Developing salespeople is one of those initiatives that payback double; the salespeople improve their performance, and feel better about your organization investing in them.  In one move you can help keep the good salespeople you have, motivate your salespeople, stimulate your salespeople to become more productive, and attract new, high-quality candidates.

Which Issues Are You Worrying About?

Keeping the good salespeople you have?

Motivating your salespeople?

Stimulating your salespeople to become more productive?

Attracting new, high-quality salespeople?

If you are concerned about any one of these issues, you are not alone.  These are near the top of almost every business person’s list these days.  With good reason.

If you can positively resolve each of these issues, you’ll go a long way to profitably grow your business.  If you can’t, you may have a very rocky road ahead of you.

One Initiative

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 with every one of these troublesome issues.  Is there such an initiative?

The answer?  Of course, there is.

Systematic Approach for Developing Salespeople

In successfully accomplishing that one thing you’ll resolve all the others.

“Development” means “continuous improvement in the knowledge, processes, skills, and tools necessary to be even 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.

Salespeople Learning On Their Own?

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 their own.  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 they could be.  And salespeople are no more nor less intelligent than their counterparts among teachers, social workers, ministers, etc.

Not only that, but every other profession expects its members to continually improve themselves.

Show me a doctor, lawyer, CPA, teacher, social worker, or minister who has not gone back for additional training and development in the last two years.  I’ll show you the one who is either retired or dead.  Show me a salesperson that hasn’t invested in improving themselves in the last two years. I’ll show you 80% of the salespeople in this country.

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.

Instead, they busy themselves with “product-oriented” sales meetings and often complain about unmotivated salespeople. Systematic Development is far more extensive than that!

The Company That Strives For Developing Salespeople:

Structured Training Programs

for all new hires. There is a body of knowledge they would need to acquire. There are skills and processes they would need to master. And there are benchmarks along the way that would measure their progress.  This program would teach important practices including:

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 the customer’s decision
following up to assure satisfaction
penetrating key accounts

Minimum Level of Competency Attained

The salesperson would then continually improve on their skills by investing time and energy in getting better at the job. Required monthly or quarterly “learning experiences” to continue education are then, a regular practice.

Learning Experiences Include:

classes at the local university
audio or video training programs
continuous improvement programs
checking a book out of the company‘s library, then sharing a list of good ideas at the next sales meeting


hold regular developmental sales meetings in which you focused on a specific behavior or practice

At some point in the development of a salesperson, they will likely look for additional career challenges.  When that happens, the focus of development should be on providing the salesperson with opportunities to expand their competency into areas that can be of assistance to the company (in areas other than sales).

Some salespeople will want to focus on training or coaching others, for example.  They can be channeled into learning how to coach.  Others may want to expand into management and should be encouraged to begin gaining management skills and practices.  Still, others may want to pursue team leadership.

A comprehensive development system then should account for three things:
  • Learning the Basic “principles, processes, and tools” for effective selling
  • Continuous Improvement in the “sophisticated practices of highly effective salespeople”
  • 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 that doesn’t invest anything in developing salespeople, or one who has a regular, formal, 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, you say to your candidate, “We expect you to learn on the job.”

After, 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 you 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.

Require Development

Begin to require continuous improvement. And then, provide the means for them to do so. Invest in them, and you’ll be surprised at how loyal they become.

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 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

The Budget for Developing Salespeople

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.

How Much to Invest in Developing Salespeople?

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. And an ASTD member survey found that their member companies averaged 3.2% of payroll on training. 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 the continuous development of the sales team.

Individual Plans for Developing Salespeople

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.

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 like the aforementioned. 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.
You can dramatically improve your sales team’s performance
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