Improving Business to Business Selling Effectiveness

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Graham French




Selling coach Graham French argues that companies
routinely squander valuable budgets
 with very little to show for it


I once had an MD  who used to enjoy winding up his sales managers by maintaining that sales training was a “waste of ***** time.... you can either sell or you can’t” he liked to say.  He had the luxury of being able to deliver this level of poker-faced sarcasm because we were actually one of the best trained sales forces in the software and services industry.


That was some time ago and I now make my living as an independent sales coach whose job it is to improve the selling effectiveness of business-to-business sales teams.  The MD may have been joking at the time, but I’ve since developed the view that much of the sales training that is conducted day-in, day-out is indeed a waste of time and money. 


It seems that I’m not alone in holding this view.  Huthwaite Inc, a highly-respected US sales consulting, training and research firm has come to the same conclusion.


The good news for those of you now calculating mentally how much money you may have inadvertently squandered in the last few years is that Huthwaite believes that it is not all wasted… just 87% of it. It may be a surprising conclusion but one that resonates well with my experience as a salesman, sales manager, sales director and now as a sales coach.


That fact is most of the money, effort and time that companies spend is on generic, formulaic “drive by” sales training.  You know the type - sales trainers stand up in front the group and teach by talking to endless slides - death by PowerPoint. This litany goes on for days only broken up by role- playing sessions. Salespeople usually take part in the role play games with gusto and determination. But the money would be better spent on a party for the sales team.  And that might produce better results.


Here’s the reason.  Huthwaite’s research showed that within a month of a sales training course sales people typically had lost 87% of the new skills they had learned.  They had simply forgotten. Outcome? No change in behaviour: no improvement in selling effectiveness and no consequent improvement in sales performance. That means that for every £1,000 most companies spend on sales training nearly £900 is wasted.


So should we forget about developing our sales people and just focus on hiring `sales superstars`? The latest CSO Insights 2006 report on selling effectiveness says that most companies are looking to increase their sales teams in 2006 and are mainly looking to hire experienced salespeople. This won’t work. There aren’t enough of them to go around. If it does happen, sales directors can expect increased voluntary senior salesperson turnover this year. But that’s another topic.


Is it even worth trying to develop the skills of our people? Of course it is.  As John Williams, former Senior VP, World-wide Operations at StorageTek, says


“I’m a firm believer that as a manager today the most effective action you can take to deliver the biggest return is not any of the usual suspects.  It’s not optimising back office processes. It is not fine tuning finance. It is not about improving the quality of manufacturing. The biggest contribution will come from increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the sales force.”


Williams knows what he’s talking about – he grew sales at StorageTek over a four year period from $700 million to $2.2 billion – without adding a single extra sales person.


The reality is that better sales people with an inferior offering do tend to win against less effective sales people with the better products. And the good news is that studies show that there ARE more effective ways of bringing about an improvement in sales performance than traditional sales training.


Sustainable improvements in sales peoples’ behaviour can be achieved but to do so will require changes in the way companies usually go about things. Success starts with five key techniques:


1.       Identify and understand what selling best practice looks like for their particular business unit; 


2.       Add to this internal best practice some fresh external ideas that work well for other businesses;


3.       Gain the commitment of management to adopt the new approach;


4.       Run short workshops with the salespeople to explain, discuss and try out the new best practice;


5.       Teach sales managers to effectively coach their people in the field.


`Sounds like it needs a lot of commitment and effort and time, ` I can hear you saying, `and very expensive`…`not sure we are ready for it`... `too much of a distraction`... `we haven’t got time to do it this year`... `we’ve got incredibly tough targets to achieve.`


But moving through the above five stages will require you to looks closely at your current techniques and re-evaluate the way you sell.  This can be tough. And you may decide that you want to work with a specialist to help you face some painful realities but then develop an integrated and highly specific training and coaching programme to help you move forward.


This is likely to cost a little more in external fees than buying-in conventional off-the-shelf sales training.  But you will have a far better chance of creating sustainable change in your sales peoples’ behaviour.  And if it works and the sales force does step up its effectiveness, the results will be more competitive wins, fewer no decisions`, sales cycles shortened, and effort focussed on those opportunities that have the best chance of closing. Overall, fewer resources spent winning each piece of business and more business won.  That should more than pay for any extra investment. 


But I don’t assume that everyone will buy into this idea.  Should someone in your company propose spending, say, £20,000 on traditional training that will be forgotten shortly, get them to calculate what 87% of that figure is. You could have quite a party with that!


If you don’t fancy endless socialising but would like to find out more about a newer, smarter and more business-specific way to improve your team’s selling effectiveness and increase your competitive edge, give me a call on….. I’d be pleased to talk with you.


If you would like a copy of my paper ‘Why Sales Managers Don’t Coach – Even Though They Think They Doplease click here


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