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The Value and Perils of Customized Sales Training

Yesterday during The Top Sales Experts Roundtable, Linda Richardson made a strong case for customized sales training.  It’s not something she has to convince us at ESR about.

Many organizations want a customized sales training experience, whether it be live or virtual.  This can be good or bad, depending upon what experiences and materials are customized, and to what degree. It’s important for sales training buyer to understand any and all customization requirements and objectives; and, it is incumbent upon that person to have an effective strategy for customization.

ESR have yet to find a client who says, “Yes, off-the-shelf training is just fine for my organization.” Every organization feels that it is unique, that its problems are unique, and that only a unique program can maximize their potential.

The Problem

When an organization brings in a sales training company, there is a challenge that the organization is trying to overcome or an opportunity to leverage.

This fundamentally implies that a change is needed—that the status quo is not sufficient to continue to propel sales growth. The sales training company is brought in to effect some change, usually a behavioral change, in the participating sales people, to stimulate that sales growth.

ESR recommends that the first place to look when considering any degree of behavioral change is your sales methodology.  That’s the backbone on which all your processes, tools, training, hiring, measurement system, and sales approach will be built. Fix or replace the methodology first. If you don’t have a methodology, you will need to build one.  (Training your team on how to employ that methodology eventually follows.)  This is an old song, but everyone needs to hear it until they can sing along.

Change vs. Status Quo

By acknowledging the need for change, it’s important to understand the meaning of sales training program customization. There are two types of customization:

  1. Tailoring—adapting the training materials to reflect the sales organization’s products, services, sales force characteristics, as well as market and corporate specifics;
  2. Modification—altering the intellectual property of the sales training company resulting in different learnings, or modifying the instructional design of the program so that there is a core difference in the way the materials are presented.

Tailoring is almost always useful. Tailoring materials gets your company name in front of the sales people and personalizes the experience. Tailoring can replace canned, generic workshop examples with actual examples from your sales force’s existing pipeline, or recent wins or losses, personalizing the experience and maximizing the probability that the sales person will identify with the program. Tailoring, if limited to phrasing, word usage, workshops and case study examples, is often helpful.

Modification is a two-edged sword. Modification can be helpful if there are processes within your sales organization that you know factually and empirically work, and if you can separate these working best practices from those processes which you know, or suspect, may be constraining your sales growth.

The Risk of Modification

Modification carries a potential risk—LCD—”lowest common denominator.”  There is an observable tendency among course and methodology modifiers, resulting from pressure from certain stakeholders, to fine tune the new methods and processes taught in the course materials to such an extent that they are “devolved” into a mere reflection of the existing, flawed sales methodology. Customizing course materials to make the program “more like our business environment” can effectively negate the original objective of the program, which was to effect behavioral change.

With that in mind, ESR has recognized some leading sales training companies for their very effective approaches to modification.

Avoiding “Devolution”

How do you avoid “devolution” in your customized sales training programs?  Four considerations:

  1. Invest in a comprehensive, objective assessment of the performance of your sales team—know very specifically what works and what doesn’t;
  2. When documenting and implementing best practices, make sure that you have empirical metrics that denote that those practices do, in fact, stimulate behaviors that increase sales;
  3. Evaluate your sales training company’s methods for modification of educational programs;
  4. Stick with tailoring of your training provider’s content, assuming you’ve selected the right partner.

Number three is important. Some sales training organizations resist modification of their programs at all.  Some have a core set of learnings that are assembled and designed around a study of your organization’s best practices. Others have designed proprietary systems or methodologies for modifying course materials that are specifically designed to maximize the value of nomenclature tailoring, while minimizing the probability that the structural integrity of a course will be damaged by the customization effort.

My recommendation is this: Don’t make a snap decision on either a trainer or on your customization approach.  Do you have to spend all this time and effort figuring this out?  Only if you want to get it right.

Source:  The Value and Perils of Customized Training, an ESR/Insight™ Brief.

Photo credit: © bugman – Fotolia.com


8 Responses

  1. Hi Dave, Thanks for the education on customization and the degrees of customization. It is expensive to customize, but certainly seems to help busy salespeople make the connections faster so, in most cases, worth it.

    I also think a customized plan to apply, advance and reinforce the new skills will go further to change behavior along with a customized program. I have seen companies really succeed by choosing one or two areas to master for the biggest impact and then driving those home through practice, repetition and accountability week after week.

