Training the untrainable

The perception that personality can be unlearned wastes big money in sales force development

Oliver Connolly
Guest Columnist

"My salespeople have been with the company for years. They know the industry. They know the products. They just need a little help with closing."

As we begin a new year, companies are looking at ways to increase revenues and profits. One focus is the sales force and methods of making the salespeople more productive. Naturally, the thought process evolves along these lines: If the salespeople sharpen their skills and learn a new move or two, their sales will increase and the company will do better. Then the CEO begins to run the numbers: If I invest a certain amount of dollars in sales training and I only get a 10 percent increase in overall sales, I’m way ahead of the game. CEOs then go out and find a sales training program for their people.

Usually they are just throwing their money away.

The sales training industry is huge. Companies spend billions of dollars every year trying to turn their salespeople into superstars. Most companies would be better off running the cash through the office shredder. In most cases there is no measurable growth in sales and profits.

Several company owners and presidents have told me of their disappointments with their sales training efforts. These efforts ran the gamut from one day sessions to long term programs. Some were public forums at venues like the Rose Garden, some programs were in-house conducted by large national training organizations and some used industry specific gurus. Many programs came complete with CDs, DVDs and a library of workbooks. Some were bare-bones.

Most CEOs that I talked to were fairly philosophical about their results: We tried. It sounded good but it didn’t really change anything. Those with smaller companies and more limited resources were upset and tended to blame the program or the trainer: The trainer did not really understand our business. Some of the concepts don’t apply to my industry. It was too intellectual or, conversely, too emotional. My salespeople were intimidated by the facilitator. Great theories, but it just does not work in the real world.

Are all of these sales training companies inept? Or, are they selling millions of dollars worth of snake oil every year to unsuspecting companies and individuals? Hardly. Most training on the market today is pretty good, especially those using a consultative selling approach. Examples are Miller-Heiman, Sandler and Spin Selling. Some of these systems are very complex and require the student to learn new buzz words and techniques. Very few salespeople will devote the time and focus needed to master a complex selling system. Most feel uncomfortable with the new steps and as a result use only the parts that come easy to them. At best, they learn a new way of continuing their old unproductive behavior, and their sales results remain the same.

The bottom line is that many so-called salespeople will not sell no matter what kind of training you provide. Do not confuse industry knowledge, familiarity with the market and years in the business with ability to sell – with the willingness to go out and consistently prospect and bring in new business. Some people are simply not trainable. No amount of training will make them any better. If your perception as a manager is different, you will waste a lot of time, energy and money.

So what’s a CEO to do? Dave Kurlan, nationally recognized sales force development expert, has long known what kinds of salespeople are trainable. Regardless of whether the individual works in a traditional sales role or is a professional who needs to bring in new clients to a law firm or CPA company, the core criteria are basically the same.

According to Kurlan, people who succeed in a sales or business development role have certain crucial elements for success. These include a strong desire to succeed as well as an unconditional commitment to do what it takes. They should have a solid belief system and be willing to accept responsibility for their own actions. They should also enjoy selling and be money motivated. Kurlan has also identified a number of hidden weaknesses that get in the way of selling, including the need for approval, fear of rejection and the tendency to get emotionally involved. Most of these weaknesses are not apparent and can only be uncovered by an in-depth evaluation.

Just as you expect your physician to do a complete diagnosis before surgery, you should do a complete assessment of your sales force before investing in training. That way you won’t be disappointed with the results.

Oliver Connolly works with CEOs and owners of small to mid-sized companies who are not satisfied with their sales and profits. He can be reached at 360-835-7555 or His Web site is

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