But first, companies have to bear a few things in mind. "For sales training, one size definitely does not fit all," cautions Marcy Golebiewski, director of training, content, and communications solutions at Santa Clara, CA-based semiconductor manufacturer Intel Corp. "Here at Intel especially, you have to understand the needs of the particular roles in the [sales] field."
The sales force at Intel is expected to take the company's business customers from the conceptual stage of their purchase all the way to delivery of the finished product. The training Intel supplies these employees with reflects the various job roles needed to accomplish that, Golebiewski says. "Some of our sales folks will deal with our customer early in the sales cycle, long before they actually launch a product, all the way until after they launch," she explains. "We help [customers] design their end product, sell our silicon to them, and then ultimately help them sell through the amounts of product they produce, so we really have to have training based on those individual needs."
To achieve that level of specificity, Golebiewski's team works closely with the product divisions for which they are designing the training. Both content and delivery of the learning often is delegated to these individual departments. "We help the product divisions take the content and determine what the sales group needs," she says, "and train the product people so they understand how to effectively deliver training." Golebiewski says Intel's learning experts monitor how the training is carried out, including making sure their recommendations to product divisions are interpreted correctly. If her team advises the division to include an interactive section to the training, they may assume that just means adding a game to the lesson plan. "Then you might have a game just for the sake of a game," she points out. "We have to instruct them that an exercise like that is meant for retention, and explain the benefits and the purpose, so they can deliver it."
The partnership between product and learning divisions to create customized training has positively impacted the company's mobility sales. "My mobility group does a good job of providing training for my field [sales force]," says Golebiewski. "They have a person in the product group who has been designated to oversee training, and works in partnership with my team; the success of our Centrino mobile technology product line is evidence of that."
Sales training requires technical knowledge about product, and enough financial acumen to make a deal, but it also necessitates a way with people, says Heather Kees, staff manager for training at Little Rock, AR-based wireless services provider Alltel Communications, Inc. "You're dealing with customers who are buying based on emotion and on fact," says Kees, "so you have to train somebody on understanding what they're selling, but also how to sell it, and how to sell their personality along with it." To help reps meet those goals, the company not only provides them with thorough details on the products they'll be selling, but gives them exercises, such as role playing, to practice interaction. Feedback and coaching on their selling style is also available to encourage improvement.
In addition to activities provided by the learning team, Alltel reps are prepared for their work by their own managers. "We do a lot of post-training follow-up where we rely on their director managers and staff to help us," says Vice President of Training Mindy Lane. "We'll bring them in and train them on what we think are hard and soft skills, but we also realize that to be successful, we need that hand-off." Frontline managers are engaged, Lane says, to pick up where Alltel's trainers leave off, so the concepts are reinforced on the job.
Besides making it more likely that training will stick, the "hand-off" method gives managers greater buy-in to the training process, says Kees. "It shows them they're accountable for helping their team be successful," she explains. Plus, as Kees notes, a training room is too safe an environment to tell whether reps can really meet sales challenges such as overcoming buyer objections.
About half of Alltel's sales training is conducted online, but Lane and Kees say the classroom component is essential. It's hard to teach interpersonal skills via a computer screen. "You have to have an opportunity to make a mistake, and the instructor brings some intelligence to it that it would be difficult to add to online training," says Kees. A live instructor is able to demonstrate through give-and-take with the learner the right way to make the pitch.
Last year, the company's learning team was charged with preparing reps to better sell its mobile data services, such as cellular e-mail and instant messaging. "Our reps were really good at selling voice, or just selling a rate plan," says Kees, "but they needed help engaging a customer in what their everyday life was like, and how these data products could be a unique solution for them." To do that, the learning team first conducted a train-the-trainer program about data products, including what the technology is, how it works, and why it's useful to people.
The updated trainers then turned their attention to teaching the reps who sell to retail stores "because that's what drives our revenue," says Kees. Within about the first six months of employment, retail reps now complete a day of training in which they learn about the technology powering the cellular network, are given the chance to play with the phones themselves, and do sales role-play exercises. The train-the-trainer half of the new data learning strategy was so successful that by the end of the course, participants were bringing their own research into class about new developments in the data market. As much as your sales team likes the office, scoring sales means time on the road. When training, that can be trying. But San Jose, CA-based semiconductor production equipment provider KLA-Tencor knows how to accommodate, say senior directors of corporate learning Brent Bloom, Randy Tully, and Efren Lopez. "We send out our trainers to the different geographic regions and try to time the training with other key events happening in the region," says Bloom. The company, which has seven international sales regions that span the globe, and more than 200 sales account managers and supporting cast, is willing to invest the time and money to send a qualified instructor wherever he or she needs to be to deliver the training.
With on-the-go sales account managers, it's critical to get to the point, and get there fast, says Tully. "You want to make sure your message and learning objectives are tight and on target," he says. "Their environment is a little more demanding because they may have to deal with multiple sites and persons in the customer camp and internally."
To get these employees up to speed on new product releases, the company has an online sales portal they can log into to see images of the new or updated offerings, Tully points out. Web-based meetings they access through company- provided laptops are on the portal, so they can watch PowerPoint presentations about the new items, and ask questions. Lopez says the company also provides training for them on how to best use its customer relationship management system, so they know how to access information about prospects that will make their strategies more powerful.
Sales account managers at KLA-Tencor often need to understand how to contribute to the product development process, and how to function as managers. "They have to learn how to become the experts in the companies they're assigned to," Tully says, "and to recognize the issues driving bottom-line behavior for that customer." From that knowledge, they are expected to develop "actionable plans" that bring value to the customer and KLA-Tencor. "We teach them how to look at an account at a high level, and then distill things down into actionable items, to look at it from a business analyst perspective, and to factor in information from a multitude of sources," Tully explains. "And, to understand things from a technical perspective, and then relate that back to the company."