Every year companies spend billions on sales training — with most of it flushed down the proverbial toilet. Don’t get me wrong. Any time spent training your sales force is a good investment, but the way most companies go about it is a tragedy.

Problems with sales training occur on both the vendor and the client side.

On the vendor side, there has been no real innovation for more than 20 years. Remember Spin Selling? Nothing has really changed since then. New models have emerged, but they essentially deal with the same issues. Any veteran sales person who has been through some of the more popular programs knows they all present the same recycled stuff. The way training is delivered hasn’t changed much either — trainers either “pump ‘em up” with motivational sunshine or slowly put them to death with PowerPoint presentations. Vendors have become irrelevant, but they continue to do business because there is nothing else out there.

On the client side, the problem is just as big. Even if the sales training programs were relevant, most client companies do not have the infrastructure to make the training stick. There are no performance improvement models for sales — no processes for team learning to take place. Service has Malcolm Baldridge, manufacturing has Six Sigma, but sales forces have nothing. This is a big problem, and it’s the primary reason why billions of training dollars are wasted every year on sales training. If you don’t have some process for continuous improvement in place, don’t even think about training your sales team. It’s completely pointless, and you will never see a return on investment for your training dollars.

So what is a continuous improvement model? Simply put, it is a process whereby an organization can gain knowledge before, during and after the execution cycle, and put this knowledge to use to benchmark and improve. Most companies don’t have sales training problems. They have knowledge management problems.

Here are three success factors that will help you learn faster as a team, improve performance, and develop the execution patterns that will help your sales training investments stick.

1. Discovery:
Turning Information Into Knowledge
Knowledge is created from information. As a leader of a sales team, you have to develop reliable systems to collect the right information, give it meaning and turn it into actionable decisions and tactics. This information tends to come from three sources:

• Environmental information on products, industry trends and competitors. Generally speaking, most sales organizations are competent at gathering information on their macro environment — the products and competitors they deal with regularly. What’s often missing is the ability of the organization to turn the critical information learned by sales team members into the usable information that can benefit the whole team. Products and competition make up some of the most rapidly-changing knowledge elements so it takes a robust, disciplined process to ensure the right people get the right information at the right level of detail.

• Quantitative information on sales team performance — your Sales Scorecard. Too many sales teams measure the wrong things. They measure the end results, but not the quality and quantity of activities that create success. If your sales cycle is six months, and all you measure is the top line sales numbers of each rep, then you are looking at a lag time of six months between the activities required and the sales result. If you are going to lead a team to peak performance, you have to measure and perfect the key success factors that create the sales opportunities — the calls, mailings, appointments, proposals, etc., that lead clients through the sales cycle. It’s best to focus on a few sets of metrics that are the most relevant to supporting the team in their decision making and execution responsibilities; ad hoc reports can supplement these numbers when your team wants deeper analysis on a particular issue.

• Qualitative information gained during the execution of sales activities. The most difficult type of information you can get, and possibly the most valuable to your execution improvement process, is the qualitative information obtainable only through monitoring the individual efforts of sales people. The recorded calls and ride-along sales calls that allow you to see, in real time, the effectiveness of the people on the “tip of the spear.” Most companies rarely get to this granular level of performance monitoring, and even fewer implement proper After Action Reviews. A good After Action Review process in sales can be the single most important performance enhancement tool a company has.

In a military After Action Review, the people who participated in the mission conduct a “no-blame” assessment of what happened. The leader must set the tone for this so that all members involved feel free to admit mistakes that may have impacted the mission. Every branch of the military has some type of post-mission evaluation because people’s lives are on the line, and they cannot afford to make mistakes twice. Nor can they afford to lose knowledge of what worked and can be repeated on subsequent missions.

For sales people, admitting mistakes is anathema. Can you ever remember hearing a sales person saying that he lost the sale because he failed to establish credibility with the client and didn’t know the competition well enough? It has never happened in the 5,000 or so years people have been selling! After Action Reviews conducted properly with peers can help create an environment where your sales people can admit real mistakes and learn from them, not just blame lost sales on the lower prices of the competitor.

2. Standards:
Turn Knowledge Into Best Practices
Most companies have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) — on the shelf in an unoccupied cubical. Most SOPs are outdated the day they are written. In sales teams, the conditions are even worse. Most of the critical information the team needs to succeed is jotted on sticky notes pasted to the computers of 50 different people. This is a tragedy. In sales, your SOPs are not just procedures; they are the best-selling practices. They are glue that enables you to establish what the best practices of selling are so you have a baseline to compare execution against.

Your SOPs should contain all of the rudimentary administrative processes, from hiring procedures to software procedures and order management. Most importantly, they should contain the best practices in sales — “how” to sell the product to every different kind of client. These kinds of standards don’t go on the shelf; they get used every day by everyone — because when it comes time for a peer After Action Review, everyone’s behavior is going to be compared against the standard. During After Action Reviews, your SOPs will help you understand whether failure to adhere to the standards caused the failure, or conversely, whether your team’s success resulted from not following the standards. In this case you would need to adjust your SOPs to the next best practice.

3. Coaching & Development:
Turn Best Practices Into Behavior
Education can change a person’s perspective, but it can rarely change behavior. This is why coaching is the most important element of any execution improvement program. We all know of bright executives who have failed miserably at execution. With sales people this is even more important. Sales is more than applying textbook principles learned in a classroom; it is a deeply engaging process that requires mind, body and soul.

The problem is that most sales people never get relevant coaching. Sales managers are too busy, or they just don’t have a clue as to how to be a relevant coach. There is a short-cut to relevant coaching — Development Planning. Sit down with your sales people and write up a list of critical behaviors that are holding them back. Most of the time these behaviors are obvious both to you and to them. If they’re not obvious, take a ride-along on a sales call and have a one-on-one After Action Review to point out the behaviors in question. Listen to some recorded sales calls with them. Have them take a sales behavior assessment and review the results with them. Get the sales people to identify the problems in their own words and write up a plan to help the person improve these. Here is what should be in your plan:

• Clear development priorities
• Practical action steps that a person can take everyday/week
• A forum for reflection and peer/supervisor input
• Supervisor support

Once you have a plan in place, meet regularly to discuss the progress of the actions they have committed to and the goals they are striving for. Remember, these are coaching sessions, not performance appraisals. The tone is one of support, not dictation. Let them talk and come up with their own solutions.

When you put the processes in place to discover and standardize best practices, and to coach for performance, you will see immediate improvement. Even more, when you do make an investment in training, it will take root in your culture since you have a process to learn as a team. For most sales leaders, these are some of the hardest things you will ever do. They take discipline and commitment — things most sales teams lack. But for those who have the right stuff to make it happen, the rewards are great.

Bryan Feller is CEO of Catalyst Performance Group, a full service B2B sales and marketing agency that focuses on the whole go-to-market system. Catalyst Performance Group works with the “who’s who” of corporate America — helping clients achieve sustainable growth through disciplined sales and marketing strategies. Bryan has attracted a diverse team of high-caliber talent, each working toward the same powerful vision: to achieve unprecedented results for their clients through experience, opportunity and insight. For more information, please visit www.catalystgroup.us.