If You Want to Improve Sales and Profits, Stop Your Sales Training Now!

About as recent as 5 years ago, sales training wasn’t a typically hot topic amongst companies in China. Most foreign corporations were merely setting up manufacturing bases here, and sales was conducted overseas. As domestic demand for products and services was so high, sellers were able to sell just about anything, and the domestic market just bought them all.

Fast forward to the market place today. What we see now is very intense competition between sellers. Buyers, on the other hand, have been pampered by growing choices of different buyers. It is now a buyers’ market, and sellers would have to do something different to win over buyers.

Hence, the current high demand for sales training. Many companies, whether foreign or locally owned, are engaging trainers (externally or in-house) to train their sales force to cope with increased competition, and as well as increasingly sophisticated buyers.

However, few companies can actually claim that their sales performances improved as a result of having sales training. In fact, there are some who claimed that after spending lots of time and money (esp. if they go for the premium brands of sales training), they don’t see any significant changes in their sales people, and as such, no significant improvements in sales and profits either.

So, what else can be done to help sales people increase sales (and margins)?

In the 2007 World Class Sales Excellence Research Report conducted by HR Chally Group, the top 3 benchmarks used by world class sales teams are:

1. Creating a Customer-Driven Culture;

2. Recruiting and Selecting the Right Sales Talent; and

3. Training and Developing for the Right Set of Skills

Creating a Customer-Driven Culture

Although there is another old adage that says, “The business of business is to create a customer”, many companies don’t really behave the same way. There are companies that:

* Focus on coming up with new technological applications;

* Will sacrifice anything to drive up share prices; or

* Simply push what has been produced to customers, regardless if there is a need or not

In other words, such companies are either too self-absorbed in their own world and forgot who actually pays their bills (i.e. the customer); or that they are more concerned about getting a good “valuation” so as to fatten their pay packages without providing anything of real value to customers.

If you were to out a sales person with the skills and attitudes to understand customers’ needs and put together a solution that will deliver what customers’ want into any of these companies, that sales person won’t last very long.

Although many of such companies recognise the importance of being customer-centric as a sustainable long-term strategy, they are not able, or are unwilling, to make the change. Here are some reasons why the inertia:

* Unwillingness to risk (one’s career);

* Lack of a customer-centric management team

When a colleague and I were talking to the Chinese JV partner of a prominent German automobile manufacturer, we faced the following concern. They were looking for consultants to help their sales force improve sales at their showroom, especially when they believe they can do much better with their current market share. At some point in our discussion, the client told us that they need to work with consultants with car sales experience, as they have a good understanding of cars.

What we replied was that we will observe and conduct research on how their prospects and customers want their sales people to behave, and then help their sales people get the right behaviours that fit the needs of customers. However, the ensuing reply was that they would want consultants who understand cars (not customers) to conduct such a research. The reason is simply that the client perceived he will have a much easier time explaining to his bosses if the consultants he engaged know cars.

I have seen similar cases happened many times, and in most cases the client cancelled the project to improve sales team performance, as they were unwilling to risk (their careers) to bring about positive changes in their companies.

In other cases, foreign companies who are customer-centric in their home countries may find it difficult to implement a customer-centric culture in China, because they may have a management team who are not customer-centric. This could be attributed that the concept of serving customers is rather new to China. The other possible reason could be that most of the management staff have risen through the ranks when the China operations were very production-oriented, and hence have limited exposure towards serving customers.

Anyway, adapting one’s corporate culture to suit the needs of the market has been a major challenge for most companies, and is certainly NOT an area that training can solve. Still, other challenges lie ahead which need to be resolved.

Recruiting and Selecting the Right Sales Talent

In the last issue (Getting the Right Horse on the Right Track), I mentioned about putting in place a Hunter for a Hunter’s job, and vice versa for a Farmer.

When you are identifying the right sales talent, be it Hunter or Farmer, there is something even more fundamental than a person’s aptitude, past experiences or even personality. It has to do with the person’s value system.

In short, anyone who wants to work in a customer-facing position must want to “pro-actively help others getting from where they are to where they want to be, and be justly rewarded for it”. That, I believe, will be the most fundamental requirement.

Unfortunately, most sales people in China fall under one of these two types:

* People who will get money from customers, by fair means or foul; OR

* People who will stoop down low and be a doormat to customers, as long as the customers give them the business

Either type is not healthy, and chances are that there will be problems in customer retention and in generating a reasonable profit margin from each sale.

Worse still, most sales people are in a sales job largely because they couldn’t get any other job. Not that sales is such a bad job, but many Chinese perceive serving customers as something serfs do, and don’t hold it in high regard. The lack of a proper sales force development process in most companies make such perception a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As part of the whole complicated story, the cost of replacing one sales person (whether the departure is voluntary or otherwise) is at least 6 times the what you are paying him/ her each month, as you will need to search, orientate and train the new staff before he/ she can be effective. If you were to add the opportunity costs of lost sales due to poor hiring, your losses can be even much higher.

Hence, while selling skills can be trained, a person’s value system is very much entrenched, and is unlikely to be changed in a short period of time. The good news is that there are still people with more positive values that make great sales potential. The key is simply how you can identify one and you see one. e-Mail to get some simple yet effective interview guides on how you can identify get great sales potentials working for you.

Training and Developing for the Right Set of Skills

Finally, about training sales people.

Just to set the record straight, sales training by an external trainer is likely to give disappointing results, if the training is not supported by sales managers. By supporting the training, I mean that sales managers work with the external trainer to gather the areas of improvement, as well as structure post-training monitoring and coaching so that trainees practiced what was taught.

In fact, in HR Chally’s 2007 World Class Sales Excellence Research Report, it was stated that “sales people who get at least one half day a week, one-on-one, with their managers are twice as productive than other sales people”.

Hence, before you start training your sales people in selling skills, ask yourself have you prepared your sales managers to be one-on-one coaches with their team members, and if they are equipped with the right attitude and skills to lead their sales teams?

If you aren’t so sure about the answer, perhaps you should stop your sales training now, and start looking at developing your sales managers to be good leaders and coaches.