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Does Your Training Strategy Match Your Sales Strategy?

Furniture World Magazine


If you've been following this series over the past several months you have been exposed to several "building blocks of developing a successful sales team. We discussed in detail the importance of proper measurement, staffing, recruiting, and most recently, identifying your store's selling strategy. This article will address the next step which is the importance of having a training strategy which supports your selling strategy.

There is a widely held myth that training of any kind is beneficial to salespeople as long as it focuses on sales. The truth, however, is that training for the sake of training can be more harmful than no training at all. When I encounter a retailer who has deluged his sales force with every sales program in the industry (and some from outside the industry) I often recommend a "sales education hiatus." This is because a successful, well planned selling strategy tagged onto years of endless, unfocused training efforts is doomed to fail because of a lack of salesperson buy-in.

Another common problem is that, even when salespeople believe training is undirected, unfocused, even useless, they are often hesitant to voice their displeasure. This stems from a fear that the sales manager will interpret these feelings as indifference to the job or the company. How could a salesperson be negative after the sales manager worked so hard to train her. As a result, sales people often view training as a penance for being commission-based employees. From their perspective, training simply comes with the territory.

The bottom line? A well executed training strategy without measurement, monitoring, and improvement training is nothing more than entertainment. And poor entertainment at that.

There are three components of a well-planned training strategy:

  • It must have pre-determined goals.
  • It must have an effective plan for execution.
  • There must be follow-up to ensure results.

The purpose of sales training is to provide skills that will help your staff achieve both personal and corporate goals. The training program you implement must also have goals. They should be in-line with your corporate selling strategy and they should ensure that your people achieve their individual and organizational goals.

If your goal is to motivate your sales staff, it is important to recognize that motivation is not necessarily training. That is not to say that a well executed training program can't be motivational, but motivation and training are two completely different issues. If you wish to motivate your staff, there are many exceptional motivational speakers and tapes on the market that can fire them up. If, on the other hand, your objective is to improve selling skills, you must pursue a different course.

Your training strategy must first reflect your store's selling strategy. Can a training program that fits the selling strategy of a fast-track, low-end retailer also fit a high-end, design-oriented store? The answer is obviously "no." However, many owners falsely assume that any program which seems to suit the furniture industry automatically suits their store, regardless of the type of operation they are running. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching design-oriented sales people high pressure closes and how to sell off the floor will leave them dissatisfied, poorly trained, and unmotivated because this is not how they work with clients. Conversely, trying to teach sales people in a low-end, fast-track store a more design oriented sales approach won't work either because it doesn't fit their selling strategy. Sales people who try to follow a program developed for a vastly different environment could easily starve. The goal of your training program must be to get your entire sales staff to perform in-line with the selling strategy of your particular store.

The first advice I give all retailers is to STOP holding sales training meetings on Saturday mornings. This is neither the time nor the place to train people new selling skills. Training can be an intense process which requires a high level of concentration and salespeople need to have an environment where they can instantly transfer the skills they gain from the class to the sales floor. A coach does not teach new plays the morning of the playoffs. It's simply not the time to experiment. Training should happen during the week when there is time for the manager to put new skills in place and to monitor the success of these skills and the people who are executing them.

Saturday morning meetings should be used to motivate salespeople. This is an ideal time to expose your staff to motivational speakers, tapes, etc. This time can also be used to discuss general information related to that day's sales activities (e.g. advertising, product information, special promotions, etc.). One word of caution. These meetings should never cover negative issues which could actually de-motivate your staff - don't use your time together to discuss mistakes individuals made the previous week. Doing so can negatively impact the performance and culture of a store on the busiest day of the week.

Once you have settled on a suitable time to train your staff, you have three training options to select from:

Least effective - Train the entire staff at one time. This tends to work best for product training and introducing new advertising and promotions. This method is, however, much too broad to address individual selling skills.

