Why Sales Training Doesn’t Work (for You)

sales training doesn't work tomato hammer

What do you do when you start your own business and realize that you have actually do sales (and marketing)? That being invited on technical sales calls or the occasional account review is not the same thing as running the whole pipeline? You try to learn sales, of course. You read books, you do online training, you watch videos on YouTube. There’s so much material out there, and you’ve seen other people do it, and while you’re not excited about it, you figure you can pull it off. After all, sales training is a multibillion dollar industry— this is a known problem with a known solution, right? But if you’re like me, you may have found traditional sales training doesn’t work and can even be counterproductive. Why is that?

In some cases, sales trainers may be great at selling sales training programs, but not so great at helping people get better at sales. Let’s be charitable and assume that’s a small minority, and that most sales trainers are good at selling and good at helping people sell.

So what’s the problem?

Let’s start by looking at who buys those billions of dollars of sales training. It’s mostly big companies, with big sales teams. The VP of Sales invests millions in hiring, training, and managing the hundreds of even thousands of reps on the team. They want their sales reps to be as productive as possible, and training can be helpful. They also have big sales teams, and they know that not every rep will work out over time. They just want to raise the “batting average”. Sales isn’t about batting 1.000, but if you can go from .250 to .300 or .300 to .330, that’s as big a deal as it is in baseball.

But the daily and weekly activities of these sales people look very different from someone who spends most of their time helping clients. Sales people are supposed to spend as much time as possible selling. The whole CRM industry bases ROI calculations on increasing time actually spent selling, compared to travel, paperwork, or other non-sales activities.

What happens when you want most of your time to be non-sales activities— actually delivering value to clients? The numbers game that the big sales teams play looks pretty bad. The techniques that work when you have lots of at-bats are harder to pull off when you are essentially pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 9th. The techniques that work for extroverts who want to talk to lots of people, who love picking up the phone, don’t work for introverts who hate picking up the phone.

When I started consulting, I knew I had to get better at sales. I bought a book called Selling Microsoft (along with many others, but this one epitomizes the pitfalls I encountered) by Doug Dayton. It was all about how Microsoft ran sales. Clearly, their sales teams were doing very well, so it must be a great model to imitate, right? I read the book, dog-eared pages, made notes in my todo list, and more. It was all horrible. While I picked up some great tips, I tried to make myself someone that I wasn’t— a full time sales rep with an extroverted personality whose main concern was hitting quota. I felt uncomfortable. I made prospects uncomfortable. Rather than skyrocketing my sales, I floundered even more.

This was not Doug’s fault. Microsoft had created an engine that led to a lot of nails ready to be hammered. The hammer worked great for them. I had to slice a tomato, I found a hammer, and I was puzzled why the result was a smashed tomato.

If you’re selling clients solutions based on your expertise, slicing tomatoes or whatever the right analogy is, you don’t want a hammer. You’re more like a doctor than a sales rep. Your role is to “help”, not “sell”.

That’s easy to say if your pipeline is full, but if you’re also neglecting or failing at marketing, and you have a weak pipeline, you get tempted to sell hard to the opportunities you have, even if it’s not the right fit. And if you look for marketing training, you’ll find a similar problem. Lots of marketing “experts” pitching solutions for other marketing people, usually targeted at big companies with big marketing budgets, or smaller firms who can solve their whole revenue equation with marketing. If you apply these techniques to your consulting business or law firm or other professional services firm, you can waste a ton of time, money, energy, and hope on hammering tomatoes. So I’m told.

“Traditional” marketing doesn’t work well for these businesses, just like traditional sales training doesn’t work for the owners. It’s not that the advice is inherently wrong, it’s that you’re taking a hammer to the tomato.

Instead of “marketing”, think of “teaching”. This is where your expertise and passion for your field can shine. Where you get to be yourself, not a marketing caricature of yourself. The medium doesn’t matter as much as getting out there and doing it. It could be networking at industry events (the industry of your clients, not your peers), blogging, speaking, doing videos on Facebook or YouTube— whatever suits your strengths. Whether you like it or not, your company is a media company. But you don’t have to be Oprah to use Oprah’s main media hack— create content once, in whatever medium you like, and reuse it across other media. For example, if you’re good at writing, focus on blogging and a newsletter, and perhaps a book. You can have someone else turn that content into video, or get your speaking appointments. If you hate writing, but you enjoy talking about your work, aim for speaking and record a podcast or video series. You or someone you hire can turn that audiovisual content into text for other media. The main thing is to focus on your clients’ problems, and to get to be yourself.

the right sales tool

Sales training is great, sales books can be very helpful, just like I’m sure I could learn some useful basketball tips from LeBron James. But traditional sales training doesn’t work for me and more than LeBron’s workout routine would work for me. But I’d probably get better coaching from an old guy who can’t jump who’s a bit better than me.

An important corollary is that the tools designed for these sales teams, and they are designed for the teams and their VPs, not the individual reps, are not going to be as helpful for a small group of partners (or a single principal) doing delivery and business development, and marketing, and sales.

In the early days of CRM, Siebel was great at convincing the VP of sales that a multimillion dollar system would make the sales team more productive, and give the VP the reports to prove it. Salesforce.com has since taken over this role in the enterprise. Salesforce is a great tool, when you apply it properly to the right problem. It’s no longer a great tool for the small business sales team, and a bevy of CRMs have started to (re)address this market, but as far as I know, Mimiran is the only one that’s for people who don’t even want to be “selling”.

This also means that there are situations where you need hammers. Just be sure you use the appropriate tool for the situation.

If you want sales (and marketing) help for people who are busy actually delivering projects, check out my Sales for Nerds podcast. Just because traditional sales training doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of thinking about sales that will be effective for you.

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