Sales training and corporate strategy: Isn’t it time they met?
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Sales training and corporate strategy: Isn’t it time they met?

Sales Training, I’d like to introduce you to Strategy. Strategy, meet Training. I know you’ve both been busy, but the two of you should have met a long time ago.

Sales trainers will insist that their training is closely aligned with the company’s strategic vision. But often that alignment goes no deeper than training salespeople on the new products or showing them the new corporate logo and tagline.

Meanwhile, salespeople and their bosses often view “strategy” as little more than the corporate idea-du-jour, which has little relevance to the day-to-day business of winning and keeping customers, and which will probably be replaced next year by some new concoction that will also burn brightly for a while before it, too, ends up scrapped and forgotten. And sales trainers are reluctant to give “strategy” more than lip service, out of concern that they’ll lose credibility with their sales force and sales managers. It’s safer to stick with closing skills.

Salespeople and sales trainers are right to be skeptical about corporate strategy, says Frank Cespedes, Harvard Business School prof and author of “Aligning Strategy and Sales” (Harvard Business Press, 2014). He cites research suggesting that most corporate strategies fail; some estimates put the success rate at less than 10 percent.

Given those abysmal numbers, why should Sales get all tangled up in Strategy? Leave that to the corporate gurus; Sales has its hands full just focusing on the operational side of things.


What Sales fails to consider, argues Cespedes, is that its skepticism may be the exact reason that the strategy will fail. If the ultimate goal of a strategy is to improve the botttom line, there are only two ways to go: Cut costs, and/or increase revenue. And at least one of the two is the responsibility of sales. So if the strategy was on target and the execution failed, well, that’s likely to be a sales problem. And to large extent, a sales training problem.

So what can sales trainers do to help align sales and strategy?

First, they need to be involved in developing the strategy in the first place. If they’re not part of the process, how can they be part of the solution? Sales trainers know what salespeople are up against. They know how to turn strategic objectives into sales behaviors, and how to make those new behaviors stick. And if they’re brought into the discussion early enough, they can also point out what’s not going to work — no matter how beautiful it seems in theory.

Second, sales trainers need to own the strategy. They must understand the business case for change, and help communicate it effectively to the sales force. Contrary to what the rank and file think, most companies don’t shift gears just for the fun of it. If the strategy is changing, there’s likely to be a good reason. Either it was no longer working, or changing conditions mean that it won’t work much longer.

Third, sales trainers and sales leaders need to build open, ongoing lines of communication between the people responsible for developing the strategy and the people who are executing it. Nobody gets everything right the first time, and a strategy is much more likely to succeed if it can change and adapt based on feedback from the front lines.

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