Sales Training – What it is and how to do it!

Sales training at most companies, if ever offered, consists of sending sales personnel to a one / two day independent sales course. Sometimes this happens annually, but typically it occurs far less frequently. Many sales training programs conducted in-house are events where new products are introduced, in nauseating detail, with the thought that product training is sales training, which it is not.


Sales is the only critical business discipline in which you cannot get a traditional degree. Sales personnel are expected to know how to sell – presumably intuitively. The thought that one-day seminars will improve your revenue generation is misguided optimism. I would estimate that less than ten percent of all sales personnel are truly selling professionals. Unless you have real pros that seek out mentors, like Tom Hopkins or Neil Rackham and continually build on their own skills, the ability for your business to maximize revenue lies in your ability to provide effective and ongoing training.


Businesses that excel in the sales area know how to find, hire, and retain self-motivated sales professionals and then continue to develop those skills on an ongoing basis. For tips on how to interview for top reps, see my Sales Representative Interview Form. True sales pros thrive on proper training techniques as well as the opportunity to compete with peers. From inside phone sales personnel to field sales representatives, ongoing skills building programs are essential for maximum success.

At a minimum, consider the following ideas:

  1. Provide a time on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis where your sales team comes together for skills building:a. Objections Notebook:Have each of them keep a spiral notebook labeled “Objections.” During the time between meetings ask them to write down at the top of each page an objection they had trouble handling. At the meetings, work thru how this objection could be handled and have them all write the solution(s) in their books.
    b. Win / loss Notebook: Have each of them keep a similar notebook labeled “Win / Loss.” During the time between meetings, have them write down wins and losses and their reasons for each. At the meeting, discuss each person’s win / loss stories and have them all write pertinent learning points in their own books.
  2. Conduct at least one multi-day sales training program annually for your entire sales team to learn both about new products as well as how to improve product sales:a. Combine Technical and Skills Training: If you have new product training to conduct, combine the technical education with sales skills training activities so that your personnel actually apply the knowledge in selling situations. Don’t teach them about a new feature, teach them how to convert that feature to a benefit that will help close a sale. Limit the time your development people spend with your sales team to sporadic windows – too much technology kills the learning process.b. Keep Them Moving: Good sales people are lousy at sitting for more than 45 minutes without some sort of activity. In my experience, taking regular “game breaks,” where your team is up, moving, and competing works very well.c. Engage Them With Practice: Mix education of selling skills, competition, and product knowledge with real-life selling scenarios. Roll playing scenarios or knowledge games, pitting one person against the other for fastest correct response, provide stimulation as well as education. If you have sales people who are too intimidated by these activities, ask yourself are really sales people. I actually had a sales rep freeze in a roll play situation, get up and leave the room, check out of the hotel, go to the airport and fly home. He was not a sales person, he was a customer service person, and we subsequently moved his responsibilities accordingly and he shined in the new role.

    d. Create Teamwork and Competition:Divide your group into two or more teams and have them compete for prizes over the entire meeting. Get them team shirts or hats or something and pit them against each other. Sales people love to compete and win – the more you integrate that capability with the learning process, the faster the education will become practice.

For all of the ideas above, it is essential that the person driving your training activities is a sales professional. If this is not your sales leader, contract the right talent. I have provided only a few ideas above, and I have employed all of them and many more in the development of successful global selling teams. Like all disciplines, continual training and stimulation is required to gain maximum performance. Invest in your sales team and reap the rewards.

Motivation – What Works and Why

“Scotty, if we don’t have full power in the next 10 seconds, we are all dead!” – James T. Kirk in more than one episode of Star Trek. When it comes to motivation, how many of us would have performed better in Scotty’s position after hearing those words?

I was recently watching Dan Pink, a TED event speaker address the subject of motivation and rewards and their actual impact on performance. He outlines multiple studies in which groups were challenged to conduct specific problem-solving tasks – some with rewards attached as motivation and some without. He notes that the studies showed an unexpected outcome – being the larger the reward, the poorer the performance. He goes on to note in more detail that the type of problem is at the root, with less complex mechanical problems being positively impacted by rewards and more complex problems actually taking a greater amount of time if rewarded. One of his closing statements leaves the viewer with the thought that truly complex problems are best solved by people whose motivation for such solution is the solution itself, and that by adding rewards we may very well be slowing down the rate at which success is achieved.