More effective - Train sales people in smaller groups in which participants share common sales skills. For example, some sales people have high average tickets but below average closing rates. These people need to improve their greetings and closing skills. They should be placed together in one group and taught skills relevant to their situation. Other sales people may have high closing rates but suffer from low average tickets. These individuals need to acquire better customer development skills and should be placed in an entirely different group. Mixing people with varying skill sets and different problems inevitably results in having individuals in the room to whom the topic at hand does not apply. This ultimately hurts the training experience.

Most effective - Train sales people on a one-on-one basis (though one-on-one is undoubtedly the best method of training, in all of my experience it is the least used). The primary reason for this is that owners who do not have sales managers, simply do not have time to devote to one-on-one training. This is an excellent reason to employ a full-time sales manager. When sales managers are in place, they generally don't do one-on-one training because they do not spend any time observing sales people on the floor. Without this observation, it is virtually impossible to offer concrete assistance in a one-on-one situation. On the other hand, an effective sales manager spends a considerable amount of time observing sales people in action on the floor. This leads to an understanding of specific individual training requirements which then become the subject of one-on-one training sessions.

A golf instructor will observe a student and witness several areas which need improvement. But he will then focus on one particular area, such as stance, grip or swing, and develop that particular skill before moving on to the next. This can only happen during one-on-one training. If it is impractical to train all of your sales people in this manner, then your sales manager should single out those most in need of training and use this method to develop their skills. It is often during these one-on-one situations when sales managers learn that flat or declining sales are due to something other than poor sales skills. This is also an excellent opportunity for sales managers to develop the mentoring relationship most sales people crave.

After a golf instructor provides training on a particular skill, does the instructor point the student toward the driving range and go back to the clubhouse himself? Of course not. He observes, corrects, and observes again until the skill has been retained (this is how adults learn).

In a furniture store, sales training can only be considered effective when behavior on the floor is changed and those changes amount to improved results. An effective follow-up strategy ensures that the skills which are learned in the classroom, transfer successfully to the sales floor and those new or improved skills translate into favorable results.

Many sales managers I have encountered over the years open sales meetings with "How have things worked out since our last training?" These managers are usually satisfied when they get nods from the sales people as an indication that the training has been effective and has had some meaningful impact on behavior. This is neither an effective follow-up plan nor a good way to judge the impact of a training program. Behavior and results need to be monitored and managed by the sales manager on an ongoing basis. Your sales manager must know what changes in behavior were expected and be able to identify when these changes have and have not occurred. This can only be accomplished by observing sales people on the floor and meeting with them individually in one-on-one meetings.

When conducting one-on-one meetings for training purposes, a sales manager will often ask the question "What do you think you could do to improve your sales?" If he has been observing the individual on the floor and has the answer based on his observation, then the question is appropriate. This can be an excellent means to teach sales people how to critique their own performance and it is a non-threatening way to begin a one-on-one training session.

It is my experience, however, that managers typically ask the question without knowing the answer. They have no right to do this. In doing so they are asking sales people to do the job of sales manager, they are hiding behind poor management skills by asking the right questions without the right knowledge, and they are mistakenly assuming that sales people know exactly what they need to be doing to improve performance (if they knew what to do, wouldn't they already be doing it?). Even when sales managers pull valuable answers from their employees under these circumstances, very few have the training and development skills to turn the answers into results.

In summary, if you want your people to have a valuable training experience that translates into improved results, don't just throw any training program at them. Pick a program, or develop one on your own, that fits your particular store's environment and selling strategy. When the training is implemented, make sure that everybody is aware that you expect changes in both behavior and operating results. Anything short of this strategy will draw little respect from sales people, and will likely be more of a waste of time than a good investment.

Ted Shepherd is the founder and CEO of Shepherd Management Group. The company specializes in changing the selling culture of furniture stores from merchandise-driven to customer-driven using an intensive hands-on process of consulting, training, and mentoring. For more information on the topics in this article contact tshepherd@furninfo.com.