Sales training often fails, because it isn’t training that is needed in the first instance. Like water flowing downhill, and human nature, we all tend to find the path of least effort and lowest resistance.

If a manager wants sales improvement, it’s easy to assume the first thing your employee needs is more training. Training focuses on skills, but skills alone do not enable a salesperson to succeed.

It takes three to tango. A simplistic but clear way to represent the three components that govern individual behaviour is: awareness, skill, and attitude.

  1. A salesperson is aware that something needs doing and has the skill to do so but not the desire.
  2. A salesperson is aware and would like to contribute but doesn’t have the skill to do so.
  3. A salesperson would like to help and is able but is unaware of the need.

All three are necessary if a salesperson is to behave as desired. When looking for a change in behaviour, start with awareness. This is often the lowest hanging fruit. A simple conversation may do the trick – and listening needs to be a big part of the conversation. “Oh, I see, got it, yes I see what you mean!” is emblematic of the kind of simple revelation that can unlock doors to sales progress and simple changes in sales behaviour.

Assess sales skills second. While inadequate sales skills take time to address, it should be pretty easy to distinguish sales capabilities from awareness and attitude. If sales skills are lacking, then training is certainly needed, assuming you have the right person for the job otherwise.

Attitude is the final dimension to assess. Once an employee knows what is expected and has the appropriate sales capabilities, a lot of attitude problems evaporate.

If attitude still seems to be a problem after making sure sufficient information and sales skills are present, attitude may not be the actual problem. Salespeople don’t operate in a vacuum. The environment around them provides everything from conflicting priorities and mixed messages to inadequate resources and contradictory reward and incentive systems. Most salespeople come to work eager to do their best, and bad attitudes are frequently the result of feeling unable to earn their potential for a multitude of reasons.

If there are too many priorities, there are none. You can’t just keep adding to a salesperson’s task list. If you want a salesperson to do something that they aren’t doing, you may need to help them identify things they can stop doing or do more quickly, and how they can still retain or increase their earning capacity.

Old sales habits, squeaky wheels, and the path of least resistance have a way of persisting. If you want salespeople to change their behaviour you need to set expectations, ensure they have the skill and support they need, and then hold them accountable. Wishful thinking is not a substitute for sales management.

Encourage desired behaviours. Sales support resource limitations are related to conflicting priorities. You must support desired sales behaviours with time, information, tools, equipment, experts, resources, process and methodology. You would never expect someone to fix your car today with only a screwdriver. However, the equivalent happens in sales organisations all the time.

‘Just do it’ is often followed by a declined request for investment in what is necessary. While salespeople obviously can’t get everything they want to make their jobs easier, you do need to provide essential sales support and avoid creating a damaging ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic within your organisation.

Contradictory reward systems include official and unofficial reward systems, namely the financial compensation system and many forms of informal recognition. Sometimes both are in conflict with the desired sales behaviours. Where does your company stand when a salesperson consistently exceeds quota with deals that require constant revisit and margin erosion, versus a salesperson slightly behind on budget, but regularly sells clean, well scoped and well-managed deals requiring little to no revisit?

If you want a salesperson to do their job well, not only must you be sure they have clear expectations, the right skills, and a willingness to do well, you must also be sure the many forces around them support desired behaviours and discourage undesirable behaviours. It may sound overwhelming and financially impossible to get this right. It isn’t. Accept there is no perfect sales organisation. What is ‘best practice’ for another sales organisation might be worth contemplating, with some elements adopted with due consideration; but what works in one context never produces the same results in another.

Sales training success lies in properly diagnosing the hurdles to improved sales performance in your particular situation. If priorities aren’t really priorities, step back and reassess where you are going, and how you intend to get there. If your sales reward system is encouraging the wrong behaviours, change your reward system. If sales training is needed, train.

If you ‘fix’ the wrong things, you waste money, time and opportunity. If you ‘fix’ things randomly, the odds are massively against fixing the right thing. Determine specifically what is preventing the individual and team sales behaviours that would make a difference in your company, and then remove those obstacles for better performance.

Stuart Edmunds is the founder of the New Zealand Institute of Sales.

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