We begin today’s sermon with a reading from the Book of Obvious:

A study from 2008 looked at what factors created trust among customers, and how the trust so created affected their purchase intentions.

Two factors were key: expertise and customer orientation. In short, customers trusted knowledgeable salespeople who focused on understanding the customer’s wants and needs and showed a strong desire to help, rather than simply trying to sell them something.

No big surprises there.

Nor was it especially surprising to learn that buyers who trusted their salespeople said they intended to buy more and refer more, and were less likely to switch to a competitor.

So why am I belaboring the obvious?

Because another study suggests that sales managers’ training priorities may be undermining those very qualities in salespeople. (The study was done in 1995, but I suspect that the results would be similar if it were done today.)

This study asked sales managers about their training priorities. At the top of their list: company products, followed by company policies. Disturbingly, the one item on the list that is customer-oriented — listening — ranks dead last. After “financial analysis,” “legal matters” and “time management.”

In other words, while we say we want salesepeople focused on the buyer, we tend to train them to focus on their products and companies — the very approach that, according to the first study, undermines trust.

But, some sales managers might object, didn’t those buyers say they wanted experts? And isn’t that what product training is all about? Well, maybe. But I suspect that buyers are looking for more than product expertise. If they want to learn about all the bells and whistles, they can call tech support. Product knowledge isn’t what makes buyers trust salespeople. It’s knowledge about customers and how best to help them.

Now, I’m not suggesting that sales managers intentionally try to turn their people into untrustworthy sleazebags. More likely, they’re simply focused on what’s most urgent instead of what’s most important. It goes without saying that salespeople need to know their products and company. But when you put those priorities at the top of the training list, you’re telling salespeople, “Focus on us, not your customers.” And that may be doing reps more harm than good.


Guenzi, P., Georges, L. (2008). Interpersonal trust in commercial relationships: Antecedents and consequences of customer trust in the salesperson. European Journal of Marketing 44(1/2):114-38.

Peterson, R.T., Smith W.B. (1995). An analysis of topical training areas perceived as desirable by sales managers. Journal of Applied Business Research 11(2):38.

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