The Essence of Sales Training

“Sell more,” “close faster,” and “increase your revenue” are the messages I’ve been bombarded with lately online. The sales training market is producing a ton of content. There’s been a market for sales training since John Henry Patterson, George Eastman, and Andrew Carnegie built their empires in the 1800s. In this article, we will separate fact from fiction and explore the science of sales training in the modern age.

The Science Behind Sales Training

A science-based sales training method starts with objectively establishing facts through questioning and observation. For example, imagine a cardiologist prescribing heart transplant surgery before diagnosing the problem. Prescribing a solution before diagnosing the actual problem is malpractice. Science-based sales training starts with an investigation, not a conclusion.

Defining the problem to be solved is the first step in a scientific sales training method. The crucial question is, “What is preventing the obtainment of the desired outcome?” There will be obvious evidence of low margins, unprofitable deals, and long sales cycles. However, a vital aspect of the scientific method is rigorous skepticism. Without rigorous skepticism, confirmation bias influences the diagnosis. Think of the cardiologist, “Oh, you say you have chest pain? No problem. I have the solution. A heart transplant cures it every time!” The sales trainer who says, “Oh, you have a sales problem? No problem. I have a solution,” is committing malpractice.

In a sales training situation, when we engage in a new training project, the CEO has an opinion of the challenges, slightly different from the sales manager, who is different from the sales reps. Rigorous skepticism requires questioning the evidence and formulating a hypothesis from deductive inference. Rigorous questioning could be called the Sherlock Holmes Sales Training Method. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Sherlock Holmes said in the book, A Scandal in Bohemia.

The Difference Between a Problem and Dilemma

Pseudo-scientific sales training attempts to solve a sales problem. Problems often have single discrete solutions. A scientific-based approach looks at sales challenges as a dilemma. Dilemmas are more complicated to navigate because there is no single solution. Sales training presents dilemmas rather than problems. To provide science-based sales training means understanding the complexity of the challenge.

For example, a science-based approach would recognize that different customers require different communication styles. Everyone knows that establishing rapport is vital in a sales call. A high-energy, informal approach with banter may be appropriate when selling to specific consumer segments. However, a talkative, enthusiastic approach can be counterproductive if the client is serious and prefers to get to business. Building rapport is a global statement. Global statements are easy to digest and make sense of, but they are counterproductive.

A global approach oversimplifies the complexity of every sales skill. When we see salespeople underperforming, the cause is often due to global thinking errors. The sales rep often says, “All I need is more deals.” Then we ask what will help generate more deals and the reply often is, “More leads.” The global approach discounts the cascade of conditions that lead to a closed deal. If you cannot sequence those conditions accurately with precision, you cannot succeed.

Preventing underperformance and helping sales reps go from unfulfilled potential to high performers requires a level of detail beyond a global perspective. Achieving high performance is not a single act but a cascade of actions. Each sales rep has their own path to high performance. The best approach is the one that works for the individual. The single most significant contributor to sales training failure is due to fixed rather than customized training. 

A science-based approach to sales training qualifies as effective if it adopts a holistic approach. For example, a wildlife biologist who wanted to improve the population of a declining species would consider numerous factors, including competitors, predators, habitat, climate, and other factors. Like an ecosystem in nature, the sales ecosystem is complex. A science-based approach considers the entire ecosystem, not just the apparent problem.

Theory of Reasoned Action

Professional sales training companies work with scientific theories. A scientific theory explains how things work in the universe that can be repeatedly tested and verified using scientific methods and observation. Theories differ from scientific laws, which are based on empirical data and can be reduced to a math equation, E = mc². Theories cannot be reduced to all-encompassing statements like, “Learn to sell anything to anyone.”

An essential theory to understand regarding sales training is the Theory of Reasoned Actions (TRA). This theory explains the relationship between a person’s actions and knowledge, intentions, and attitude. Every sales leader recognizes that their team could improve, so they provide their team with more knowledge (training), yet results do not improve. TRA attempts to identify other factors, such as attitude and intention, that could be useful in improving performance. 

A scientific method understands there are more variables to high performance than training. Until sales training connects knowledge with intention and attitude, training fails. When training fails, we make global assessments that, “training does not work.” Global thinking and oversimplification blur the connection between cause and effect. A scientific sales training method will place performance under an electron microscope and analyze previously unseen elements.

Why Science is Shunned

Two inhibitors for a science-based sales training approach are budgets and timelines. I call it the rainfall effect. In Las Vegas, we receive about five inches of rain per year. It doesn’t rain often, but when it does, many inexpensive umbrellas are sold. When companies typically start looking for sales training, it’s already raining. Sales have slowed, revenue is down, and people are frustrated. Therefore, the fast, inexpensive solution is attractive. However, like the umbrella in Las Vegas, it is used once and quickly discarded.

A science-based approach requires learning development specialists, custom curriculum, certified trainers, and multi-modal learning platforms. Creating the curriculum takes time, and depending on how bad the rainstorm is, some companies would rather not wait. The logic is, why bother waiting if we can deploy a program to teach “anyone to sell anything to everyone.”

The other inhibitor is cost. Deploying science-based training is an investment in the business. Companies have told us, “That’s outside of our budget.” We understand. Research has proven to maximize performance; a sequence must be followed. The more detailed the sequence, the better the outcomes. One-time data dumps of training knowledge perpetuate the problem the training was meant to solve.

Deploying a science-based sales training project is like starting a new science experiment for every client. Improving sales performance requires addressing attitudes and intentions, not simply transferring knowledge. If knowledge transfer were the solution, every sales rep would exceed their quota. We’ve realized that companies and their sales reps don’t need more sales knowledge. They need help transforming their knowledge into skills, confidence, and behaviors.

In Conclusion

The pressure to improve sales performance is more intense than ever. As a result, I’ve seen more sales improvement content on the internet than in my twenty years of sales training. Much of the information I see is based on fabrications, exaggerations, and questionable validity. Improving performance requires behavior change. Changing behavior is not a one-time event. Content proclaiming to help anyone sell, anything to everyone is either an overstatement or deception. 

Science-based training methods are about continuous inquiry, rigorous skepticism, and evidence-based observations. It also utilizes psychology and behavioral science to develop a training curriculum to turn a company’s desired outcome into reality. At the individual level, this means connecting the intention with desired outcomes and typically involves behavior change. This is a multi-pronged approach, which requires an investment in time and resources.