Sales training: know the past – win the future


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In the last several years the world of sales has under gone significant changes.  Competition is keener – buying processes are more complex – market changes are more rapid. As a result, a sales person has to know more and know it at a higher level of competency than ever before.  And, if one is “keeping one’s ear to the ground” the rumblings of more uncertainty and change can clearly be heard.

One of the consequences of these changes is a new set of demands on those that are responsible for sales training.  The sales training of yesterday will unlikely be adequate to meet the emerging needs of tomorrow. But if one is going to “win the future,” then it is always a good idea to pause and take a thoughtful look at the past.  Fortunately, sales training has a rather substantial past.  So, let’s suspend disbelief and travel back and take a look.  For as the astronomer Carl Sagan once noted – “If we could travel into the past, it would be mind-boggling what would be possible in the future.” A Look Back. Modern-day sales training has, in one form or another, been around since the 1920s and has under gone a number of distinct periods of evolution from that point to the present.  Accepting the notion that history provides a window to the future, let’s take a rather brief – and light-hearted – look back.

  • Antiquity. A period where selling was almost entirely product–centric.  The Product Pitch ruled the land – you got the first script when you joined a company and you practiced and rehearsed it over the years.  The Pitch-Book was your major selling tool.  Closing tricks such as the Trial Close and the Puppy Dog Close were the sophisticated skills of the period.  Customer value meant simply having a product you could sell that was cheap. Among the avant-garde, a breakout new book about winning friends and influencing people was whispered about in secluded coffee houses.
  • Renaissance. During the Renaissance the importance of the customer and the understanding of their concerns and problems emerged as the foundation for all of selling.  The skill of asking questions became much sought after.  The mantra: ask, listen, and then talk became the coaching lesson of the day.  Closing techniques started to become less based on tricks – but were still promoted as the ABCs (Always Be Closing) of selling. The notion of customer value was the talk of the elite of the period.  As the period matured the narrow election victory of a young President foreshadowed a new set of expectations for the nation at large.
  • Neo-Classic. The business landscape underwent major changes in climate.  The day of the box was overtaken by the system.  Not only customer value, but added-value, became the topic of conversation among thought leaders. Radicals went as far as to proclaim, “products have no inherent value – value comes about only when you address something that matters to the customer.” Because the customer’s problems had become more complex, you could no longer sell a product you had to sell a solution. From the sales training developers came a proliferation of selling paradigms – questioning models reached their zenith in popularity.
  • Modern. The old demons are vanquished – Pitch-Books simply gather dust and trial closes are just examples of what not to do.  Stories of generic sales training programs are heard only as folk stories around the campfire. The expectation is that the sales person must bring value by how they sell, as well as, by what they sell – they must create value not just communicate it.  The focus of the state-of- the-art research has shifted from exploring alternative probing models to isolating best practices in a wide variety of advanced key skill areas such as partnering, selling at the executive level, and global account management.  Companies look to their sales teams as a source for competitive differentiation and recognize that the front-line Sales Manager is the pivotal job for sales performance change.

Thomas Jefferson  said – “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”  So, let’s speculate a bit about the future.  Anytime one journeys into the future, it’s a good idea to specify a timeframe.  For, this trip, let’s focus on what might be the major trends unfolding in the next five years – so discussions of “holodeck training” will be omitted. As was the case in the past and is the case in the present, the future profile for sales training in the B2B market will largely be shaped by what is happening in the customer base – large corporations.  Here, we have a piece of solid information with which to work.

Recently IBM conducted a worldwide study on change in major companies.  The authors concluded: ” No longer will companies have the luxury of expecting day-to-day operations to fall into a static or predictable pattern that is interrupted only occasionally by short burst of change.  To prosper, leaders will need to abandon such outdated notions of change.  In reality, the new normal is continuous change not the absence of change.” Let’s speculate on an overarching consequence of this new reality and then put forward some specific predictions for the future of sales training.

Overarching trend – learning will need to evolve beyond sales training. Because of the rate of change, sales teams will no longer be able to be competitive by simply doing a better job doing what they are doing. They will constantly need to adjust, modify, and upgrade their skill sets – learning new skills and learning to apply their existing skills in new buying environments. This means that learning will evolve beyond sales training – there will be a component of learning that will take place at the moment of need. Overall, whether in the classroom or by accessing some electronic personalized network, the speed-to-acquisition will increase.  As the future unfolds reps will increasingly have the need for and the ability to immediately get an answer to a single question.

Predictions and speculations. In addition to the overarching trend that learning will evolve beyond training, let’s speculate on some specifics that will impact the nature and management of sales training as the future starts to unfold.

  • Selling will increasingly become more of a profession as the importance of the sales function increases and as sales reps need to know more and know it at a higher level of competency.  This will be reflected in the priority giving sales in universities and colleges and in sales and sales training budgets in corporations.
  • In addition to the time, money, and effort for training new hires, more attention will be given to training experienced reps as the need to constantly update skill sets increases and the requirements for mastery grow.
  • Real-time knowledge about products and services will be provided to customers by on-demand customized electronic networks; hence the nature of product training for sales reps will be significantly changed.
  • Sales training companies will develop new pricing models that make sales training more affordable as the gap continues to widen between amount of sales training needed and the money available.
  • Blending learning will take on a broader scope as the popularity of knowledge repositories grow.
  • Training for developing lead identification and lead qualification skills will become more important as prospecting for new business becomes more difficult.
  • Customer expectations about trust, frequency of contact, and honest communication will increase hence business ethics and related topics will receive added attention in sales training programs.

If one is passionate about sales and sales training, the past has been a delightful personal journey with many twists and turns for some and an intriguing history to be studied by others – the future will be nothing less. If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection. ©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Richard Ruff
For more than 30 years Richard Ruff has worked with the Fortune 1000 to craft sales training programs that make a difference. Working with market leaders Dick has learned that today's great sales force significantly differs from yesterday. So, Sales Momentum offers firms effective sales training programs affordably priced. Dick is the co-author of Parlez-Vous Business, to help sales people have smart business conversations with customers, and the Sales Training Connection.


  1. Richard: great that you tackled this, because how the next generation of sales professionals will be developed could take several different pathways–none of them easy to predict.

    One change I’d like to see is movement toward thinking in terms of ‘professional development’ for salespeople, and away from ‘training’–which has a remedial or pedagogic ring. The sales profession needs so much more.

    As you point out, increased complexity in buying requires sales professionals with greater business and strategic knowledge, along with the ability to adapt to change rapidly. To me, skills training for many–though not all–B2B selling environments does not address the needs of buyers.

    By whichever term you use–training, workshop, education, courses–sales content myopically addresses the needs of sellers. Don’t show me another sales training course that beats into the ground how to overcome objections, or “how to get buyers to go to the next step.” That’s not development, and today, the ‘training value’ is even questionable.

    One beef: I’ve been selling for over 25 years, and I have never, ever had a year where I could kick back and relax because my competition wasn’t intense. So I don’t buy the idea that competition is ‘keener than ever’–just different. Same for customer expectations for trust and honest communication. In my experience, few things in selling have remained more constant–and imperative–than those.

  2. Andrew

    Thanks for the comment – I think you point about the importance of moving to “professional development” is a big deal.

    I do believe that universities and colleges will get more serious about sales, as opposed to, treating it as a chapter in a Marketing book. If that continues to happen then that will help develop the right foundation for a professional development effort with corporations.
    Thanks gain for the interest and comment.

    Dick Ruff


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