And while I can agree with much of what he said, I would like to add an additional component; that being individual personality / performance profiles. It is well understood that when it comes to “performance on the job” there are personal profiles that are more and less suited to maximum output. From sales people to downhill ski racers, there are specific profiles (mental / physical) that define the optimal performers or those who could become such. And once defined, one can then determine the motivational components needed to maximize performance – from internal to external – but all focused on success as defined by the participant.

In defense of Mr. Pink’s hypothesis, most people can relate to either being or watching someone perform a task at which they were very skilled but then needed to do so under the pressure of a reward. Take for example a good amateur golfer playing in a team event where others are counting on them to win money. All of a sudden this highly skilled person absolutely collapses because the pressure of the reward added a negative rather than positive component to the task. There are, however, people who actually perform tasks better under pressure. “When the going gets tough the tough get going,” right? These folks are defined by personal profile and can be found in all walks of life.

I would add to Mr. Pink’s conclusions that the definition of incentive or reward needs to be tailored to the personal profile and the problem at hand. In all cases, there is an incentive to perform and in many cases, that incentive is internal to the performer. But do not believe that “incentives” in the generic reduce performance. When matched improperly, they certainly can induce the opposite of what is desired, and when employed correctly, no matter the complexity, the results are improved.

For those of you who remember Star Trek, the Series – you can probably still hear Captain Kirk saying to Scotty through the intercom – “if we don’t have full power in the next ten seconds we are all dead” – he said it softly but with meaning. I would like to think that he knew Scotty’s persona well enough to know that the kind of life saving motivation he gave him would work. We can all picture someone for whom those same words would have had the opposite outcome – oops, all dead.

Founder Employees & Teamwork

You founded a company, you raised some private equity, you now have a board of directors, and you may even have brought in a CEO to help commercialize your business. So now you have an employee role in the business – could be CEO, could be VP of Development, CFO, etc. This is the critical point in time where you need to build a team with which to execute optimally. And in order to do so, this is also the point where you must shed the founder mentality.

For teams to work optimally they must be established based upon skillset and the ability to work together, and each person’s skills must be respected to maximize the value offered. This means that as the founder, you have to suppress the desire to make all decisions and you must figure out how to create working relationships that cause the maximum value to be generated by each team member. I have watched founders hire the talent they desperately need to move the business forward and then ruin any chance of that relationship lasting by continually playing the founder card and not listening or constantly challenging the talent hired in ways that drive the talent away. In the end the founders simply say – “they were the wrong person.” Wrong person because they didn’t do things the founder’s way even though the founders had no or little applicable experience or skillset.

Founders tend to be commanders. “It is my company therefore we are going to do it my way” typifies the foundation of a dysfunctional culture. If you found a baseball team and insist on playing shortstop and setting the batting order even though you have never played baseball before – your team is going to lose no matter how good the talent you hire. The better players cannot perform well enough to make up for your lack of capabilities and the environment / culture will cause the best talent to look for other teams on which to play. Team owners that really want to win hire great coaches and top quality players and stay out of their way.

If you are going to work in the company you founded or co-founded, aside from the passion you need to check the founder status at the door and engage with the rest of the team (that you need to be successful) in a manner the maximizes their ability to execute as a team. If you are going to be the CEO, then you need to learn what it takes to be a quality CEO and not just assume you can be such because you are the founder. If you are the CFO – then you need to understand the role of CFO and respect the other leadership in your organization, etc.

If you are leading and do it poorly, the entire company suffers. If you have hired a CEO and now have a particular role and yet you constantly play the founder card and disrupt the CEO’s ability to lead – then you may find yourself an unemployed founder. And yes, unless you created protection otherwise, if you do not hold a controlling interest in your business, you can be terminated.

What Investors Will Ask

What is the problem (need) you are solving?

Who has this problem (target buyer)?

How many have this problem?

How will you solve the problem?

How is the problem being solved now – who is your competition?

Why is your solution better – in the eyes of your target user?

Do you have independent user validation regarding your solution’s effectiveness?

Is your solution defendable / protectable (patent, trade secret, etc.)?

