Do your sales people actually know how to sell?

From the keyboard of Doug Cowan  |  August, 2013.

Most sales people have never been taught how to sell. They have learned what they know about selling through informal means. Here are four typical methods that most have been exposed to:

  1. On-the-job (OTJ) learning.
  2. Watching more experienced sales people.
  3. Interactions with their sales manager.
  4. Tips and tricks, or suggestions from popular web-sites or blogs.

These methods of learning have been fine for many people, especially when markets were robust and active, and there was lots of buying activity. Times have changed dramatically and there is a new business reality.

Specifically, buyers now expect more from a sales rep than just showing up, if they ask him or her to call. They expect to interact with someone who will bring them real,  tangible value.

This is the new definition of selling and most sales people are not equipped to do it.

Here are the problems with the above four learning methods:

1.       On-the-job learning.

The OTJ method of learning provides only a minimal level of positive feedback or constructive criticism to the sales person. At the same time, it provides lots of exposure to awkward  situations, embarrassment, and rejection.

The main lesson most sales people learn with the OTJ method is to avoid what they don’t do well or what they don’t like doing (often the same thing). The outcome is large numbers of seemingly seasoned sales people with very under-developed skills in some key areas like cold-calling, calling on executives, or digging out a buyer’s true objections to their product, etc. If their job performance depends on being effective in these areas of deficiency, they will be in trouble.

2.       Watching more experienced people.

No doubt, we can learn by watching other people. The problem is that the more advanced skills required to be a successful seller in today’s markets can’t be learned this way. Imagine trying to learn to do a triple-gainer off the high diving board by simply watching a skilled individual.

While we can learn valuable skills from others, we can also learn their bad habits, incorrect beliefs, and questionable practices. The learning of higher level sales skills is best done in steps and stages over a period of time. It is usually guided by a professional trainer or coach.

3.       Interactions with the sales manager.

Many sales managers do not know how to coach or train their sales people. Their main claim-to-fame is that they were probably strong sales people themselves. They may have learned to sell through these same methods and have possibly never attended any training in sales management.

In addition, in many organizations, sales managers are simply too busy to train and develop their people. Often, they are required to sell and cover a sales territory of their own, and most have so many direct reports that keeping up with the paperwork is all they can manage.

4.       Tips and tricks or suggestions from popular web-sites or blogs.

Tips and tricks are frequently just that. They look like learning and instruction but often do not have any way to assess the effectiveness of carrying them out. Lacking a logical framework, they do not build skill. The sales rep can soon find another trick to try and will most likely abandon the previous one.  (Inspirational messages from the boss - e.g. “Plan your work and work your plan” -  fall into this category, too).


Just like other professionals, sales people need to receive focused training to develop basic skills, then progress through intermediate and senior levels, and finally on to advanced skills. All this takes an investment of time and money.

The traditional objections to sales training no longer hold true. It costs much more money in terms of lost sales, poor margins, no customer loyalty, slow or no growth, high staff turnover rates, etc., to not have a properly trained sales force.


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