By Dave Kahle

Developing Your Salesperson

Which of these issues are worrying you these days?

  • Keeping the good salespeople you have?
  • Motivating your salespeople?
  • Stimulating your salespeople to become more productive?
  • Attracting good quality, new salespeople?

If you are concerned about any one of these issues, you are not alone.  These are near the top of almost every businessperson’s list these days.  With good reason.  If you can positively resolve each of these issues, you’ll go a long way to profitably growing your business.  If you can’t, you may have a very rocky road ahead of you.

Now, suppose you could focus on one initiative that would help positively resolve each of these issues.  With one simple move, you could help yourself on every one of these troublesome issues.  Is there such an initiative?  IS THERE ONE thing you can do that will help you keep the good salespeople you have, motivate your salespeople, stimulate your salespeople to become more productive, and attract good quality candidates?

The answer?  Of course, there is.  It’s this:  You can build a systematic approach to developing your salespeople.  And in successfully accomplishing that one thing you’ll resolve all the others.

First a definition.  By “development” I mean this: “Continuous improvement in the knowledge, processes, skills and tools necessary to be ever more effective and efficient.”  I don’t mean that once a month you have a sales meeting when you talk about problems, new company policies and procedures or discuss a new product.  Those kinds of meetings are necessary, but hardly sufficient.

Nor does it mean that you expect your salespeople to learn on the job by trial and error.  At best, that is a very time consuming and costly approach.  At worst, it leads to mediocre performance, confusion and frustration on the part of the salesperson as well as his boss.  Most companies who claim to do on the job training are really making an excuse for their lack of ability to do anything better.

I don’t know of any other sophisticated area of human labor where it is expected that every practitioner will figure out how to do the job well on his/her own.  I, for one, would not want to settle into my seat on an airplane and have the pilot announce that he’s figured out how to fly this plane on his own.  Nor do I want to put my life in the hands of surgeon who learned a surgical procedure by trial and error.  The list can go on and on.  It includes almost any profession you can think of: lawyers, teachers, social workers, ministers, engineers, repair technicians, etc.  In every one of these sophisticated jobs, there is a body of knowledge, of principles and procedures, that the practitioners are expected to master.  While all of these professions expect people to practice, none of them expect them to learn the basic principles on their own by trial and error.

Are field salespeople somehow different?  Are their jobs so simple that it’s easy to learn how to do it well?  Or are they somehow super-intelligent and able to figure it all out on their own?  Clearly the answer to both questions is NO.  Sales is an incredibly formidable profession that offers its practitioners a lifetime of challenge.  No salesperson is ever as good as he/she could be.  And salespeople are no more nor less intelligent than their counterparts among teachers, social workers, ministers, and the like.

Not only that, but every other profession expects its members to continually improve themselves.  Show me a doctor, lawyer, CPA, teacher, social worker, minister, etc who has not gone back for additional training and development in the last two years and I’ll show you one who is either retired or dead.  Show me a salesperson that hasn’t invested in improving themselves in the last two years and I’ll show you 80% of the salespeople in this country.

Why is that?  One major reason is that most of the companies for whom they work don’t require continuous improvement.  One of the main reasons they don’t require it is that they don’t know how to pull it off.  So, they busy themselves with “product-oriented” sales meetings and complain often about unmotivated salespeople.

Being systematic about development is far more extensive than that.  Here’s what your organization might look like after you have invested in developing your salespeople.

Picture of the company that develops its salespeople

You’d have a structured training program for all new hires. There would be a body of knowledge they would need to acquire, skills and processes they would need to master, and benchmarks along the way by which you could measure their progress.  This program would teach such important practices as:

  • developing territory plans
  • planning for sales calls
  • strategic planning for account penetration
  • relationship building
  • prospecting and cold calling
  • making appointments
  • collecting information
  • maintaining good records
  • getting organized
  • making persuasive presentations
  • gaining commitment
  • implementing customer’s decision
  • following up to assure satisfaction
  • penetrating key accounts

Once a certain minimum level of competency is attained, the salesperson would then be required to continually improve on his/her skills by investing time and energy in getting better at the job. You’d make that happen by:

  • requiring monthly or quarterly involvement in “learning experiences.” These could be anything from classes at the local university, audio or video training programs like our sales certification or continuous improvement programs, to something as simple as checking a book out of the company‘s library and sharing a list of good ideas at the next sales meeting.
  • holding regular developmental sales meetings in which you focused on a special behavior or practice and helped people improve in that one area. That’s the specific application for our video training kits.