What percent of the target market is likely to adopt your solution and how often are they likely to repurchase?

Are you clear about the actual cost to produce your solution?

Can you price your solution so that it differentiates you from competitors?

Can you price your solution so that your target audience will purchase it and still provide you a reasonable profit?

How will you produce, deliver, and support your solution?

What market influences (economy, politics, technology, etc.) will help or harm your efforts to be successful?

How will potential customers learn about your solution?

What is the average purchase cycle – the length of time it will take to secure a purchase decision?

Where / how will users be able to purchase your solution?

Do you have a business, marketing, and financial plan that outlines how you will be successful and what success looks like over time?

Who will lead your company?

Who are the other key members of the company team?

What experience does the leader (you) have building a new company?

What experience does your team have doing what you have planned?

Who are your advisors / mentors?

How much money do you need and do you have a financial plan that supports that number?

How will you employ the money – what will you spend it on?

What goals will you achieve with that money?

ü  Will you need additional money in the future?

How much money will I make if I invest?

When will I make this money and what event will trigger such?

Blocking Maximum Success

You are the founder of your business. You have grown it from scratch on your own or with a partner. You have validated that your product can be sold and your business is scaling. You, however, have never led a growing business of this type or scale potential and neither has anyone on your team. You are a smart person and because you have succeeded this far, because you were right about the product, you certainly must be qualified to keep driving the business – right?

A strong level of self-confidence is a trademark of many an entrepreneur. It clearly requires such a personal makeup to take the risks necessary to create a new business from scratch, making others believe in you in the process, and for this founders must be applauded. This same personality trait is however the one thing that ultimately stands in the way of creating truly successful businesses that grow anywhere near their potential.

Just because you were right about a market need and just because you can create and deliver a product or service that solves that need does not automatically qualify you to build a successful business. It simply means you were right about how to solve a problem. The analogy I use regularly is “just because you can engineer and build a car doesn’t qualify you to be the driver.” Designing, building, and driving are very different skills – each requiring unique capability and experience.

Founder-led businesses consistently fail to reach their potential because the founder(s), the one(s) who had the capability to recognize and solve a market problem, failed to recognize their own lack of capability and experience when it came to growing (driving) the business. A highly successful business is about far more than the product or service. It is about marketing, sales, finance, operations, leadership, team building, customer support, business culture, etc. Just as it takes a highly skilled engineer to design a quality product, it takes highly skilled people in all of the other business acumens to build a sustainable high-growth business. The most important acumen of all is leadership – someone who understands how to take a great product or service and grow a great business around it. Someone who can build the right team and culture to maximize (drive) success.

The reason many early-stage businesses fail or fail to reach their full potential is simply because the founders became the roadblock. They didn’t accept help because they already knew better. They wouldn’t relinquish operational control because their egos wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t build a proper team or culture because they didn’t understand the importance or know what one looked like.

“Companies with inept leadership usually fail in the first year or two, but even established companies can stumble badly when they outgrow the capabilities of the founding team. As a founder, you need the discipline to know when to hand over the reins to a professional manager who can take your business to the next level” (#1 on the Top Ten Reasons Start-ups Fail Note that the following nine reasons on this list can be mitigated by solving the leadership issue identified in Reason #1.

The sad part of this trend is that it doesn’t have to happen. Our communities could be stronger, our businesses more vital, and our nation more stable if founders would simply be willing to engage applicable leadership at the right time.

Sure, some founders ultimately become great business leaders, but the vast majority build lifestyle-level businesses out of opportunities that were far greater. Thus their businesses never provide the economic vitality and impact that they were capable of contributing to their families, their employee’s families, and their community.

As a long-term client whose business recently grew nearly 3X in two years after turning the leadership of the business over to seasoned industry professionals said “I finally came to understand that I was the roadblock, and when I secured the right talent, got out of the way and focused on my area of technical expertise the company took off.”

The challenge to business founders is understanding the end goal. If that goal is to maximize the success of the business, and a potential exit, they must engage and empower the needed expertise and refrain from standing in their own way.

