Sales professionals have an ever-expanding array of digital tools at hand. However, these digital solutions are not helping to the extent many expected. In fact, research from Accenture found that many sales professionals believe that “they have too many sales tools.” The problem: increasing tools burden the sales professional with administrative activities. As a result, time spent engaged in selling activities has decreased to only 36 percent of the workweek according to the same research.
These findings illustrate a disconnect. Today’s digital selling tools are a technological answer to a non-technical problem. The capabilities that truly move the sale forward are found in the sales professional’s conversation with the customer, not in a database. More sales leaders are confronting this disconnect as seen by research from SiriusDecisions which found that seventy-two percent of sales leaders believe that their sales reps are unable to properly connect solutions to business challenges.
To better understand what is missing from sales training we went straight to the source. At Richardson, we partnered with Training Industry to survey in-the-field sales professionals. We asked them what skills and training modalities they need to succeed in the market today. We asked seventeen questions and have isolated the five most important takeaways here.
Success Starts With a Structured Path
We learned that companies with effective sales training follow a structured learning path and focus on the growth of long-term competencies. Respondents indicated that effective selling organizations take an intentional approach to training. In contrast, less effective programs often use on-demand training. This finding illustrates the importance of building training around an academy structure in which each skill learned builds on the previous material. Simply put: an ad hoc approach is not ideal.
Similarly, respondents told us that a long-term focus is more effective than a short-term focus. This insight makes intuitive sense given that sales professionals today need a wider range of skills to win the sale. Moreover, when leaders build training with a long-term focus they signal that they are committed to helping the sales professional develop in their career. In these cases, the sales professional is likely to reciprocate by devoting themselves to the specific skill set in the training. The result is a shared commitment.
Understanding Buyer Needs is Still the Top Priority
The majority of respondents cited “understanding buyer needs” as the most critical skill. Understanding needs is important because buyers today enjoy a wealth of options. Nearly all solutions offer quality and ease of implementation. Therefore, a sales professional needs to understand the customer’s detailed needs so they are prepared to articulate how their solution will go beyond these common characteristics.
Uncovering the customers’ needs gives the sales professional insight to more than just the functional capabilities required. Needs also refers to the abstract nature of the customer’s drive for change. The customer is seeking a solution that will do more than advance business goals. Consider research which shows that “considerations, such as whether a product can enhance the buyer’s reputation or reduce anxiety, play a large role,” according to Bain. Exploring customer needs reveals these hidden anxieties and reputational needs. Accessing this detailed information requires connecting with the customer. Therefore, “establishing relationships” was also a skill many sales professionals considered critical in a sales academy. Our respondents also identified other skills like “presenting effectively,” and “knowing the market” as important skills today.
Effective Training Means Stepping into the Classroom
Respondents overwhelmingly selected “classroom training” as the preferred method of learning. Our survey defined classroom training as either an in-person experience or a virtual one.
Traditional in-person classroom training offers the unique benefit of role-play exercises that are critical for developing negotiating skills like overcoming objections. These sessions create palpable tension in which sales professionals become comfortable with navigating challenges under stress. This “learn-by-doing” approach is also the appeal of “on-the-job” training which was the second most preferred method of learning.
Interestingly, the more tech-driven modalities of “on-demand e-learning,” and “video examples” were the least preferred methods of learning. Both of these mediums are best suited for field sales professionals who want to avoid time out-of-market. Many selling organizations find success in blended learning solutions. Combining these different delivery channels creates a sales academy that is inclusive of all learning styles.
Classroom Training Should Last 1 Day, Digital Should Last 30 Minutes
Sales professionals preferred different learning durations based on the format of training. For instructor-led, classroom training, sales professionals prefer one day of material.
When engaging in digital learning modules, sales professionals prefer 15 to 30 minutes of training. Research suggests that “shorter training sessions were advantageous because they allowed for more latent, between-session, and post-training learning to emerge.”
The differences in preferred duration between the two mediums also stems from contrasts in the material. That is, a longer, instructor-led class might be better for building foundational skills, while the shorter digital learning is optimal for reinforcing concepts and serving as a way to supplement the core content. As a result, many sales leaders choose to engage both formats.
The responses to this question were definitive. Few sales professionals indicated a preference for two-day training and almost no respondents preferred three-day training. This decisiveness is also true of digital learning. Three-quarters of those surveyed cited 15-30 minutes as the preferred length whereas only one-third stated a need for a 15-minute session.
Sales Professionals Want Measurement
Almost 80 percent of respondents want the ability to benchmark their performance against peers. Just over half of respondents stated that this kind of measurement is “very important” to them and another one-quarter consider it at least “moderately important.”
Selling is, by nature, a competitive arena. Sales professionals want a clear read on whether or not they are keeping pace with their cohort. Additionally, they rightly view their time as a valuable asset and want to ensure they’re using it to a meaningful end. Therefore, sales leaders need to ensure they have a benchmarking plan in place and that they communicate those results clearly and often. The more immediate the results, the better suited the sales professional will be to react to the information.
A sales academy succeeds or fails based on the level of engagement it commands from participants. Creating an engaging atmosphere means building a sales academy around the format and features that the sales professionals consider important.
The value of training is evidenced by research showing that companies committed to up-skilling “earn a profit growth three times that of their competitors,” according to research from Bersin.