    I wouldn’t invest in sales training unless I was ready to do it right – needs assessment up front (with ESR!), customized program, clear follow-up plan, measurement system.


  2. Hi Dave,

    This has always been an interesting topic for me. I have invested in various forms of sales training in several companies and from the perspective of diferent roles – VP Sales, COO and CEO. First, my grounding is that I am a big fan of formalized sales training as I started my career in Sales and was the recipient of 6 months of sales training.

    The problem/challenge I have always seen is that companies are great at the ‘event experience’ of training a sales force but weak in the follow up and execution. The course curriculum I have found, in most cases, is interesting and ‘value add’ to the organization. But too often, the sales executive in charge hasn’t thought through the application of it and how to make it ‘sticky’ over a sustainable period of time. So – old habits return and the discipline that leads to a repeatable process never happens. I also think that the training firms themselves could do a lot more to coach and support usage and adoption across the sales force – over a sustainable period of time.

    I am not sure who has cracked this nut but it seems to be an intersection of rock solid trainng coupled with technology enablement to ensure adoption and stickiness.

    My company plays in the technology end of this but admittedly hasn’t done enough to drive the coupling.

    My two cents…

    Brian Zanghi, CEO, Kadient

    • Brian,

      I couldn’t agree more. Long time readers of this blog and subscribers to ESR’s research will have gotten the message loud and clear, again and again: For many companies the single most critical success factor for long-term sales performance improvement is a strategic approach to the ongoing reinforcement of learning–mainly in the form of coaching.

      ESR has recognized the leaders in coaching in our Sales Training Vendor Guide. Some training companies, as you suggest, aren’t delivering for their clients in this area. We’ve warned buyers of sales training that the area not to cut when budgets are reduced is what happens after live or virtual learning–the assurance that new knowledge results in the appropriate behavioral change. Leave out that piece and you’re wasting your money.

      One more thought on the subject: coaching is a skill, that requires a foundation process. It’s not done by the seat of one’s pants. People aren’t born with that skill, although they may have the traits required to excel at that skill. Salesreps promoted to sales management typically don’t have the skill. That’s a big problem for the manager and the reps that report to them.

  3. Will “one-size fits all” classroom training, be consigned to the annals of history?

    Oh I really hope so. We have all endured the tortuous classroom experiences on courses with names like “Advanced Selling Techniques” or “Sell More Immediately” or “Better Sales Tomorrow”

    Remember those? The trainer, probably a failed salesman or woman turned up……with a cartload of course notes, the equivalent of three rain forests and then talked at us for three days.

    I read a report recently out of Harvard and it suggested that none of us is capable of absorbing more than seven new concepts at any one time – and yet here we are being expected to absorb forty or fifty ideas in the space of three days – it just is not going to happen.

    Professional salespeople today need short sharp injections of skills development delivered regularly over a period of time. It needs to be relevant, motivational and more than anything, it needs s to be implementable.


  4. Dave, this is a seriously on the money evaluation.

    You said that “ESR have yet to find a client who says, “Yes, off-the-shelf training is just fine for my organization.”

    Perhaps it an Irish/European thing, but I have come across many who want just that “a two day magic session”

    I have also come across those are more interested to be seen to be providing sales training, rather than if the training is having any level of impact.

    Also, there are those who blame lack of skills, where it is clearly a methodology problem, but will get upset when yoy try to bring this to ther attention.

    What frustrates me, I believe that it my responsibility to point this out, while at the same time, there is some other twat saying “don’t listen to him, I have a two day special course that nobody knows about and it will fix all your problems”

    On more than one occasion, I have initially lost business to one of these “silver bullet” providers, only for the client to come back to me six months later saying ” Ah, now I see what you mean”

    Thank you for writing this post.

    • Niall,

      From my work in Ireland since 2002, I think Irish business people have come a long way. Back then sales was a dirty word. Now many companies are investing in their sales people with tools and learning. The International Selling Programme is a perfect example. There’s a way to go, of course, but you’ve made more progress in 7 years than some companies in the U.S. have made in 20. Just my humble perspective.

      Keep plugging away, Niall. You’re doing a great service for your country, your country’s troubled economy, and the profession of selling.

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