Big Marketing Lesson

Recently I happened to catch most of the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and had forgotten its timeless marketing lesson. In the story, a toy company’s executive team has clearly lost touch with their true business identity, and Tom’s character – an eight year old in a 30 year old body if you never saw it – reminds them by simply being their target demographic. The company CEO appears to understand that they are off track, but the competitive executive team is obsessed with developing new toys without quality input from those that play with them or those that purchase them.

Every day this scenario is played out in business after business. From newly formed start-ups to decades-old establishments, leadership comes to believe that they are the experts when it comes to understanding what their consumers want. The painful lesson learned by many is that the consumers, not the business, are better equipped to understand their own needs.

Few companies really take the time to understand the actual business they are in. In the movie, the company is not in the toy business, but rather in the business of making children happy through toys. That means they must provide a toy that children will want and a parent will purchase at a price that will allow them to make enough money to continue the process. That means they must understand the wants and desires of both the children and their parents and react accordingly. When the company decides they know better, when they decide to generate facts and figures that mislead rather than lead, they fail to maximize their value to the marketplace and all parties lose.

Businesses reach their greatest success when they truly understand what they provide and for who, and deliver such at a price, place and manner that works for both. However, when businesses determine that what they provide is earnings for shareholders, they have completely missed the mark.

Take the time to understand your business. If you think you are in the newspaper business, consider that you are truly in the business of providing news when, where and how people want it. The word “paper” only defines a form of delivery that is clearly becoming obsolete. If you are in the up-scale restaurant business, consider that you are in the entertainment business, and your products must provide such at a time, place, and cost that appeals to the buyer.

Businesses get started because a founder is lucky enough to develop a product or service that a market segment will adopt. They didn’t take the time to understand a real market need, but assumed that due to their development brilliance someone, if not everyone, would want what they had. This method is a form of gambling that is executed on a regular basis, and like gambling, sometimes, but rarely, there are winners.

Other businesses take the time to truly understand a market need and continually develop their product or service around that need. Their odds of success are significantly better because they are not gambling – but rather working with a quality understanding of the value they provide.

Innovation of Commercial Value

“If innovation is tainted with the idea that a resulting commercial value is necessary – true innovation will not occur.” This sentiment is heard time and again from the “scientists” that are rooted in the thought that a commercialization goal simply distracts and distorts the very process of innovation.

The thought that mankind should benefit from research and development conducted at the expense of successful commercial enterprise should not only be acceptable, it should be at the core of the process. Clearly some of the world’s most successful inventions were a result of development projects that failed and / or changed thinking in a manner that provided outcomes not initially envisioned. But like the invention of Post-it® Notes, a 3M glue development project gone wrong, the initial development itself was focused on creating a product that provided commercial value thus providing the financial resources needed for continued innovation.

Looking at the many waves of national and global economic prosperity throughout time, all have come with commercially viable innovation at their core. War, revolution, depression, recession, inflation, and all other global-changing social, political, technological, environmental, and economic triggers drive new thinking. “Necessity is the mother of invention” (Plato) is at the foundation of innovation and at the core of all of those who invest lifetimes pursuing the next idea, thing, product, service, procedure, or process.

If we are to build a viable, secure, and sustainable future, arguably innovation that provides commercial value will be at its root. And whether that innovation comes from entrepreneurs, academic science, or corporate development, it is absolutely essential that we celebrate its value to the local, regional, national and global economy.

Sales Funnel or Bucket

The average sales person deals with prospect leads as they come, working all that they can, leveraging their product or service to fit the need and get the order. Absent available leads, they prospect in much the same manner, looking for anyone willing to listen. Asked about their sales funnel, they explain all of the prospects they are working in an aggregate manner, in reality describing a sales “bucket.”

Sales professionals understand the difference between a sales funnel and a bucket of poorly-qualified prospects.

  • They know they can’t handle “all that come.” They know how many qualified prospects they can handle effectively and they manage to that number.
  • They know that not every lead is a qualified prospect. They establish key qualification criteria that identify the optimal prospects for their funnel. Intensity of need / urgency, size of the opportunity, stage of process, competition, type of buyer, optimal fit for their product or service, etc.
  • They fill their funnel with diversification and flow in mind. They have a range of deal opportunity sizes and timeframes designed to build consistency and stability into their revenue and income generation.
  • They manage the flow of their funnel weekly. They know what they need to add, when and how to move prospects from to stage to stage, and they get orders when planned.

