Blue Eskimo

New sales skills for training and e-learning organisations

Every learning organisation has a need for sales; some more than others. But all face the same challenge: when you need new ‘sales blood’ do you recruit, train or outsource?

As a specialist provider to the learning and development industry, our clients frequently tell us that the greatest skills challenge they face is in the sales arena. Finding good sales people is tough; finding great ones can be very hard indeed. But the challenges don't stop there: many training sales people 'find their level' and then find it impossible to raise their game, for example, making it hard to 'grow' the capabilities of the entire team.

These are the same challenges faced by most industries: they are not unique to training and e-learning companies. In many ways, sales is an unusual profession. Considering that sales people make up a significant part of the UK's workforce, it's strange to think that most sales people haven't had any formal sales training - let alone possess a formal qualification. Indeed, such qualifications are notably thin on the ground. You'd expect a business studies degree from a potential director, product certifications and a training qualification from a potential trainer - but for a sales person? Most companies don't look beyond their track record at a previous company and the strength of their personality.

Lack of sales structure means lack of sales results

What this boils down to is that the sales forces of many organisations suffer from a lack of cohesion, a lack of structure and a lack of common culture. Plain and simple, this means that they need more management than other comparable teams in order to gain consistent and predictable results. In many cases, this lack of basic sales skills can be what's behind the overall underperformance of an organisation.

So, it's not unusual for sales teams to 'churn' at a greater rate than other parts of the organisation, reinforcing the impression that great sales people are hard to find - and that it's difficult to get sales people to perform well enough to keep their place in the team. This brings another challenge: if a fair percentage of your sales people are relatively new, it means that your organisation's knowledge base (as presented to the customer) is - well, pretty green and inexperienced.

In a worst-case scenario, this can build into a vicious circle that can keep an organisation chasing its tail, because you're always spending so much time on hiring, firing, training, coaching and so on that you never consolidate your market position, let alone make any real progress.

While this is not likely to be the case for most organisations, the issues are familiar enough to many: need new sales people, need better sales people, need current sales people to perform better and grow into new roles.

And then there's a final part of the puzzle. What happens when your sales numbers go south and you need to react quickly? What happens if you need to launch a new product, or enter a new market - or even just win a big new contract - and your sales people are maxed out? How do you get that extra 20% of sales capacity without upsetting the applecart?

So, bringing new sales skills to an organisation doesn't just involve hiring new people, it's actually a combination of:

  • recruiting the right sales people.
  • training them effectively.
  • finding ways to add sales capacity at short notice to meet specific goals.

Recruiting the right sales people

Most business managers know that the skill of the training sales team is the wild card in the organisation; the loose cannon. Get it right, and everything else falls in to place; get it wrong and everything falls apart. In most other business areas, finding, training and keeping people with the right skills is far more predictable.

Sadly, lots of organisations, even large ones, have a 'let's take a punt' attitude on hiring new training sales people. It's true that a training sales person won't show his or her true colours for a few weeks (or even months), but that doesn't mean we should take a suck-it-and-see approach to recruitment.

Finding the right person in the first place means knowing where to look - and knowing how to make a meaningful assessment of that person's abilities. These are two key areas where we often find that most non-specialist recruitment companies fall down. They cast too wide a net to be looking in the right place (but do find lots and lots of candidates - never mind that most aren't up to the job) and then don't spend enough (or any) time assessing the candidates. In many cases they don't even have the skills needed to properly assess the candidates - for example, without a background in sales/sales management, how can you properly assess the sales potential of a candidate?

It also helps to develop an assessment framework - a set of competencies and achievements by which you can measure all of your sales people - so that the interview doesn't drift into being just a conversation. And it really helps to be clear about how your training sales team works - the rules, processes, no-go areas, ethics (yes, sales teams can have ethics!) and so on - so that you can assess how a person can fit culturally within your organisation, and whether there may be some conflict with the rest of the team.

Recruitment companies do have a role to play, but it pays to ensure that the company will genuinely have the training industry experience needed to add real value - otherwise, their 'generalised' selection and interview process may well be substantially inferior to your own!

Training sales people effectively

Too much sales training is remedial: brought into place when a sales crisis boils over. Yet, since a sales department (like any other) is always to some degree fluid, it always requires shaping - and part of that will involve training. This doesn't mean that training itself has to be ongoing (though it could be) but that training should always be on the agenda, and always with a goal.

Just as a lot of sales training is remedial, so much of it is 'standard' - which is to say the problem is seen to be resolved quickly by booking several people onto some off-the-shelf sales training course. In truth, though such courses can be great motivators and can create some benefits, they seldom solve the underlying issues - simply because they are not based around your needs.

And that's the core of the problem: it's all too easy being busy selling, and quite a challenge to put some structure around a training sales department. (The old cartoon springs to mind of someone trying to sell a rifle to an archer who is busy at the front line, with the archer saying: "not now, can't you see I'm busy?!") Finding this structure, culture and framework for training and e-learning sales does provide a great insight into exactly what kind of training your organisation needs - and then maintaining that as a more easily manageable ongoing programme.

Training can also be used to tactical advantage: when you need to launch a new product, enter a new market or even win a large new customer. Rather than throwing sales resource at the problem and seeing what sticks, a focused training programme can raise the probability of success in these new ventures significantly - and in real terms it often costs less money to tackle the issue in this way.

As with recruitment, it pays to be working with someone who really understands the training market - and is able to add value quickly because of that familiarity. Even any specialist sales-training companies would struggle, simply because it would take them time to understand your market, products and services.

Finding ways to add sales capacity at short notice

This can be a real challenge, but the best solution depends on the nature of the underlying problem. If it's a 'we need more sales' problem, then the answer may be one of focus. Usually, it's easier to obtain sales from customers you are already working with, rather than trying to acquire new ones. A short sharp focus on this can often help you through a sticky patch - perhaps without having to draft in additional resource.

Our customers tell us that their experience with telesales agencies is something of a mixed bag, but is seldom good. Their comments are that it's too expensive, the calibre of sales people isn't high enough, they get 'script-dummies' not sales people - and so on. This is a shame, because offloading a problem is a great way to break the bottleneck.

It's in response to these issues that we formulated our 'outsourced training sales' approach - providing a sales person on a short-term contract. This allows people to pull in a real hard-hitter in training sales without the commitment of employing them; it also avoids the usual problems with telesales agencies, since you have direct management over the sales person. Although it might sound a little odd for a training recruitment company to offer outsourced sales, to us it's just another aspect of skills acquisition.

The key to success, whichever route you take when adding sales capacity in the short term, is to have a really tight and manageable set of goals: 'more sales' isn't enough. If you're short on business, you should be selling things which are easiest to deliver, for example, to make sure you don't draw too much of your already stretched time into complicated sales negotiations or bids. If you want to enter a new market, or launch a new product, then a few days spent in research will pay itself back in shovel-loads when it comes to undertaking the sales themselves.

More than one way to skin a cat

The common trap when it comes to 'bringing in new sales skills' is to do what you're familiar with - to avoid risks. But then the old adage comes into play: 'if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got'. When you need to boost sales, 'what you've always got' is probably not going to cut it - so it's worth opening your mind and considering the many possibilities open to you.