What's Wrong with Your Sales Training Program

This article by Steve W. Martin originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review


Somehow, “successful” sales training has become associated with a thick binder of material the salesperson lugs home from the class (never to open again). The classroom experience is based mainly upon rote memorization of facts. There is little interaction, practical exercises, or meaningful conversation about the difficult “real-world” obstacles that need to be overcome. The training classes are pre-packaged sessions that are taught the same way over and over again regardless of the changing competitive landscape. In this article we review four critical elements that are commonly missing from today’s sales training programs.

1. It’s Not Based Upon Win-Loss Customer Interviewing
Unfortunately, I have some very frightening news to share with you based on more than one thousand customers I have interviewed as part of the win-loss analysis studies I have conducted on behalf of my clients. Approximately 30 percent of the time, the winner of the sales cycle was determined before the “official” selection process started.  Another 45 percent of the time, customers had already made up their minds about whom they were going to buy from about halfway through the process. That means 75 percent of the time, customers made their decision halfway through the process.

Only 25 percent of the time did customers make their final decision at the end of the selection process. Therefore, if you are not clearly in the lead at the midpoint of the selection process, the odds are that you are going to lose.

Here’s another disturbing fact. In almost every case, the decision wasn’t even close between the top two choices. Even though customers had made up their minds, they still caused all the other salespeople to jump through a series of hoops for nothing, wasting their valuable time, resources, mental and emotional energy.

The main point from the information above is that you truly can’t train your sales teams on how and why prospective customers make their buying decision if your training isn’t based upon direct interviews with decision makers at won and lost accounts.

2. It Provides an Incomplete Customer Decision Making Model 
Many sales training programs today share the same fundamental flaw. They think of customers as rational decision makers who use logic and reason exclusively.  Meanwhile, the successful salesperson understands and appeals to the emotional, political, and subconscious decision maker. A sales training program should not solely educate salespeople about features, functions, and business benefits. It must also explain the psychological reasons customers buy and provide practical real-world examples on how to incorporate the elements of customer behavior into a winning sales strategy.

People buy products they believe will help them fulfill deep-seated psychological needs: satisfying the ego, being accepted as part of a group, avoiding pain, and ensuring survival. All the other outward appearances of a customer’s decision-making process—the analysis, return-on-investment calculations, and other internal studies—are the means to achieving an overriding psychological goal. Therefore, the training program must take into account the psychological value of your solution and explain how to influence the politics of organizational decision making.

3. It Lacks Meaningful Cultural Transmissions       
No one wants to endure endless hours of classroom lecture. Besides, learning by example is the best way to learn something new.  A “cultural transmission” is the method of learning a behavioral technique by emulating a successful practitioner as a role model.

There are three types of cultural transmissions that should be included in every sales training program. First, there should be success stories about key wins explained using examples that the entire team can understand and learn from. Second, include role play exercises on everything from the elevator pitch and cold calls to the corporate presentation and negotiation. Finally, top salespeople should be interviewed in a panel-type setting about their sales philosophy, territory strategy, where they win and lose followed by an extensive audience question and answer session.

4. Sales Call Execution is Not Addressed   
Many companies segment their vendors by value and whether or not they are strategic to the organization. Companies also classify their existing customers by the amount of money they spend and the products they buy. Unfortunately, very few companies today perform any type of segmentation of the sales calls their sales force makes. As a result, valuable win-loss-related information isn’t captured and sales force effectiveness is lost. Ideally, salespeople should be provided with a playbook for sales call execution based upon the classification of sales calls.

Sales call segmentation is a method of categorizing customer interactions based upon prospective customers’ role within the organization, their orientation (technical, financial or operational), their political power, and how they process information. The goal of the segmentation strategy is to provide a predictive framework that helps salespeople anticipate customer behavior. Since the salesperson has a deeper insight about customer behavior based upon past interactions, he is able to conduct more persuasive sales calls. This strategy also serves as a communication methodology to educate and prepare the colleagues (pre-sales engineers, consultants, and sales managers) who will attend the sales call with the salesperson.

In closing, all successful companies have trained their salespeople on the process to educate customers about their products and procedures to determine customers’ business qualifications and technical requirements.  Truly great sales organizations intimately understand how prospective decision makers think. They share information about how they win and where they lose. They analyze customer interactions and provide their sales force real world tactics so they can predictably close business.

