Best (and Worst) Practices in Sales Training: Q&A with Geoffrey James

What really works -- and what doesn't -- in corporate sales training? We sat down with's Geoffrey James, author of How to Say it: Business to Business Selling, for his latest insights on the state of the industry.  This is the first of two parts.

What do most companies get wrong when it comes to sales training?

salesmanThe most common error is probably confusing sales training with motivational speaking. You get these situations where companies will bring someone in to pump people up and think that that's sales training. When in fact, that may have some value and people may pick up some new ways of thinking that will help their attitude, but sales training, to be effective, really has to be targeted at specific behaviors that working a specific environment. So, generic motivational training is not really very useful.

What training methods are best practiced online? Which ones are best suited for the classroom?

There's substantial evidence that classroom training is really the only effective way to teach sales technique. What you can use online methods and other things like that for are more in the nature of reinforcement and understanding the theory. But the only way to actually train someone to do something is to see them do it in action and watch the reaction, things like that.

Would you want to go to a psychotherapist who'd been trained only online? Sales is primarily about relationships and how people react to each other. The important stuff can't be trained in an online manner because it's a human behavior that humans do with other humans. What you can train is the mechanics of the CRM system and the way you track things. You can train people on sales theory, and believe it or not there's actually a lot of theoretical stuff involved in different sales models and methods.

I, for instance, am an expert on sales theory because I've been around it for so long. I'm not the greatest sales guy, but that's not my thing. I'm a journalist who writes about selling, so I'm kind of like the Roger Ebert of sales training. He's not going out and making movies. It is of use to understand the theory because then its easy to see whats garbage and whats not, but when you're actually training people in the practice requires human interactions.

What new industry trends should sales managers be paying attention to?

salesmanThe biggest problem that sales managers have is picking the right sales trainer. The biggest problem that smaller businesses and individual sales people have is that most sales training courses aren't available to individuals. The most interesting trend in sales training is that it's starting to be a subject matter in business schools and they're starting to bring sales training into MBA programs. If you look at what's happening to the economy, much of the growth of high-salaried jobs are in the sales field, and so business schools are being pressured to become more practical. The way to make what is actually a theoretical degree more practical is to train people how to sell.

What does a company have to gain by using training?

In any group of people, even people who have natural talent need to have training and can improve from training. In fact, sales training starts when you hire people. You want to hire people that are a good fit for the kind of sales that you need them to do. The training is more specific to how we sell in a particular market, how natural talent can be used, and where salespeople have room to improve. You apply training and coaching in order to make a good sales person better, and a great sales person spectacular.

What's the difference between sales training from coaching?

You're really talking about different things. Sales training is something that's widely applied to an entire group of people. Coaching is something that goes one-on-one. Coaching is more a matter of sitting in on someone while they're doing something and then asking them what they think could have done better and helping them understand how they might be able to improve a specific behavior.

Sales training is a much larger thing, where you say, "Here's the business model we're pursuing, here's the sales channels and behaviors that work for this set of customers, and here are the skills that need to be developed in order to address those needs." So sales training is large scale — getting an entire group to understand what's required of them. Sales coaching is commenting on someones individual strengths and weaknesses in terms of executing those skills.

More on sales training on The Daily Mindflash.

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