I’ve been in the sales training business for just over 23 years now, and before that, I was a certified internal trainer for another company’s sales methodology. During that time, I’ve grown in my profession and have also had the opportunity to observe many other trainers in action, so I’ve learned a bit about what it takes to be a successful sales trainer.
Having also done a fair bit of training to non-sales audiences, I can confidently state that while much of this article applies to training in general, salespeople present their own special challenges. Being quota-driven, they are looking for immediate practical application; they are high-energy and find it hard to sit still for very long; above all, they place a high premium on the personal credibility of the trainer.
To succeed with them, a complete sales trainer has to master several roles to deal with the diversity and complexity of the situations he or she will encounter along the way.
Presenter: Just presenting the material is the first step. I began my career working for a firm that taught its own proprietary sales process for the complex sale. My first time in front of a live audience was in Toronto in front of 60 computer systems salespeople. I was terrified before going out, because I knew they had much more experience in complex B2B sales than I did, but my boss reassured me that I knew the content cold, and as long as I stuck just to that, I would be alright. That’s what I did, and fortunately for the client, we had other trainers in the room who could go beyond that in the workshops.
A presenter is like a stealth bomber, happy just to get the payload delivered without taking any hits. Actual learning is just a nice byproduct; the test of a presenter is whether the audience heard and saw all the necessary material.
Teacher: Although competently delivering the material is essential, a teacher goes beyond getting the content out; she makes sure the students actually learn the material, by questioning and assessing performance. The teacher pays attention to students to see if they’re getting it, and explains differently or backtracks if they’re not. Teachers tailor their language and their examples to the students’ circumstances. They provide content and meaning.
Teachers succeed when their students retain the key points. To quote…”You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.”
Coach: If teachers are wholesale, coaches are retail. They can work with each individual student and bring out their best learning and performance. Coaches know what it’s like not to know what they know, what it’s like to struggle with applying new concepts to familiar situations. They can realistically play the part of a customer during a role play and dial the difficulty up or down as needed. This is especially important because sales skills are squishy—no formula survives for long when applied to diverse, often unpredictable and uncooperative customers.
Coaches succeed when their students can retain and transfer their new knowledge and skills outside the classroom, in the real world.
Salesperson: Salespeople can be either the worst or the best students a trainer can have. They can be the worst because they know they are investing expensive time out of the field to be sitting in a class, so if they don’t see value, they will tune you out or fight you. You have to sell them early if you want to survive. But if you can sell them on the need for the concepts and skills you’re teaching, they will be the most engaged of all possible students.
A sales trainer who is a good salesperson can also be a great role model. Sales trainers who sell their own materialhave an advantage; they have to practice the same techniques in order to earn the right to be in front of the class. For experienced sales teams, this is especially important. It’s even more powerful when you can show them your own skill: you might take a stab at wording someone’s value proposition, or at answering a specific objection. When you can do this well, there is no greater compliment than having someone ask you if you can go on the call with them!
Success as a salesperson comes when students want to emulate you.
Student: You need to begin as a student to become a sales trainer in the first place, but through it all, you must continue to be a student. It’s a way to keep getting better, to keep up with changes and the latest research in selling, and to stay fresh. Most importantly, you must strive to learn something from the students who come through your classes.
Students succeed when they pick something up which they can apply and pass on to future students.
Deliverer, teacher, coach, salesperson, student: these are not separate roles. They are steps on the ladder to effective sales training, and different layers of skill that unfold with experience and also come out as needed in the classroom. Without some competence in each of these roles, sales training will not and cannot be as effective as it could be.