Selling power interview oneSelling Power Magazine Reviews the Heavy Hitter Sales Training Program


How to Use Intuition to Become a Heavy Hitter

By Geoffrey James     Volume 27, Issue Number 5


The Limitation of Sales Process          
Over  the past twenty years, the main focus of sales theory and training has been the  attempt to define an effective sales process that can be both replicated and  automated.  The overall goal has been a  transformation of selling from an unpredictable black box into a “machine” that  predictably generates sales.  Once achieved,  that sales process can presumably be automated, reducing the cost of sales and  increasing profitability.

Top  managers are highly motivated to attempt to transform selling into a  mechanistic process because, if that goal were achieved, they would be better  able to predict future revenue and deliver on promises made to the investor  community.  Sales professionals are also  motivated to makes sales more mechanistic and therefore predictable because  such a goal, if achieved, would allow them to control the sales process, thus  eliminating (or at least reducing) the discomfort of an unknown outcome.

This  quest for predictability lies at the core of most sales training and sales  automation efforts.  Sales training  almost always involves the creation of a process or the development of specific  skills required to drive a process.   Similarly, CRM (originally called “Sales Force Automation” in imitation  of “Factory Floor Automation”) is almost always concerned with gathering data  that will make the sales process more quantifiable and hence more predictable.

Unfortunately,  the quest for sales predictability is quixotic, because selling and buying are  very human activities that are manifestations of very human emotions.  The core of a sales rep’s work consists of  four, essentially unquantifiable activities: building relationships,  understanding how others think, predicting future behavior, and persuading  customers to think differently.  From  this perspective, the attempt to build a predictable, automate-able “sales  process” is as misguided as a geeky engineering student trying to build a  computer program that will tell him exactly what to say in order to get a date  with a popular cheerleader.

Intuition and Experience      
While  focusing on process (and techniques that support that process) is extremely  comforting to those who find it hard to tolerate the uncertainty of human  relationships, the most effective sales professionals – the “heavy hitters” as  it were – take the business worlds’ obsession with sales process and automation  with an enormous grain of salt. They know that when it comes to selling,  they’ll be using their intuition, perception and experience to sense what’s  happening in the sales relationship and to react accordingly.

This  is not to say that sales (and sales training) should be all  “airy-fairy-touchy-feely” as a hard-bitten CRM vendor once put it.  Far from it.   Top sales reps can, and frequently do, develop a keen ability to  intuitively sense what a customer is thinking, and what needs to be said in  order to move the customer towards a sale.   That ability is called “experience” – and it’s a highly valued  attributed among sales professionals.

However,  all experience is not created equal, because the ability to use experiences  effectively varies enormously depending upon the focus of the sales rep while  those experiences are taking place.  For  example, if the sales rep is focusing on a delivering a prepared “sales script”  the sale will proceed (and end either positively or negatively) without the sales  rep ever really noticing why it worked (or didn’t).  By contrast, a sales rep can more quickly  transmute experience into intuition by paying attention to what’s actually  happening in the moment.

The  key to doing this quickly and efficiently is to acquire a set of mental habits  that, first, allow you to perceive the undercurrents of thought that actually  drive the customer’s behavior and, second, help you react appropriately, while  remembering what worked (and what didn’t work) to build the relationship and  persuade the customer to buy.

Layers of Communication
To  acquire these habits, you must first understand how the human mind works when  during a human-to-human communication.  This can be visualized as a set of layers like so:

Phonetic.The specific enunciation and tone of the words spoken.“Mary, please send me the report.” versus “MARY! PLEASE! SEND ME THE REPORT!”
Content.The actual vocabulary of the words spoken.See the above example; note that the vocabulary is exactly the same.
Purpose.The reason or point that is trying to be communicated.“The executive wants the report” versus “The executive wants to express anger that Mary has not yet sent the report.”
Word Catalog.The meanings (emotional, intellectual, and psychological) that a person associates with specific words.Mary secretly dislikes hearing the word “please” because that was a verbal habit of her mother when disciplining Mary as a child.
Internal                             Dialog.The never-ending chatter of thoughts in your mind.Mary is listening with one ear but also thinking about her upcoming lunch date and wondering whether she’d be happier at a different job, etc., etc.
Physical.The manifestation of all of the above in expressions, breathing and gestures.The executive is puffing and waving his hands excitedly in the air; Mary is tapping one foot and has her arms crossed over her chest.

Note  that in the above example, what’s being said (content) is probably the least  important element of the communication between Mary and her manager. If all you knew about the conversation was  the content, you’d completely miss what was really going on.