At some point in the development of a salesperson, he/she will likely look for additional career challenges.  When that happens, the focus of development should be on providing the salesperson opportunities to expand his/her competency into areas that can be of assistance to the company in areas other than sales.  This is when some salespeople want to focus on training or coaching others, for example.  They can be channeled into learning how to do that.  Others may want to expand into management and should be encouraged to begin gaining management skills and practices.  Others may want to pursue team leadership, etc.

A comprehensive development system then, should account for three things:

  1. learning the basic principles, processes and tools for effective selling,
  2. continuous improvement in the sophisticated practices of highly effective salespeople
  3. opportunities to expand in complementary careers and learn the skills necessary to do so.

How will this help you retain and attract good salespeople, motivate the ones you have and improve the productivity of the entire group?

Which would you want to work for?  A company who doesn’t invest anything in developing their people, or one who has a regular, formal and systematic approach such as the one I described above?

Silly question.

Imagine yourself interviewing a prospective salesperson, before and after you’ve implemented the system described above.  Before that, you say to your candidate, “We expect you to learn on the job.”

After that, you say, “We have a structured training program to assure that you master the basic practices that will ensure your success.  Then, when you’ve mastered those, we have a system to stimulate your continuous career growth so that you are always growing better at your job,  Finally, we have a system to help you expand your knowledge and skills into complementary areas like sales management, team leadership, and so on, if your are so inclined.”

Everything else being equal, which company would you rather work for?    That’s how a development program will help you attract the right kind of people.  Clearly, the same is true of your current sales force.  Begin to require continuous improvement, provide the means for them to do so, and invest in them, and you’ll be surprised how loyal they become.

This kind of program cannot help but improve your sales productivity.  When all your salespeople know that constant and measurable improvement is required, most of them will begin to work on that.  And you’ll begin to see the result in increased sales and gross profits.

Training and development like the kind we’re talking about can be one of your best investments.  If only one salesperson acquires only one new account because of your investment in their development, it’s likely that one new account will more than pay for a year’s worth of development costs by itself.

How to move in the right direction

Here are some small steps you can take towards becoming the kind of learning organization I’ve described.

1. Budget for development.

As simple as it may seem, this one step will be a major one.  Once you have a budget, you’ll find it much easier to actually spend that money.  The decision will not be “if” but rather “how.”  Also, by budgeting money for development and then letting your managers know, you will have sent a powerful message that you are serious about it and willing to invest some of the company’s resources in it.

The natural question is then, how much should you invest?  There are some benchmarks available.  The Facing the Forces of Change 2000 study found that high-performing wholesale distributors spent about 2.5% of payroll on training, while an ASTD member survey found that their member companies averaged 3.2% of payroll.  Since training is a smaller issue than development, and since salespeople can generally benefit the company more than drivers, warehouse workers and production personnel, I’d suggest a bit higher number.  I like to see 5% of payroll invested in continuous development of the sales team.

2. Have your sales managers create individual development plans with each salesperson.

It is common practice for sales managers to hold annual goal-setting meetings with their charges in which performance goals are identified.

That’s a great opportunity to create annual development goals and strategies at the same time.  Doing so lets everyone know that continuous development is a requirement of the job.

3. Regularly generate learning opportunities.

Learning opportunities are events at which salespeople are exposed to new ideas or reminded of good practices.  They can encompass a wide range of possibilities from reading a new book on sales strategies, having roundtable discussions of success stories and common problems, to viewing our monthly videotape series for inside or outside salespeople.

The point is that you generate learning opportunities on a regular basis and require your salespeople to take part in them.

While not everyone will gain the same thing from each event, over time they’ll understand that you are serious about their growth, and that their continuous development is your priority and their responsibility.


*Originally published: