November 23, 2010

Students of the Marketplace

By Henry Canaday

Here’s a sales-management challenge: Sell $5.6 billion a year through a sales team of 1,500 in 90 countries. Keep track of your team, your team’s sales, your customers, and your sales channels. Oh, and make your numbers.

That is exactly the challenge Paul Boitmann, president of sales operations at Newell Rubbermaid, faces every day of every year. In addition, Boitmann’s reps must deliver to retail outlets a combination of shopper and market insights and merchandising solutions that integrate with the outlets’ own sales strategies.

Further, Boitmann faces the dual challenges of training an enterprise sales force with global reach and making training relevant to all the channels in emerging and developed markets.

The company trains about three-quarters of its reps each year in one of three programs: Sales Excellence 101 for entry-level reps, which introduces consumer-driven innovation and brand building; Sales Excellence 201 for midcareer salespeople, which teaches how to be a value-added supplier for customers; and Sales Excellence 301 for senior reps, which was developed in partnership with the University of Chicago and integrates sales and strategic planning.

“We are training our sales force to be students of the marketplace,” Boitmann summarizes. “This means understanding the macroeconomic trends, consumer sentiments, and the priorities and strategies of our retail partners. Through collaboration among our sales, channel, and brand management, we drive consumers to retail aisles and help our customers deliver a great shopper experience.”

To help reach a global sales force, Newell administers online training using avatars – on-screen representations of salespeople – to engage employees in learning. He also uses audiocasts, which salespeople listen to on the move. “This is a quick and easy way to send out new lessons,” Boitmann says.

Sales training across North America, which declined sharply in 2008 and 2009, rose 15 to 20 percent in 2010, estimates Doug Harward, CEO of Training Industry Inc. Along with information technology, sales was the fastest-growing training field. 

Major enterprises still conduct most sales training in-house, but outsourced sales training is also increasing. Enterprises are seeking to consolidate the number of training providers and generally want to deal with large, diversified training firms. And they increasingly ask for customized sales training tailored to their own products and needs.

One big technology trend is the growth of learning portals, offering not only sales training but company and industry news, white papers, case studies, and communication from top execs. “Salespeople log in to the portal and get anything that has happened today, what the VP of sales is thinking, press releases – all in real time,” Harward explains.

Bob Butler of Butler Learning Systems sees enterprise sales forces relying chiefly on in-house resources: “They are using their VPs to do team training.” Healthy enterprises are investing in sales training chiefly to pick up market share during the recession and prepare for rapid growth when good times return.

York Baur, executive VP of The TAS Group, says sales training is growing again and that growth is strongest for enterprises that have the cash and sophistication to plan ahead. Like Butler, Baur sees gaining market share as the primary objective: “Enterprises are looking for rigor in account and opportunity management and measurable results. They are getting more methodical in the treatment of large and global accounts.”

Dan Miller, senior VP at General Physics, sees three broad trends: Training is up from the disastrous levels of 2009, there is more pressure for efficiency, and enterprises are making more use of blended learning that includes instructor-led virtual classrooms.

But training objectives differ widely by market. Pharmaceutical corporations are increasingly interested in training reps for compliance with regulations and integrating sales training with operations and marketing. “If a new drug is launched on Friday, they want to start selling on Monday,” says Miller.

Major automobile manufacturers are training reps on the new green technologies and how to teach their customers about them, both technically and in terms of economic benefits.

High-tech enterprises are training their salespeople “like crazy,” Miller says, because they launch new products so frequently. “And they must train retail clerks, who sell the products of six manufacturers, not just one.”

High-tech product training must be fast and frequent, but not necessarily thorough. “If you don’t get 100 percent of it, that is OK, because 20 percent [of the information shared during the training] will change tomorrow anyway,” Miller notes.

Online training is ideal for the tech-savvy reps who sell high-tech goods. General Physics rolls Twitter across the top of its sales-training screens, puts sales mentors on Facebook, and use games to maximize the interest of salespeople.

Enterprises are becoming more serious about consultative selling, as sales cycles lengthen and fewer executives deal with sales reps, according to Norm Behar, CEO of Sales Readiness Group. He explains, “It is more difficult to get to the decision maker, so you better make sure you have something to offer.” He sees training interest in call planning and trigger events and using such tools as ZoomInfo and LinkedIn to make sure the pipeline is filled with active, rather than dormant, opportunities.

The recession cut training budgets and shifted many enterprises toward e-learning and blended sales training. Behar believes this trend will continue: “Many high-tech enterprises do not want to spend money on travel and conferences.”

During the recession, ValueSelling Associates saw a shift away from training new hires for large enterprises to training more salespeople for start-ups. CEO Julie Thomas says enterprises are also trying to reduce training costs, mostly for travel, and tend to now favor e-learning.

In order to maintain productivity, many enterprises try to integrate sales training into the sales force’s daily work. “If your sales reps live in, they should be able to get training, coaching, guidance, and assistance in that application,” Thomas says. “We are seeing a convergence of CRM and learning-management systems. There is a new generation of digital natives coming up.”

Enterprise sales forces did not cut back as much as they did in previous sharp recessions, according to Sharon Daniels, CEO of AchieveGlobal. “They have continued to make training investments, but in smaller amounts,” Daniels says.

Large enterprises still tend to outsource training in specific sales skills while providing in-house product training. Daniels is not seeing any big shift in the content of sales-skill training. Content depends mostly on the enterprise’s long-term strategy. “Enterprises are also interested in training resellers and channel partners to ensure consistent messages across channels,” says Daniels. “Also, training for negotiation when customers fall behind on payments has become more important.”

There has been a shift in training methods. “Global companies are looking for more global training solutions,” Daniels observes. “And they want to save money by using e-learning and blended approaches that include e-learning.”

Enterprises “want salespeople to understand prospects better, because prospects understand selling firms better,” says Brooks Group CEO Jeb Brooks. “They want all that Sales 2.0 technology to improve sales, they want to differentiate themselves better, and they want to manage accounts better.”

David DiStefano, CEO of Richardson, is seeing strong demand for training in new technologies and processes, e.g., call planning and opportunity planning, and how to embed these tools in and other CRM systems. It is easier for trainers to get the attention of CEOs for technology lessons than for sales-skill improvement.

Keith Rosen of ProfitBuilders is busy training managers and sales VPs on coaching, which may be a wise and economical choice in hard times. “It is easier to change an organization from the top than from the bottom,” Rosen notes.