The same limitation exists in process-driven and  technique-driven sales training, both of which focus almost exclusively on the  content and the order in which that content should be communicated.  However, in sales situations, as in most  human interactions, what’s said (content) is often far less important than why  it’s said (purpose), how it’s said (phonetic), how it’s heard (word catalog),  when its said (relative to whatever is going on in the hearer’s internal  dialog) and how it appears to the eye and feels to the gut (physical) when it’s  said.

Building Sales Intuition                
There are several shortcuts that can help you develop the  mental habits of perceiving communication on multiple levels.  One is what’s commonly known as “body  language.”  Another is Neural Linguistic  Programming (NLP), a scientifically-studied method of interpreting thought  patterns through their manifestation in eye movements.  (E.g. a person will look away when telling an  untruth, or look upwards and slightly to the right when remembering a past  event.)

Probably  the most valuable mental “tool” is the ability to differentiate between what  are sometimes called “thought modalities” or, more colloquially put, “how your  brain is wired.”  Extensive research has  shown that most people favor one of the three different modalities:

      1. Visual. The person values and responds to what he or she sees.  A visual person will tend to dress flashy, talk quickly, and use plenty of broad hand gestures.
    • Auditory. The person values and responds to what he or she hears. An auditory person will tend to dress conservatively, talk in an  even tone, and use subtle hand gestures, usually synchronized with what’s  being said.
    • Kinesthetic. The person values and  responds to what he or she feels.  A kinesthetic person will tend to dress casually, talk quite slowly, and make many “checking” gestures, like touching their chin while thinking.

Understanding  a customer’s primary modality helps you to read, and react to, the more subtle  levels of communication that are taking place during the customer call.  For example, if you determine that a customer  is auditory, you might decide to set up calls with reference accounts rather  than show a product demonstration video.  Conversely, with a visually-oriented customer, you might do the exact  opposite, or with a kinesthetic customer, forego both and simply help the  customer imagine how great he’ll feel when your product has solved his  problem.


Below  are twelve practical steps to help your team communicate better with individual  customers, using the practical application of thought modalities.  This meeting should take approximately one  hour.

      1. Prior to the meeting, ask the team to print out hard copies of the last ten business emails that they sent.  Tell them that they won’t be sharing them with others but using them as part of an experiment.

2. Also prior to the meeting, prepare a handout based on the “Quick Tips for Your Next Training Session” segment of this article.

3. Open the meeting with enthusiasm. Explain that the team will be learning a skill that will vastly improve their ability to build rapport with customers and help them move prospects to customers faster than in the past.

4. Based upon the material in this article, summarize the basic concept of modalities and the role that they play in a customer’s thought process.  Point out that a sales rep can quickly build rapport and more easily guide the sales forward by adapting the sales approach to the customer’s primary modality.

5. Distribute the handout and have them read it. Ask them to  call out the name of somebody in your company, or a well-known customer personality who is obviously a “visual.” Ask for another. Repeat the  process with “auditory” and “kinesthetic.” (You’ll notice that it may be harder for them to come up with kinesthetic examples because they tend to blend more into the background  than the other two types.)

6. Direct their attention to element #3 in the five-step process.  Have them take out the ten emails that they’ve brought to the  meeting and put a “V” next to every time they used a “visual” word, an “A”  next to every time they’ve used an “auditory” word, and a “K” every time  they’ve used a “kinesthetic” word. Tell them that they are not limited to the words in the list in element 3 but are free to characterize other words according to modality.

7. Have the team member total up the inscribed letters on their hard copy emails. Point out that the letter than appears the most is probably their primary modality.

8. Ask the team members to mentally review a past sales call that immediately “clicked” and a past sales call that was a real “dud” from the get-go. Ask if, based on their best recollection, there was a match or mismatch between the sales rep’s primary modality and the customer’s primary modality. Open the floor for discussion and sharing of specific cases. At the completion of this step you should be about 25 minutes into the meeting.

9 Break the team into groups of two. Have each subgroup select who will be person “A” and who will be person “B”.  Tell them that for the initial role  play, person “B” will the rep and person “A” will be the observer.

10. Tell person “B” to give person “A” the standard one-minute “elevator pitch” but in a way that would appeal to a “visual” customer.Have “B” repeat the pitch, but this time in a way that would appeal to an “auditory” customer. Repeat again for a “kinesthetic” customer. Have “A” provide feedback.

11. Repeat the exercise, but with person “A” as the rep and person “B” as the observer. After “A” has presented using all three modalities and “B” has provided feedback, bring the group back together and ask for comments and discussion.

