Investments in sales training can undoubtedly help sellers improve their execution and performance, but the path to getting a clear ROI is not always so cut and dried. Countless companies have invested in skills training for their reps only to see minimal-to-no impact.
To make things more challenging, the sales managers who are best positioned to support the development of their reps are commonly the busiest and most thinly stretched employees at a given company. Yes, they’re swamped, but managers must be closely involved to see any positive outcomes from training investments.
In this article, I’ll share why it’s necessary for front-line sales managers to be actively involved in rep training (even if they’re not the ones delivering it), and where the best spots are for them to plug in.
Managers as Trainers vs. Enablers
Several years ago, I worked with a specialty chemical supplier who went to market through a sales force of over three hundred spread across North America. At the time, the company was training several new hires each week. New hires got a crash course in the selling process, products, and support systems over the course of three days before getting in front of customers. The local district manager personally delivered this training, guided by a 4-inch-thick training binder.
I worked to build and implement a 25-hour on-demand sales training program where this critical onboarding content was chunked and spread over six months with scheduled weekly assignments. By centralizing more of the training delivery, we could be sure that the new hires in Nebraska were getting close to the same experience as the ones in New Hampshire. A primary goal was to improve the consistency and not see wide variances from one manager’s district to another’s.
With more training being consumed by on-demand iPad and laptop screens, how important was the district manager in the process? Still just as important, but in more of a supporting and enabling role.
Among the dozens of local district managers, there was predictably an uneven level of execution and quality of training. Some managers took the entire new hire program themselves before they used it with their first hire, as we requested, and others decided not to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the new hire ramp up time, sales numbers, and employee retention were consistently better when reps were hired into districts with a manager who bought into the program and had taken it on their own. Even while not delivering the training themselves, the manager was still the most important cog in the sales training machine.
Proactive Managers Set Training Up for Success
At the outset of any training initiative, your front-line managers provide the connectivity between your company’s interests and the on-the-ground success with training. Managers must drive the before, during, and after phases of training to maximize your ROI.
Research has shown the importance of manager involvement. Broad and Newstrom’s Transfer of Training discussed the impact of training activities on the successful transfer of knowledge and skills. In this chart, you see the three primary roles involved in most training (manager, trainer and trainee) as well as the three time periods around the training (before, during and after).
The numbers in the chart reflect the relative importance of that person’s contribution to training success at each stage. Is it surprising that two of the three most important combinations involve the manager? To some. The most critical contribution to the eventual transfer of knowledge comes from the manager before the training even happens. The manager’s follow-up is the third most important.
Most Powerful Role/Time Combinations for Using Transfer Strategies
In order for managers to be proactive and to own the “before,” they must be included in the training implementation process. A manager who is sitting on the same side of the table as the corporate team assigning the training communicates positivity and trust in the process. Conversely, a manager who is only an audience member to the training program, the same way her sales reps are, conveys the attitude that training is something that happens “to us” and “we have to put up with.” I saw examples of both in the company I described earlier. The results between the two approaches were staggeringly different.
Following Through During & After Training
While the manager’s pre-training communication and expectation-setting role is critical and considered the most important piece of the training puzzle per Broad and Newstrom, the role the manager plays following the training is also important and requires focus.
There are four critical post-training activities that managers must own for their reps to be able to apply and excel following training:
Managers are responsible for preparing sellers to apply what they’ve learned in real customer situations. This can be done with discussion points or potentially working together to complete any post-training.
When reps learn something, but haven’t practiced it, their level of confidence is generally low. For the knowledge to transfer to real-life situations, practice (through role plays and subsequent coaching) is necessary.
As the new skills or knowledge is transferred into actual customer situations, it’s important that the manager is observing how they are applied, confirming that they are being used effectively.
No doubt the most important piece of the puzzle, coaching is critical. Following their role in observing the application of new skills, managers coach reps on how to improve any areas that could have been executed better.
The Playbook for Engaging Managers in Sales Training
To maximize your ROI on sales training investments, be sure that managers are enabled to be the drivers of success. Here are a few examples where sales managers can help drive the initiative throughout the process.
Do your managers get together in person or virtually from time to time? Monthly? Quarterly? When they do, share the upcoming training program(s) in detail, get their buy-in, and build excitement. After all, the managers likely want their reps to be better trained and continuously developing. Resistance or apathy toward the program generally aren’t the result of managers not wanting to develop their reps; they’re symptoms of managers being blindsided and naturally defensive to the new initiative.
It should go without saying, but it needs to be said. When there is a training program assigned to salespeople, the managers must take it as well, ideally with a head start. Completing the program first, or at least staying a few steps ahead of their reps, enables managers to lead by example and facilitate conversations around the program to bring concepts into everyday job duties.
Manager Support Tools
Where possible, give your managers leader guides, scenarios, exercises, coaching support and discussion points to drive conversations with their team members around the learning content. Even if training is being delivered completely virtually – over video, live webinar, or in eLearning formats – don’t let your managers sit on the sidelines. Give them these tools so that the concepts presented in the training can be adapted and applied into everyday examples the employee faces.
Managers as Drivers and Not Passengers in Sales Training
We’ve worked to continuously refine and improve our sales training programs to help our clients move the needle in key performance metrics. A big contributor to our clients’ success is providing front-line managers the tools to support and drive the learning process.
When we talk with potential clients about planning an implementation of our training programs, we always showcase the manager toolset and discuss how managers’ active role can make a significant difference in the return on training investment.
Click here to learn more about our video-based sales training programs.