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Go-to-Market Innovation at the Intersection of Business and Technology

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Why (Most) Sales Training Fails

January 10, 2010 , , ,

David Maister is a noted author and consultant who has been recognized as one of the world’s top 40 business thinkers. He published an interesting blog recently on the misuse of training within most organizations.

“I now believe that the overwhelming majority of all business training, by me and by everyone else, is a complete waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of any training is ever actually put into practice and yield the hoped-for benefits.

The main reason is that companies keep trying to bring about changes in behavior by training their people in new things, and then sending them back to their operating groups subject to the same measures and management approaches as before. Not surprisingly, little, if any of the training ever gets implemented.

What companies don’t seem to understand is that training is a wonderful LAST step in bringing about changed behavior, but a pathetically useless first step.”

Sales training is a classic case in point. Many sales training courses present powerful approaches for helping salespeople take new offerings to market by targeting buyers who can achieve compelling benefits through the use of those offerings. Yet, at best, these courses typically have a short-term effect. In essence, they become motivational activities with a very limited lifespan, when what is really needed are measurable and sustainable improvements in sales performance.

There have been a number of studies on creating lasting changes in behaviors. Perhaps the most influential of those studies was one conducted by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who wrote the 1971 bestseller, Psycho-Cybernetics. In that book, Dr. Maxwell introduced his theory of the “21 Day Habit”, which suggests that new habits are formed when repeated continuously over a twenty-one day period.

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle introduced the concept of “Deep Practice”.

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways, operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it”.

The graph below reinforces the premise that improvements in learning retention rates only come through active engagement and practice of a new skill.

We all know how important effective coaching is for high-performance teams. Yet many sales managers still send their teams to training courses without ever attending the courses themselves. How are they supposed to develop competency in their teams if they have no idea of what they should be coaching or reinforcing in their people?

Frankly, we don’t believe that first-line sales managers are to blame. Their behaviors and priorities tend to reflect the culture and processes (or lack thereof) put in place (or not) by their senior leadership teams.

Many senior leaders in IT companies came to positions of power and responsibility in the “build it and they will come” era of IT. Business acumen and executive-level consultative selling skills that had been honed to a fine edge in the old IBM mainframe era, gave way to an imbalance toward technological prowess as the key trait desired in their IT sales teams.

With each new technology innovation being commoditized at a break-neck pace, the real source of competitive differentiation in today’s world no longer comes from what you sell; it comes from how you sell. But in most vendor or SI organizations, the go-to-market strategies and processes tend to be stuck back in the outdated “technology push” model.

Our experiences around the globe with Cisco and its partner ecosystem have shown David Maister’s comments to be spot on.

Innovating the go-to-market approach within the Cisco sales ecosystem is going to take a fundamentally different approach to talent development from senior leaders. What is needed is an approach that first looks at defining the kind of customer buying experience that will differentiate them in the IT marketplace. The next task at hand should be to craft a structured change management plan for getting from the “as is” state to the “as desired” state. Then, and only then, should any sales training begin to be rolled out. Most importantly, in order to make those new selling behaviors stick, training must be followed up with consistent and congruent coaching on real-world opportunities.

In other words, create the “learn, then do” opportunities needed to let salespeople struggle enough with the new behaviors, that they will have an opportunity to become as competent with those new behaviors as they were with the old ones. Typically, effective coaching of new sales behaviors will require some outside assistance. However, it is critically important to have those coaching skills transferred in-house to the first-line sales managers as quickly as practical.

Delivering sales training is easy. Changing selling behaviors is tough. But updating your sales approach is essential if you want to achieve real relevance and differentiation in today’s highly-competitive marketplace.

For a more detailed overview of how to drive meaningful and sustainable performance improvements within your sales organization, click here to be directed to a thirty-eight minute video that we were commissioned to create for Cisco last year. It is entitled, How to Innovate Your Go-to-Market Strategy.

Good luck and good selling!

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  1. Outcome Based Selling – Next Generation Sales Success | The ASPIRE! Group Blog reblogged this and added:

    […] short it’s often a cop out.  David Maister says it best in this article on why (most) training fails.  One point that David raises is that the act of sending a sales professional on training is a way […]

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