12. End the meeting by  thanking the team for their participation and a resolve to review, at the next sales meeting, whether and how the use of modalities helped move the sales process forward inside real account situations. 


Use  the following five steps to quickly assess a customer’s primary modality:

If you are meeting the customer in person, note the clothes and jewelry the customer is wearing. If they are:

        • More colorful or dramatic than you’d expect, add a point for visual.
        • Relatively neutral and unexceptional, add a point for auditory.
        • More sedate and casual than you’d expect, add a point for kinesthetic.

If you are meeting in the customer’s office, take a quick inventory of the “conversation starters” in the room.  If they consist primarily of:

          • Splashy photographs of scenery, inspiration scenery, etc, add a point  for visual.

                • Photographs of family, hobbies or anything that musically-themed, add a  point for auditory.
                • Anything tactile (a baseball, a “fidget” toy, etc.), add a point for  kinesthetic.

Ask the customer a conversation-starting question, like: “Before we get started, I’d really like to know…what do you like best about your job?  Then listen to the vocabulary that the customer uses for key words and phrases that suggest their primary modality.  Example:

          • Visual: Bright, brilliant, clear, demonstrate, focus, frame, glimpse,  highlight, illuminate, imagine, light, magnify, perspective, reflect, scan,  see, shine, show, viewpoint.
          • Auditory: Articulate, assert, audacious, banter, boast, call, crunch,  dictated, discuss, edit, note, persuade, promise, recap, ring, say, speak,  talk.
          • Kinesthetic: Bask, blink, bounce, breathe, catch, chop, crawl,  friction, heart, impact, impress, move, post, push, sense, sharp, smell, smile,  strike, throw, touch, walk, weigh. 
      1. If you in the customer’s presence, notice how they are talking and moving as they answer this question:
          • Talking fast, with broad gestures, lots of eye contact, add a point for  visual.
      • Talking medium speed, some gestures, some eye contact, add a point for  auditory.
      • Talking slowly, frequently pausing to think, few gestures, occasional  eye contact, add a point for kinesthetic. 
      1. Based upon all of the above, use your intuition to select the correct modality and then adapt your sales behavior accordingly, by using language and process that matches the customer’s internal “wiring.”

Note:  Many of the most successful people have balanced modalities (that’s one reason  they’re successful!) and are consequently difficult to read.  However, the majority of your customers are  likely to exhibit a clear preference for a primary modality.


Four  key attributes of successful sales professionals:

      1. They are skillful builders of personal relationships. They have the ability to create rapport quickly and their presence has an appeal that makes a customer feel at ease.  The customer enjoys their company.  They build personal alliances based upon understanding individual wants and needs.  The customer trusts them.
    • They are masters of  language. They know what to say and how to say it.  They can convey and decipher deep underlying messages that less successful sales professionals miss.  While using the same language as everyone else, they have developed an uncanny ability to persuade non-believers.
    • They are sales cycle  experts. They understand how to facilitate an  information exchange with the customer. If they are following a formalized sales process, they use this process as a guideline, enhancing it as necessary, based upon their personal experience, to manage and control their deals.
    • They have highly developed intuition. They continually catalog their successes and failures.  They store patterns of individual and company behavior and link them to the sales process, use those experiences to guide them through interactions  with different types of people and sales situations.


Steve Martin  Answers Our Questions:

Q:  Does this mean that all sales process is useless?

A:  Not at all.  However, if you focus too  much on process and what’s “supposed” to happen next, you’ll miss what’s really  going on in the customer interaction and consequently miss the opportunity to  build a store of experiences that can lead toward better intuition.

Q:  How can I learn more about modalities and other intuition-building tools?

A:  The book “Heavy Hitter Selling” contains detailed overviews of the applications  of these tools in a selling environment, with examples and exercises.  For further study, there are numerous books  on body language and the psychology of communication.

Q:  How long does it take to build the intuition that can make me a heavy hitter?

A:  A lifetime.  Seriously, it’s an ongoing  process that began when you first entered sales and is going on every time you  speak with a customer.  Your challenge is  to make sure that you learn as much as possible from your experiences so that  your power of intuition not only develops as swiftly  as possible, but has the widest range of options to select from.

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Steve W. Martin

Steve W. Martin is the foremost expert on Sales Linguistics and the Human Nature of Complex Enterprise Sales. He is the author of the "Heavy Hitter" Series of books for Senior Salespeople.

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