Is Sales Training Customization Really Necessary?

The answer I hear most frequently to the question posed in this post title, is, “What? Yes! Of course, sales training customization is necessary.”

Over 32 years ago, when I entered the training profession from a sales management role, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. Today, I don’t.

Allow me to tell you two stories that illustrate why.

A Story About “The Words That Work”

In 1989, I single-handedly outsold an entire branch office and was promoted to manager. In 1990, we increased sales 600% year-over-year, and I was asked if I could train other people to do what we did. And that was how I entered the sales training profession, officially with the accompanying title, in 1991.

As a subject-matter expert with our products and how to sell them, I redesigned our entire sales onboarding curriculum. It was all built internally and was deeply customized, using what I called “the words that work” for that business.

I was obviously new to the training profession – having just been a seller and sales manager – who was just learning about things like needs analysis, task analysis, learning objectives, instructional design, and training facilitation. I had little knowledge of how people learn or the evidence-based practices for designing and delivering training effectively. But I sure knew what worked in the real world of sales, with these products, at this company. So, my first pass at training was all rote learning, such as:

  • Making a prospecting call? Here are the exact scripts to use.
  • Running a discovery call? Here are the exact questions to ask.
  • Prospect raising concerns? Here’s exactly what to say for each.
  • Getting ready to close? Here are five exact closes to choose from.
What Worked. What Didn’t.

In the class, we practiced, drilled, and rehearsed using feedback loops/coaching and role play re-runs. Students began to internalize the methods and use them. Sellers who memorized the “Words That Work” or used notes got good results.

But over time, an interesting thing happened. While the new employees got off to a great start in general, they stumbled and struggled when prospects and customers didn’t follow “their script” or respond as expected. If the response to a concern didn’t work for Prospect X, the rep hemmed and hawed awkwardly, and usually crashed and burned. “That’s okay,” we’d say… “It’s a numbers game. You’ll get the next one.”

It worked – to a degree. We produced an “Army of Robots” that got people off to a good start, but we didn’t achieve true sales mastery, or optimize the potential results and ROI.

A Lesson from Ph.D. Instructional Designers

In my next role, I found myself in a different vertical. I wasn’t previously a seller or sales manager in this company — I came in from the outside to be the new Director of Sales Training. My leaders didn’t want me to build a curriculum from the ground up, due to the time it would take, so I decided to research and buy a program.

After extensive research, I chose a course that was a good fit for the type of B2B complex sales we did. The course was incredibly well designed, by a team of Ph.D. instructional designers. It combined prework and classroom training that incorporated reading, discussion, watching videos to learn concepts and skills (seeing examples), Q&A, watching videos to develop judgment on how well the skills were used by three different salespeople (they varied), single-skill practices, exercises, a game, feedback loops, and combined-skills role plays.

Knowing what I know now about sound instructional design, it was a brilliantly designed program and the first I’d ever seen that used cinematic-quality video and an episodic, fictional storyline to teach. (We do this today, in Modern Sales Foundations, but it still surprises me how few sales training companies have done this. Most who use video just do “talking head” formats.)

And, for the big reveal: The pre-designed single-skill practices and role plays used examples from multiple industries and provided both tangible and intangible products/services to choose from.

As you might imagine from the previous story, I wanted to deeply customize everything for our company. And while I fought against it for a while, eventually, the vendor’s professional services leader convinced me otherwise. She said that based on their research and experience, students learned better when they stepped outside their world, learned a new concept, practiced the skills outside their area of expertise, and then transferred and applied the new skill in their world.

I struggled with this. But in the end, she was proven right.

What Worked. What Didn’t.

Do you know who else struggled with this? My bosses (two sales VPs), sales directors, front-line sales managers, and yes, the sellers themselves. They were all puzzled. They pushed back. They almost tried hard to not make it work.

But it did.

A few times when we tried jumping over the outside-industry examples, applying directly in our world, sellers didn’t follow the skill models as well, or brought in old habits, and didn’t use what was taught. I saw it unfolding right in front of my eyes, and couldn’t ignore it.

When we followed the recommended format, the sellers complained about selling medical devices, or office equipment, or the other product sets that weren’t ours, but they learned and applied the new skills. Then, we talked about how to transfer those models and skills into our world, and often facilitated some on-the-spot examples. Then, in the final role play, they got to put it all together in the one, big, “Write Your Own Role Play” scenario they customized for what they sold.

