Companies spend vast amounts of time, effort and money to provide their salespeople product training. It isn’t unusual for organizations to have product training budgets ten to twenty times their sales training budgets. As the name implies, product training tends to be product-centric versus customer-centric. Unfortunately, making that transition in most organizations is left up to individual salespeople.

If I were a buyer, one of my biggest fears would be the potential of being the first prospect a new salesperson called on after completing typical vendor-centric product training. Unless the seller possessed a great deal of intuitive sales ability, isn’t it likely that initial “sales” call would be painful? It points out that conventional product training doesn’t prepare salespeople to make calls on prospects and customers. Some organizations or managers even suggest sellers start calling on unqualified companies to “cut their teeth” before calling on viable prospects.

The Separate Silos of Product and Sales Training
The objective of conventional product training is to pound as much factual data as possible into the brains of salespeople. It steers sellers toward making “spray and pray” calls with little regard for a buyer’s interests or needs. Besides violating a fundamental best practice of selling, leading with product increases the chances that premature pricing discussions or buyer objections will arise.

With the advent of Websites many buyers are better informed and further along in the buying process before talking with a salesperson. It is very possible they think they know what they want and a seller doing a “spray and pray” sales call will be out of alignment with a buyer.

Ask yourself: What are we hoping to accomplish with product training for salespeople? My answer would be to help salespeople make better calls and their companies can achieve revenue targets.

This result is not achieved often enough for organizations that treat sales and product training as distinct and unrelated silos. I’d like to offer some observations and then suggest a customer-centric approach to attempt to improve the process.

Firsthand Experience
Upon graduating as an engineer, IBM hired me as a sales trainee to sell computer systems to small to mid-size organizations that were using manual accounting systems. Territories were comprised of several different verticals (manufacturing, distribution, state and local government, etc.). Product training was a combination of classroom and field activities that took over a year to complete. During that time, I learned how computers, storage devices and software worked and got a sense for how businesses were run. The final two weeks of formal training was Sales School (how to sell).

After persistently hounding my manager, he put me on quota and assigned a territory. In preparing to make calls, I faced the daunting challenge of distilling my year-long accumulation of product knowledge into a coherent message for all the vertical industries and titles within my territory. One of my major verticals was manufacturing. Consider for a moment the number of different titles a seller must call on to sell ERP software: VP Manufacturing, CFO, CEO, VP Engineering, Production Manager, VP Procurement, Inventory Control Manager, etc. Think how different those calls should be in discussing potential goals and problems for each title.

It should surprise nobody that my initial sales calls were awful. I mistakenly thought my mission was to “sell” computers. My manager concurred. I’m sure many buyers were scared off by my attempts to educate them on the inner workings of computers (i.e. putting all their business records on a disk drive). Regardless of how each call went, I left a full set of brochures, hoping somehow the buyer might read them and become even more interested.

Six months into the process, I had an epiphany: I wasn’t selling computers. I was selling the usage of computers to provide business owners reports enabling them to improve their bottom lines. My role was to help them understand how they could achieve specific goals or solve specific problems by using my product. This conclusion enabled me to understand that the hardware and software were merely means to an end. Calls were far more productive when they began with discussions of the buyer’s issues and how they handled billing, receivables, payables, inventory control, etc. I also discovered that a buyer’s willingness to learn about products varies inversely with the level at which you call. The higher you call, the less product-centric calls should be.

After discussing the shortcomings of their current systems, business owners could then see how they could get reports that would enable them to run their businesses better on demand without manual effort. Value was established in their minds. This meant that minimal education was required about the actual workings of a computer system to get them ready to make buying decisions.

After my initial failures, I went into calls armed with sample reports (industry and job title-specific) generated from my customers’ computer systems instead of brochures providing speeds and specifications of the hardware and software. Initial failures had taught me to change my approach to discussing prospect business issues first, show them the indicated reports (which would enable them to make better decisions) and then offer proof in the form of a demo that was focused on the buyer needs.

The company-centric product training made me intelligent about IBM’s offerings. I could cite more specifications of hardware and technical details of products than any buyer would want to hear. The shortcoming was that product training didn’t help me position those offerings to customers because it provided no context with which to relate how buyers could use the product to improve business results and cost-justify the expenditure that was required. This occurred at a company that many considered at the time to be one of the best at employee training.

This task becomes more challenging as the number of vertical industries and titles increase. Consider how inefficient it is to have this integration done by each salesperson individually. Even more importantly, doing things in this manner limits or eliminates the possibility of establishing, capturing or sharing best sales practices.

By failing to integrate the sales and product training silos, organizations place the burden of positioning offerings on the shoulders of their salespeople by default. Despite the collateral, Websites and PowerPoint presentations provided by marketing, positioning nets out to the words salespeople use while talking with buyers. The responsibility for positioning offerings never appears in a salesperson’s job description (nor should it!), but that is the reality for companies that fail to do customer-centric product training.

You may be asking yourself, how many salespeople are capable of integrating product and sales training? In my experience, 10% or fewer have this ability. I refer to them as “A Players.” The good news is that they will consistently meet or exceed quota. The bad news is that most of them do the integration intuitively and therefore cannot pass their techniques along. If you doubt the last statement, here are a couple of ways to attempt to validate it:

  1. Ask the best salesperson you know to describe or document how they sell. Would their description be what to do or how to actually do it?

  2. Consider how many superior salespeople struggle in their first sales management position when attempting to transfer their personal selling skills to direct reports.

“A Players” have limitations. Some may be superior salespeople only for certain products or certain vertical industries. The reason is that most have extensive knowledge of how buyers use their offerings, sometimes because they have firsthand experience in that market segment. For organizations, the failure to codify how their top performers sell costs them revenue every day.