Making Sales Training Stick

ADP boosted doubled its sales productivity with a strategic approach to sales training.

The business world is in the midst of transition. Many organizations continue to evolve their sales teams to be more customer-centric. The reality of the sales world today is that customers don't want salespeople to sell them a product. They want them to solve a problem. In order to do this effectively, sales organizations need to be more customer-focused at every point in the sales cycle.

This often requires new sales training. But in many cases old habits are hard to break, and much of what people learn in sales training doesn't stick. According to ES Research, 85 percent of sales training has no lasting impact longer than 90-120 days, and U.S. corporations spend between $4 and $7 billion on sales training. Companies need to adopt a holistic strategy that incorporates a cross-functional approach, new tools, and reinforcement in order to make it stick.

Business services provider ADP has approximately 5,000 sales associates worldwide. The company, known for its payroll administration, has begun expanding into other business process outsourcing (BPO) services, such as benefits administration and other human resource functions. This change required a new approach to its sales efforts, as well. "The sales force and training approach has had to change dramatically," says Ken Powell, vice president of worldwide sales enablement. "We are now helping our sales force be better equipped to help customers drive business results faster."

ADP developed a sales training initiative with sales training company Corporate Visions and e-learning provider Brainshark that focuses on collaborative learning. It uses real-world scenarios and informal learning, and integrates with activities in other departments. "Now, it's really more about creating change [at the client organization] rather than being the best at persuading or convincing," Powell says.

ADP trains its sales staff on 15 different customer-focused skills. The idea is that different techniques may appeal to different people. They include framing the conversation in a visual context, tying back to the client's "big picture" strategy, and using metaphors and analogies.

"You want to give the training in chunks so [salespeople] can absorb a technique," says Tim Riesterer, chief marketing officer at Corporate Visions. "Sometimes a big idea is so big that people don't know where to start."

Barry Trainer, managing partner at CSO Insights, agrees. "You want to give training in bite-size pieces, let them practice it, let them digest it, talk about what is or isn't working, and then have them go on to the next thing."

ADP also knows that consistency and synergy among departments help reinforce what the sales team learns in training. Working with the marketing team, for example, the company devised "field readiness kits," designed to serve up sales support information at different points in the sales cycle. Kits may include sales tools like a campaign to identify good prospects or a video about how to talk to the C-level executive at a client company.

"People who create sales tools need to deploy those tools aligned to the skills the sales team is trained on," Riesterer says. "They need to reflect the skills they've been taught."

In addition, the ADP sales staff uses actual account information during training instead of hypothetical scenarios. "It's more applicable, not conceptual," Powell says. "You can put it into context of what you're actually working on." The company also encourages salespeople to collaborate by sharing their best practices and interacting with peers during and after the training. He says salespeople are always looking for the golden nugget that will help them sell more or better. "We operationalize the best things that go on in the field."

Tools are important, but to make training stick companies must overcome old habits. "It's as much change management as it is about the training and skills," Powell says. "I believe fundamentally that it's about shifting the mind-set and having training to drive behavioral change." This requires leadership and commitment to the training, something few companies focus on.

"I believe the biggest single obstacle to sales training sticking is management's commitment to the training itself," says Trailer of CSO Insights. Sales executives may promote training, but few actually take it themselves. And those executives may contradict the training when quotas aren't being met or the end of the year approaches. "You need to have leadership buy in to [the training]. If they sit through the training, use the language, and demonstrate the techniques and principles [even at the end of the year] when it's really important, that's what impresses people," he says. "It's not what you say, it's what you do."

Powell agrees with this sentiment, and believes that his sales leaders can influence a change in mind-set. "Leaders should coach, inspect, and inspire people. They have the ability to impact more people." At ADP, frontline sales managers go through the training program and receive additional leadership training on how to coach their teams on the tactics and new mind-set.

Since creating the new sales program, ADP has generated a 338 percent return on investment and sales productivity doubled, Powell says. In addition, 115 accounts that were previously stalled or lost accounts were sold within 90 days.

For other companies looking to make their sales training stick, Powell recommends that companies consider training an ongoing strategy of learning opportunities, not a single event. He encourages constant collaboration at all levels of the sales organization and across other departments to reinforce training.

Reinforcement through technology

Reinforcement is a concept echoed by numerous experts. "Reinforcement of sales training is clearly beneficial to long-term sales success for the enterprise," says Peter Ostrow, research director at Aberdeen. ADP relies on collaboration for reinforcement. Other firms use new technologies to encourage reinforcement.

Retail software provider ILoveVelvet, for example, includes sales training modules with its software for its retail clients. Patrick Bouaziz, chief visionary officer, says the company focuses on platforms such as smartphones and tablets to serve training materials to retail sales staff when they are in the store. "Advances in smartphones and tablets have created new mediums for associates to not only access training, but also to digest and retain it," he says. "This allows for critical reinforcement of important product or promotional elements, and provides a constant reminder of the image of the brand that is upheld by each staff member."

He says this reinforcement can lead to a better customer experience, as well as more sales.

"As training effectiveness increases, associates are better prepared to offer customers new levels of service, including more thoughtful product recommendations, which ultimately will increase sales, and begin to develop a more loyal, lifelong customer base. Through increased training retention, associates are also able to provide in-depth personalization in order to foster relationship longevity."

For ADP, ILoveVelvet and others, the approach to sales training continues to evolve along with sales strategy itself.