Ordering up some sales training when performance is lagging is like ordering a cup of coffee when your afternoon energy fades: it’s automatic. It’s been done for so long and seems such an obvious solution that no one questions it. If your sales force isn’t delivering the results you need, train it to do better. It’s clear cause-and-effect. Who could argue the strategy?
New research suggests that the flaw is not with the strategy, but with its execution. When sales training is ordered, it’s typically your sales reps that get pulled from the field and dropped into a classroom. After all, they’re the ones who do the actual selling. However, in a study just performed with the Sales Management Association, we discovered that salespeople are not the best place to focus your sales training effort. It appears that the real energy boost comes from training their managers.
Sales management training is not a new concept, but it has historically taken a back seat to the logically important job of training customer-facing salespeople. This makes sense because salespeople are the ones doing the actual selling. Their managers have typically gotten a thin layer of add-on training to reinforce the rep curriculum and fight the inevitable erosion of newly acquired skills. In essence, management training has been a defensive strategy to protect the investment in our sellers.
But what if we reversed our thinking completely? What if instead of training our salespeople and making their managers our first line of defense, we first trained our sales managers and put them on the offense? What if we prepared our managers to develop our salespeople, and then gave our sellers the thin layer of training? What if we effectively made our sales managers full-time trainers on the ground in each territory?
To answer these questions, we asked 161 companies about their sales training budgets, the percentage of those budgets spent on manager vs. rep training, and their companies’ overall revenue attainment. We then divided the respondents into three groups: (1) those who invested less than 25% of their overall sales training budget in management, (2) those who invested 25-50% of their budget in managers, and (3) companies that invested more than half their sales training budget on their sales managers.
The results were unmistakable: the more organizations spent on sales management training, the more likely they were to achieve their revenue goals.
Specifically, organizations that invested more than 50% of their sales training budget in managers reported a 15% higher achievement of revenue goal than those that invested less than 25% in managers. And the relationship was relatively linear, with the middle group performing just in between. Interestingly, only 14% of the companies surveyed had the nerve to allocate more than half of their sales training budgets to their sales managers. All this presents a thought-provoking question: What if we spent literally nothing training salespeople? What if we only trained our sales managers rather than our sellers?
Well obviously there is some level of training that all sales reps need. They need training on their company’s products and technology as well as the foundational skills they need to do their jobs. So in reality, sales rep training dollars will never go to zero. But our research suggests that rep training should neither be 75% of our sales training budgets or even 50%. It should be something less. That’s because the real leverage is in training sales management to develop our sellers.
And there is great financial leverage in training our sales managers, too. It’s not uncommon for a sales force to have one-tenth as many sales managers as salespeople. Imagine the level of investment you could make in each manager if you re-allocated budget from your sellers to the management layer. With the same budget it takes to build a great team of sellers, you could build a world-class team of sales managers. If you’re looking for a boost in energy, perhaps a tiny espresso loaded with caffeine will do much more for you than that grande cup of watered-down coffee.
On the surface, this idea of skipping over rep training to focus on managers seems counterintuitive and perhaps even scary. You want your salespeople to continually develop, so it’s logical that you should invest directly in making that happen. But our research demonstrates that the sales manager is where organizations get the greatest return on investment. When managers are more skilled at coaching and developing their people, they can leverage that knowledge across their entire team. So if you’re looking for an improvement in sales performance, suspend disbelief and shift your attention upward in the organization. Inject a little espresso into your team’s sales performance.