We also taught their managers the program, so sellers returned to an office where their managers were ready to help them translate what they learned into their world.

Basically, we taught these sellers to think. We taught them frameworks, models, and skill steps – the stuff that sales methodology is made of. Had we tried to truly customize or use “words that work” for the large variety of products and services we sold, it would have been mind-numbing, and as it turns out – less effective.

This was a pivotal learning experience for me, relatively early in my sales training career. In hindsight, while I resisted, I’m grateful for the professional persistence and insight-driven, educational approach of the professional services leader at the vendor (and to give myself some credit, that I gave it a try, despite internal pushback at my employer).

Sidebar: There’s another element of sales training that bears mentioning here. The way you train your products and solutions does make a difference, too. Instead of just training on features, advantages, and benefits, or bells and whistles or speed and feeds, as they say, training products in sync with your methodology and doing it through case scenarios can be very effective. This is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about it here, if you’d like to explore scenario-based solution training.

My Ten-Dollar Takeaways

Usually, I joke about tossing in my two cents, but these are ten-dollar takeaways. (Or maybe ten-thousand-dollar ones.) Here are some things I learned from this early experience (reinforced over many subsequent years with other examples and stories):

  • Select the right methodology for the business. For modern B2B complex sales (multiple decision makers), start with a buyer-centric methodology that is consultative, value based, and outcome oriented. It should focus on mindset and communication skills that build trust and teach your sellers to operate in your buyers’ and customers’ best interests.
  • Look for a methodology that is designed to be dynamic, agile, and adaptive rather than rigid and rote. For maximum effectiveness, messaging is the thing that must be personalized based on what matters most to your buyer personas. This develops what I call “multilingual” sellers, who talk to different buyers differently. This should be done in real-time dialogue and can’t be scripted.
  • Have FLSMs and sellers complete the last-mile “customization” on the frontlines. Yes, everyone wants simple things handed to them, but that is not how you change organizational behavior or improve the performance of a sales force. The act of thinking and making dot connections between the skills (methodology), frameworks, and models, and how to apply them in their world, is what moves learners through the stages of unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. This just can’t be handed to someone, and wishing won’t make it so. The best approach is to teach frameworks and models, not scripts, and how to think instead of what to say.

These takeaways encourage critical thinking rather than parroting, and best practices can be captured over time and shared internally. If your sellers can’t do the above, they can’t be “multilingual” and adapt for different buyers and multiple solutions.

Closing Thought

You know who disagrees with this post? Sales training vendors who try to differentiate with deep customization (and who charge handsomely for the service).

Instead of developing a sales training program that was designed to be customized for the client company, we purposefully did the exact opposite when we created Modern Sales Foundations. We provide foundational mindsets, concepts, frameworks, models, skills, and steps. We teach sales managers first and have them lead reinforcement sessions with Q&A, discussions, exercises, worksheets, and practice sessions. And we dole it out one week at a time, to take advantage of the drip-method, spaced repetition, and retrieval learning, to encourage learning, retention, skill development, application, and transfer. We did want to provide examples and tell an episodic story, so we created a fictional company, AirCo Solutions, for that purpose. Learners step outside their world into AirCo, learn the concepts, and then bring them back into their world.

On paper, when you step back and look at the whole implementation, it looks like a marathon. In practice, however, once you get started, it feels like a short walk, once a week. And the weekly interactions between managers and their sellers, with engaged discussion and practice, is what connects the dots to their real world better than we ever could.

This is how people really learn. And, it’s how you get adoption and mastery, leading to behavior change, which leads to better results.

I wish more CEOs, sales leaders, sales and rev ops leaders, and enablers were tuned into this. This is the thinking that allows sellers and sales forces to move beyond rote messaging to develop the judgment to be truly adaptive. It reminds me of the old parable, about the difference between “give a man a fish” (and he eats for a day) and “teach a man to fish” (and he eats for a lifetime). And eventually, you can get to, “Help a man think about fishing, and he can teach others.”

And that’s how you move the needle on the metrics that matter most – not with customization.

Image Credit: This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2
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