Of the scores of sales people that I have interviewed or encountered in my career, very few of them understood how to build and manage a quality sales funnel. They fail to understand that selling is a strategic process that demands the satisfaction of the prospect, their own company, and themselves. They fail to understand true prospect needs and their ability to fill those needs. They fail to assess each opportunity for optimal fit and ability to win. And they fail to build and manage a quality process that would allow them to control their sales destiny.

Sales funnels are tools like any other. The ability to perfect the use of the tool in a way that maximizes performance is the key to great success. All professional golfers use quality golf clubs – but every golfer perfects his own personal swing to maximize the effect of the club on the ball. You can easily locate many variations of a sales funnel tool. It is up to you to perfect the use of that tool, maximize your selling success and kick the “bucket” goodbye!

Creating Successful Boards

Business after business is hampered, rather than supported, by dysfunctional boards. Board members are picked for all the wrong reasons; because they invested, they are a friend, or someone suggested them as a quality executive. Boards are then created out of balance when it comes to the help needed because there was no plan put in place before the selection process started. Egos become the order of the day, and in the end, businesses end up with boards that don’t add value and spend time in operational detail rather than strategic direction and support.

Boards should serve two main purposes. Primarily, your board should help you, the CEO or director, make better decisions and grow your business more effectively. Second, they must provide the fiduciary oversight needed to manage risk and support shareholder / stakeholder investments; holding the CEO / director accountable.

If you are setting up a board for the first time, you must build a plan for what you need, from talent to meeting structure and frequency. When it comes to the members selected, you should staff your board with a balanced set of talent needed to help you grow your business. From marketing to financial or development disciplines, it is critical that you staff your board like you would an executive team. Also essential is to get board talent that has the needed experience in your field of operation. If you build a board with significant experience in your field and a balanced set of professional disciplines, you will have a team that can and will help you succeed.

Yes, as you accept equity investments, you will need to allow specific board positions, so in these cases, select the best possible person from the investor group / fund and build the right talent around them to create balance. If you need to increase the size of your board to accommodate, get that done in the investment docs.

It is critical to understand that you, the CEO / director, need to be running your business, and your board needs to be helping you do so. Your board is not there to manage you (although they clearly have the right), and if you allow them to do so, you will create your own leadership nightmare. Select a meeting frequency that supports what you need. Build a meeting outline that provides the board the needed information to remain comfortable with your progress and when needed, provide strategic input. If you allow your board chair or board in general to get into tactical day-to-day operational issues, you will spend many frustrating hours defending your position to people who only engage in your business a few hours a year. If, on the other hand, you provide board leadership like you do your own executive team, you can create a relationship where you get the support you need, when you need it, without unnecessary projects or procedures.

Standing in your Own Way

You have a long-time successful business, but new dynamics have presented you with the opportunity to create significant growth. You are excited about the potential and you start to make changes and hire additional employees. If you hire more of the same, you find that the load on you, the chief decision maker, becomes overbearing and growth is diminished. If you hire more skilled people, you start to feel out of control; you see decisions being made without you, purchases you did not approve, etc. You dive back into the details, request explanations, and reassert your position as chief of all things.

And in this process, founders become the roadblock to growth. They hire people that cannot manage growth, or they hire talented people and give them responsibility without authority. They micro manage; inserting themselves and delaying actions to the point of demeaning and demoralizing their team. And while believing every step of the way that they are right, they themselves kill the ability to succeed.

The type of leadership and team required to succeed at one level of business may be significantly different than what is required to profitably scale to a much higher point. It is most certainly true that to take maximum advantage of new opportunity; old thinking must also be examined and modified. The number one killer of business opportunity is the inability of leadership to embrace the change needed in them. They must embrace the hard work needed to change, getting out of their comfort zone, or they must get out of the way altogether.

Not knowing what you don’t know and stifling input and action from others that do know is the surest path to failure – driving many once-successful businesses under. Goals and actions created for growth become the sword by which a business actually meets its demise; all at the hands of a founder that would not change or get out of the way. These same people believed they were right, and it was the new hires or market dynamics that caused their failure, when in fact the reason for their demise was looking at them in the mirror all along.