In 2011, North American firms have already spent upwards of a whopping $1.9 billon on sales training, according to estimates by Doug Harward, chief executive officer of Training Industry Inc. Fully two-thirds of that was spent internally, with the rest going to outside training providers. While sales training is once again on the increase, emphasis and delivery methods continue to evolve.
"Spending on sales training turned up in the last eighteen to twenty-four months," Harward notes. "It's a leading indicator of the economy - the first to be cut and the first to return." Training expenditures rose 10 to 15 percent over 2010 levels, and leading training companies saw revenues increase 20 to 25 percent.
Harward sees more interest in training technology, virtual tools, and online learning communities. "Companies want short, timely programs that can go out to remote locations. It's a big cost reduction, and you get better information out."
In addition, he explains, there is increased interest in online learning portals to provide education on demand. "It's for all employees but most valuable for sales reps." Firms are looking for knowledge retention, not just employee retention. "They want to deliver it at the right time to the right person and filter out the noise."
Firms want to get new salespeople on board and ready faster. "There is a lot more emphasis on role playing and consultative and solution selling. Training companies that emphasize these sales methods have done very well," says Harward.
"More companies see sales training as an investment, not something to be cut back in hard times," says Julie Thomas, chief executive officer of ValueSelling Associates. "But they want to be prudent, so they are looking for practicality and ability to implement."
To reduce time out of the field, firms increasingly seek e-learning, including Webinars, simulations, avatars, and virtual instructor-led training (VILT). "Companies used to ask if these were possible, and now they want to do them," Thomas says.
Thomas argues that companies most often are interested in training geared toward the development of three skills: business acumen, negotiation, and getting access to decision makers. She explains, "Management wants reps with engineering degrees to be able to talk to prospect executives. Similarly, customers are more demanding; they are information hoarders, and they want reps who can manage through long procurement cycles. So salespeople must learn to build relationships, on and off line."
Sharon Daniels, president of Achieve-Global, also sees a continued emphasis on reducing time in the classroom. She asserts that virtual learning has increased, especially in the last 18 months: "Sales productivity is a concern, and that is spawning [sales training] offshoots. Companies want to use technology for short training sessions, ninety minutes or less."
Another big trend Daniels sees is blended learning: "You kick off with a video of the VP of sales. Then groups get together and talk on the phone with facilitators. Then comes e-learning and additional reading over several weeks. Then everyone gets together live to practice. This might be the first time they actually see each other."
The blended approach gives reps more time to assimilate lessons than in compressed classroom sessions. And it exploits the fact that salespeople like to talk about deals amongst themselves. Moreover, although the blended process runs over several weeks, it saves time taken away from selling. But achieving this efficiency is complicated, Daniels cautions: "It is much more complex to schedule than one session, where they all get together." Companies need learning-management systems or other tools to make it work.
Daniels sees more focus on training sales managers. "Companies used to give lip service to [training for sales management], but now they realize managers are their lynchpins. If they don't train managers, they are wasting training on reps.
"There is more emphasis on training for CRM," Daniels says. Companies are deploying much more ambitious CRM systems. They want all the information relevant to a prospect or customer attached to the CRM and, says Daniels, "they want it to be a one-stop shop."
Finally, Daniels also sees more interest in training reps to "own" the customer: "Companies want salespeople to know how to use every moment and every touch point with the customer."
General Physics trains salespeople mostly on product features and benefits. Senior vice president Dan Miller says sales-training needs differ significantly around the world. New reps in booming Asian economies need training from the ground up on skills, products, and industries. "But in Europe and North America, salespeople are changing areas and markets, so they need training in new products and markets," Miller says.
Miller explains that although global companies want to train all salespeople, they seek modular approaches tailored for each rep: "Some need only product training, and others need it all from A to Z." Many firms want to train salespeople to use the new social media for sales.
In North America, companies are challenged to address the number of Baby Boomers who are set to retire in the next five years and how that factor will affect training. One Canadian General Physics client is losing half its employees in the next three years. "Lots of people will be replaced, and that will require training of replacements," says Miller.
But these firms do not want the old two- to three-week live training sessions. "They want training much more modular and available anywhere," Miller says, so interest in VILT has grown substantially in the last two years.
"Everyone likes Webinars, but these must be very well structured," Miller stresses. "Facilitators must be prepared; they must understand the technology. And you must blend it with other media. You don't want to fly salespeople to one place for two weeks. You want to pull them together for a couple of days to get them ready, and then put the information online."
New e-learning tools cost more to develop than classroom instruction but are less expensive to deploy. They are especially effective in fast-changing, high-tech industries. Says Miller, "VILT is the key tool, but you can also bring in videos and YouTube."
Like AchieveGlobal's Daniels, Miller also sees more interest in training sales leaders: "In the last two years, that has grown a lot and will continue to grow with the retirement of the Boomers."
Sales leaders at top companies are on the same page as trainers. "With the proliferation of new technologies like video and Web conferencing, sales training is being taken to a whole new level," says Alison Gleeson, vice president of US commercial sales for Cisco Systems. "What was formerly one-to-one training has been brought to life through the ability to reach many people from multiple, disparate locations at one time. This has been incredibly beneficial to our sales teams."
Cisco wants to extend technologies to role playing. "Collaboration enables us to bring a classroom to life and help our sales teams better understand products and product capabilities, and how they impact our customers," Gleeson says. "Leveraging technology to role-play with teams, and even with customers to hear directly about key business objectives, allows our sales force to more effectively approach different scenarios and business functions to better align customer needs and our own."
Eric Leger, vice president of field force development at Aflac, says changes are needed in sales training. "The recession and healthcare reform have created a more scrutinizing customer and more competitive selling environment. Solution selling is necessary. So reps must be trained in a broader scope of knowledge."
Leger believes the most cost-effective way to do this is to develop continuous learning through four delivery methods:
1. Event learning: seminars, workshops, orientations.
2. Electronic or virtual learning: online courses, videos, certifications.
3. Field training: sales coaching, joint field work.
4. Mobile learning: sales tips, sales scenarios, reinforcement communication.
Sales Training Expenditures in North America ($ Millions*)
*Total spent, of which about 65 percent is internal and 35 percent is outsourced.
Source: Training Industry Inc.
– Henry Canaday
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