While my sports viewing interests span a wide spectrum, when push comes to shove, the NFL tops the list for me. As most football teams prepare open training camp this week, I find myself thinking back on the range of training experiences I have had, particularly in higher education-focused organizations. Like the NFL, August is the start of the season for higher ed sales teams. Over the years, training, along with most everything else in higher education, evolved along with the available technology, moving from inches thick product sales catalogs to rich multimedia presentations and eventually from F2F sessions to a combination of F2F and virtual meetings. But whether you opt to use technology for efficiency or for engagement in sales training scenarios, it won’t be impactful unless the foundation of good sales training is solid. Whether you call it culture, philosophy, or something else related, the greatest variation in preparing the sales organization to sell the line of products in the upcoming year can be attributed to the way a company’s leadership viewed its sales organization, sales training, and to a greater or lesser extent, the industry as a whole. Acknowledging that there are many different approaches in this area that can be successful and recognizing that what I have to say may be highly controversial, here are some general observations (and maybe even some lessons?) that come to the fore:
1. The more you expect from your sales organization, the more you are likely to get from them. Let me be clear that I am referring specifically to the idea of sales training here—not setting unreasonable/unachievable goals in order to motivate the team to stretch (mind you I firmly believe that setting unreasonable sales goals is one of the most detrimental things a company can do). I believe it is better to err on the side of providing too much information about the firm’s product(s) and service(s) than too little. Some reps will be overwhelmed and reach their saturation point earlier than others, and that’s okay as other salespeople will be able to absorb and apply more. The former will have the additional info there to refer to as they internalize the original overload as well.
2. Provide the information that matters and ONLY that information. This is a key corollary to the previous point. I sat through countless sales sessions led by product team members who provided loads of extraneous details that were not going to help in a single sales opportunity. Two relatively easy ways to avoid getting lost in the arcane are to involve a subset of sales people in reviewing (or even developing) sales presentations before they are released to the masses and to ensure that product team members are engaged with the market regularly so they can recognize what matters and what does not.
3. Substance beats fluff in the long run. Dread of a Bataan death march of dry fact recitations from product team members should not be the feeling induced by your (live or virtual) sales meetings. At the same time, when the pendulum shifts to favor pure entertainment over useful information, you are doing a disservice to your sales team and your organization as whole. I experienced week-long sales meetings where we had early morning sessions as well as evening sessions with maybe a few hours off to explore and enjoy the resort environs where these meetings were usually held. Those 12+ hour days could be a grind, but the key was how well those hours were used. I also experienced similarly lengthy meetings where the days were structured more along 9-5 schedules with some evening fun activities and some free time. Finally, I experienced meetings where “bonding” drove the agenda and more than half the waking hours were devoted to team-building, fun, and other non-product training activities. At the end of the day, the least valuable of these to me were the latter.
4. Respect your team’s time, especially your top performers. Related again to the prior point, I can all but guarantee that a sales meeting filled with concerts, beach parties, product teams engaging in skits tangentially related to products and product training, etc. will receive better post-meeting feedback in the aggregate than an intensive product-focused set of sessions in the aggregate. That said, I would wager heavily that your consistent sales performers’ ratings would be the opposite. This group generally would prefer a shorter meeting focused on providing the information they need to continue to be top performers. They know how to budget work and play time, and they do not need six spoonfuls of sugar accompanying the product information. Frankly, if your team requires a circus atmosphere to remain engaged during a key training opportunity or to engender loyalty to your organization, you may want to reevaluate your hiring processes. Or your leadership.
5. In short, now is the time to ensure that your top performers have what they need, and your newer reps get exposure to not just solid product information but to those top performers so they can start to sort for themselves what training works best for them. While all work and no play is no way to motivate any team, too much play and too much superfluous information will do as much or more damage.