03022 Straining the Trainer: Training the Sales Force

Of the myriad responsibilities that Product Managers take on, probably the most challenging one is training the sales force. It’s like teaching at a troubled inner city school. You have to create all your own learning materials. You get no support from the people who run things. The class is disobedient and out of control.

Then, just when it looks like you’re starting to get somewhere, time’s up and the students have forgotten most of what you taught them by the time the next term rolls around. As the teacher, you are left alone to figure out how to deal with frustration and unrewarding results.

Teachers at inner city schools would find a sympathetic audience among Product Managers who have tried to provide software product training to the sales force. By its nature, software is a technical product. Successful sales reps, on the other hand, are people who are great with people, but not necessarily good with technical subjects. What’s more, they make their money by spending time with people, not spending time learning software.

Yet it’s critical that the entire sales force master the product to the point where they can talk knowledgeably about some of the details when they get asked hard questions by prospects. Most software sales include a thorough review by IT or technical individuals. The best way to answer questions so that you lay doubts to rest is to provide facts, and that means that sales reps need to have a lot of facts at their disposal. That means training with a certain level of detail is necessary.

And the most appropriate individuals at your company to provide this training are usually Product Managers. They understand the product technically, and can translate that understanding into a discussion of benefits and business issues that the sales force needs when speaking with prospects. You can’t expect the sales reps to take technical information and translate it themselves. They won’t.

Read on for tips to make product training of the sales force more effective and less of an uphill battle.


Find Allies – You’re Gonna Need ‘Em

This is not an effort that a Product Manager can do alone. This is not an effort that any single department can do alone. It requires input from across the organization.

Enlist the support of the management team by discussing the need for sales training and what training must accomplish in order to make the company successful. Focus on the goal and get as many managers on board as possible.

You’ll need help from Marketing, and possibly Sales, to develop the materials to use in training. If you have the time to develop the materials yourself, great, but you’ll probably need others to provide the standard product presentation, and sales can help develop some more specialized materials relating to selling techniques and overcoming objections.

Don’t forget to drum up support among the people you’ll be training. Out of the group, there’s bound to be someone who’s interested in thorough training. Still others will support the idea in principle – as long as the training is valuable and doesn’t take up too much of their time. Find out from them what they want to include in the training, and make sure you incorporate that whenever possible.

Cracking the Whip

Only one person can make sales reps attend training and actively participate. That’s the one who they report to on their sales pipeline, quotas, bookings, and commission. That person must crack the whip to let everyone understand in no uncertain terms that they are expected to attend training. And they’re expected to participate and learn.

So it’s critical that you get this person’s support. First, they must support the idea and goals of training. Then, you probably need to define for them just what they can do to back you up. Like specifically telling people: “You are all expected to attend training, for the full training session, no exceptions. Schedule travel accordingly.”

Clearly explain what you need this individual to do in order to improve the success of the training. If there are quizzes or tests during training, have this person explain that he or she plans to review them to see how each person did.

Negotiating Enough Time

Then there’s the very important issue of how much time can be allotted for training. Often, a sales manager’s first instinct is to imagine product training in a one or two hour session. This is not enough. You need enough time to cover multiple features and benefits, to field questions, and to review what has been covered.

A half a day every quarter, or every release, is the minimum time you’ll need to cover enough ground. I would push for a whole day. It can be broken up as the afternoon of one day followed by the morning of the next, if that makes it easier to swallow.

By the way, half a day is really only three hours once you include breaks, and a full day is only six.

In order to convince sales managers to take more than a couple hours for training, you may need to do a simple ROI analysis. If there are five sales reps, how much more effective will they be over the next quarter if they have not one or two, but three to six hours of training? How much momentum will they lose over the next three months if they are only partially able to discuss benefits and explain features when challenged?

And ask that the product training not be the last item on the agenda. Have the sales manager conduct an important meeting or session after training is over, so that reps aren’t tempted to head out early.

Piggybacking On Sales Meetings

The sales force is supposed to be spending time on meaningful interactions with prospects, moving them towards a decision to buy the product. This involves a lot of costly (both in terms of money and time) travel and other time-consuming conversations and meetings. The bottom line: the sales force doesn’t have time to spare.

Because of this, it’s unlikely that you can convince sales managers to have their entire staff spend travel time and money and take one or two days from their selling time solely for a training meeting. Your best bet is to incorporate training into quarterly sales meetings.

In some cases, your push for training can justify the sales manager’s need for quarterly meetings, changing them from “nice to haves” with a lot of soft benefits that are hard to quantify, to important “must have” sales force development sessions.

Who Wants to Be a Star?

