- Blog post
Two approaches to sales training: process vs. principles
A recent conversation with our COO and sales director here at Rapid Learning Institute got me thinking about a key distinction in sales training — one that could have a profound impact on how you approach training with your sales team.
From time to time, Glenn’s sales team is asked about the “system” that underlies our Selling Essentials training platform. The short answer: We don’t have one.
Dude, where’s your system?
Let me explain.
Some sales training organizations offer a proprietary “process,” “system” or “methodology” as the backbone of their training programs. These systems sometimes involve acronyms or trademarked terms, and a series of steps designed to lead salespeople all the way from prospecting through closing.
We take a different approach.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m 100% in favor of having a sales process. In fact, every sales organization already has one — and that’s precisely the reason we don’t prescribe one.
Every company’s sales process is unique. It evolves as the business evolves, taking into account the products and services the company offers, the markets it serves and the kinds of customers it wants. And trying to impose a prepackaged system or methodology — whether it comes from a content vendor like us, an outside sales trainer, or an internal training department — just doesn’t work.
For one thing, you’re asking salespeople to change the approach that’s gotten them this far. So right off the bat you’ve got a problem with buy-in. And then you have to deal with the fact that your salespeople bring varying backgrounds, beliefs and experience to the table. Some are just starting out and need to master the fundamentals. Others have been selling for years and making a good living at it. So there have to be different processes for reps at different skill levels. What’s more, you can’t anticipate every situation that reps will encounter and create a process for it.
And, finally, there are customers. They’re notoriously bad at playing by the rules of your system.
For all these reasons, nobody can execute these “methodologies” the way they’re designed. You end up picking and choosing — taking the stuff that seems to work with your salespeople and customers, ignoring or adapting the parts that don’t. You grant exceptions to your stars who want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Then your other reps want to know why they should buy into a system that the top people have rejected. The people who sold you the system are frustrated too — if you’re not going to follow their methodology, how can they help you get the results you need? In the end, the best you can hope for is that some salespeople learned some principles that they can apply to their own sales. Which is probably where you should have started in the first place.
Principles versus processes
All that being said, of course you need to train salespeople on sales processes. They need to know things like how to fill out call reports, how to use the CRM to schedule follow-up efforts, and what criteria they should be using to qualify prospects. This is what’s known in the training world as “algorithmic” training — linear, logical, step-by-step how-to instructions.
But when it comes to sales skills training, it’s a different story. Sales skills can’t really be taught with an algorithmic approach. Like other complex knowledge — such as how to be a better leader or how to treat cancer — it falls into the category known as “heuristic” learning. This kind of learning isn’t based on a step-by-step process; it’s based on giving people “heuristics” — basically, rules of thumb — that can be applied to a variety of situations. In other words, principles.
Sound selling heuristics are ultimately based on proven principles of human psychology — for example, how people make decisions, what motivates them to change, how they assess risk, what makes a relationship trustworthy. These principles are universal. They don’t depend on any particular sales process. They work for experienced salespeople and newbies alike. They don’t require reps to abandon what’s working. They simply offer insights that reps can apply — within whatever process they’re following — to handle the infinite variety of situations that they encounter.
When it comes to selling skills, that’s really all you can teach. But it works.