We spend a lot of time training salespeople on what to do and say. But we may need to spend more time training them how to think — specifically, how to think strategically. That’s the upshot of research showing that sales training on strategy is correlated with more sales.
The research was published back in 1993, but the implications are even more relevant today, given the abundance of market-oriented and strategic information available on the Internet.
The study looked at 171 sales forces, representing 65 companies in the paper-and-plastics trade. The researchers divided the sales forces into two groups — high performers and low performers — and then looked at differences in how the two groups approached training. Surprisingly, the high and low performers both spent the same amounts on training. But how they spent it turned out be very different.
One of the biggest differences was in training content. Top-performing organizations focused a lot more attention on strategy — especially, training new salespeople to think more strategically.
“Strategy” can be a pretty vague term. So what exactly did the researchers include in this category? Here’s how they described it: “training content with a focus on strategic markets, strategic products, company strategies, marketing strategies and market knowledge.”
They didn’t give specific examples, but here’s how I interpret this definition: It’s about helping salespeople understand where they fit into the ecosystem, as a way of understanding what’s driving their sales and motivating their salespeople.
In the paper-and-plastics industry that was the focus of this study, that might include answers to questions like these:
- What’s the overall outlook for the industry? Is it growing? Shrinking? Is plastic winning over paper, or vice versa?
- How does that outlook affect my sales strategy? For example, in a stagnant or shrinking market, I have to be more concerned about my competition, because I’m fighting for a bigger slice of the pie. In a growing market, I might want to focus more on new buyers and how I meet rising demand.
- What trends are affecting the industry? For example, are raw materials costs driving up the cost of paper and plastic? Is consumer demand for greener products changing how my customers are thinking about packaging?
- Given the state of the market, which of my products are likely to be well positioned for growth, and which are at risk? Following up on the previous example, can I demonstrate to my buyer that our newest packaging has a lower carbon footprint than what they’re using now?
- Do I understand where we’re going as a company? For example, is management satisfied with where we’re headed, or will we be shifting direction? Are we looking to expand into new markets? Are we the market leader trying to defend our spot, the hungry number-two trying to knock off the champ, or the disruptive upstart trying to upset the apple cart?
- What’s our marketing strategy? Are we positioning ourselves as the lowest cost supplier? The greenest supplier? The specialty supplier? The problem-solving supplier? The answer is going to affect how I sell — for example, which types of customers I should be pursuing. And it’s going to affect what I say to them. I want my sales message to align with our marketing messages.
If you’re responsible for training salespeople, you might want to ask yourself some questions as well: Are my salespeople thinking strategically? Do they understand the big picture and how they fit in? And do I need to do more to train them in this area?
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