Every teacher relies upon their star pupils to come to their aid with difficult topics – raising their hands, participating in discussions, showing enthusiasm. Chances are you have at least one person on the sales force who can play this role. Ask ahead of time for their assistance if necessary, and give them lots of encouragement and praise during the training sessions when they help out. “That’s an excellent question!” “John brings up an interesting point.” And so forth.

With luck, this kind of assist will get the whole group participating.

Sales Engineers: Your Only Hope?

If you’re lucky, your company has sales engineers. These are technically skilled people whose job is to support sales reps with the details of setting up, customizing and explaining the software in terms that business users can understand. Just what you need!

It may be that when you’re training the whole sales force, you’ll never be able to rely on the reps to pick up all the fact you think are important. But usually the sales engineers are delighted to do just that. If you can’t get everyone to learn, focus on doing the best training job you can for the sales engineers, and let the sales reps rely on them to answer the detailed questions put to them by technical gatekeepers.

Tie All Content to Benefits

There is only one way for sales reps to effectively present the product to prospects. That is by discussing the benefits to the prospect.

Therefore, make sure that any product training is organized by business benefit. Explain details in the context of supporting a benefit. Only details that support a benefit are important for the sales reps to learn.

It doesn’t help to explain that the Prospect screen in your contact management software has thirty fields, beginning with the Assignee field. What does help is to explain that sales departments use your software to help meet their quotas, and what is specifically helpful is that administrative assistants can go to the very first field on the screen to assign each incoming lead to the appropriate rep, who sees it on their list of prospects immediately.

The fact that all training must be presented in terms of benefits means that you probably can’t rely on existing user training materials and documentation to build your sales training materials. Developing these materials can represent an extensive effort, and that’s why you’ll need allies in Marketing and Sales to help you with that.

Give Out Prizes

Okay, so maybe it sounds corny. But it works. After covering a block of material, ask questions, and give out prizes for the best answers.

I remember a sales meeting where the VP of Sales threw money at people when they answered questions correctly. It was a very dot-commie kind of thing to do, but you can bet that everyone was shouting out answers.

Quizzes or questions can be an opportunity for people to compare answers with the group and for a top scoring sales rep to get a coupon for a dinner for two at a nice restaurant. Suddenly training takes on significance!

Webcast and Phone Training

You’ll probably have a maximum of four opportunities each year to do in-person stand-up training. But in between, you can provide sessions on special topics – one hour at the most – as a follow-on to regularly scheduled sales conference calls, for example.

This training can be done using webcasts, or even simply over the telephone, with everyone following along on their own PC, advancing through the same slide show in unison.

Imagine these sessions as virtual classrooms. Act like you would with stand-up training when it comes to asking questions. It’s harder to get participation over the phone, so single out specific people for a question: “Lisa, can you tell me the three ways you can re-assign a sales lead?”

One-On-One Training

Group training can only take you so far when you have different levels of skills and experience. Some people need additional training in specific topics. Expect that when you’ve finished official stand-up training, you’re not done yet. You can supplement this training by scheduling one-on-one sessions with individual reps and engineers. This can be in person or over the phone.

This is part of the product champion role of a Product Manager, specifically the Broken Record. Just because you said it once during training doesn’t mean everyone has understood. You’ll need to repeat yourself with individual members of the sales force.

Note: In an earlier topic called “Product Champion: What Does That Mean?” I discuss various components of being the product champion, including the Broken Record.

Don’t Leave ‘Em High and Dry

You can’t just provide training and leave the sales reps hanging. Be sure to provide backup materials that you not only cover during class, but that later serve as reminders and reference materials.

Even with the best training, it takes repetition over time for the material to sink in. By providing reference materials which reps can consult before they talk to a prospect, you help anchor the knowledge.

Don’t Expect Miracles

Training the sales reps will not stop them from calling you with questions – sometimes at the most inconvenient of times. Instead, you can hope that training will provide a standard base of knowledge across the sales force, and will answer many of the more basic questions in advance. You’ll find that reps still call with questions, but those questions are often more advanced after training.

Sometimes the only way people will pick up information on the product is by calling when they want to know something specific.

And no training class ends with every participant having understood every point.

Remain On Call

Encourage all the members of the sales force to consider you “on call”, even though you’ve just told them everything they need to know. You want the sales force to be comfortable consulting you.

Keep a folder where you jot down the questions you get asked. Assume that for every person who doesn’t know the answer and asks, there are two that don’t ask, for whatever reason. Take advantage of regular sales conference calls to spend five or ten minutes providing the answers to recent questions for everybody’s benefit.

Ultimately It’s Worth It

While training the sales force can be frustrating for a number of reasons, it turns out that you do in fact benefit, and more importantly, your sales force gains momentum with their prospects.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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