second “P” for ensuring you address the “why” to change, is identifying the principles that support every pillar of the program.

There are fundamental laws at work for every effective approach to selling. Whether you are trying to improve response rates to emails or creating receptivity to a presentation, there are principles that, if understood, remove the mystery as to why one approach may fail and others succeed. And what makes principles so powerful in learning, is that we intuitively realize the truth.

We are all customers. We have all been on the receiving end of a message designed to influence our behavior. We know what works. So when our behavior is distilled down into a principle, the complicated gets simple and we break out of our memorized and stagnant way of doing things. Once understood, these principles provide a framework to guide hundreds of decisions. So how does this help participants embrace the need to change?

If you define and gain agreement to the guiding principles for each core competency or methodology to be learned, you ensure that the recommended approach will be embraced. By effectively establishing the first building block for all concepts to rest on, you establish a sound platform for learning. Every time you offer an alternative approach to selling or you see participants return to bad habits during and exercise, you’re able to return to the established principle. The principle that was embraced 30 minutes prior becomes your strongest advocate for change.

As you think about the content in your program, have the fundamental principles been defined for:
• Building the relationship?
• The sales process?
• How you engage a new prospect?
• Discovering needs?
• Building value or advancing the opportunity?
• Negotiating and responding to resistance?

The Four P’s:
3. Problem-Based Learning

Once the principle has been embraced, the next step is to describe situations in which the desired outcome was not achieved and the principle was ignored (the problem). Buy-in grows as participants roll up their sleeves to address the problem and share their assessments of the recommended approach. The student becomes the teacher and, if the principle is sound and applied to the situation, success is guaranteed. Now ownership of the learning objective is all but certain.

The Four P’s:
4. People

Lastly, the person chosen to deliver the program is as important, and in some cases more important, than the content itself. The recommended standard is to choose a facilitator the participants would want to emulate. When they throw out situations or challenges they face (sometimes the greatest learning opportunities), will the facilitator be able to respond in way that quickly builds credibility with the audience? Can they go off script and apply the model to any situation, based on real life experiences? If not, buy in diminishes and the learning objectives are jeopardized.

This also holds true for the development of exercises, examples, and training simulations. If left up to an instructional designer without “street experience,” participants will immediately sniff that something is off – “That’s not how we would say it!…It would never happen that way!….Customers don’t say that!….This situation isn’t relevant to what I face every day!” As soon as participants decide the program was built by a person who never “carried a bag,” the engagement level plummets.


As VP of Solutions, Sean’s passion is developing and creating a learning experience that emotionally taps into each learner, matches ASLAN’s commitment to excellence, and exceeds our client’s wildest expectations. Find him on: LinkedIn.

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