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Hiring and Training: Where Selling Begins

Let’s examine the hiring and training of new salespeople, explore how offerings get positioned, and see how a series of opinions ultimately rolls up into the CEO’s revenue forecast.

Some large organizations have established hiring profiles designed to help them to select candidates who possess what they believe are the requisite education, intelligence, and personal characteristics to become successful revenue-producing salespeople. Other large organizations prefer to start with a blank canvas, in the sense that they favor hiring recent college graduates, with the intent of teaching them everything they need to know about the company’s offerings, about vertical markets, and about how to sell.

After an orientation period in the branch office where they will be working, these new hires are often sent to a central location for indoctrination. The duration of these indoctrination sessions can range from a few days to several months, depending on the complexity and number of product offerings. Classroom sessions often run all day, with evening assignments or after-hours case-study work also being fairly common. In addition to product training and immersion in their company’s sales culture, sales trainees are introduced to corporate policies and procedures, headquarters staff, administrative reporting, and so on.

The primary objective of these sessions, however, is to teach new hires about the company’s product and service offerings. Frequently, these corporate training sessions are designed and delivered by Product Marketing staff who have limited direct experience with, or even exposure to, customers and salespeople in the field. The focus is more inward (“These are our offerings”) than outward (“Here are some ways your customers and prospects could use our offerings to achieve their goals, solve their problems, or satisfy their needs”). Attendees are asked to memorize specifications of different offerings. They learn to deliver canned presentations, perform demonstrations, handle objections, and recite competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

As suggested above, most such training presents the company’s offerings as nouns, with a relentless focus on what it is and what it will do. This rarely works. A few years ago, we ran into a salesperson working for a company that sold adhesives. Asking him about his offerings prompted an astounding “core dump” about viscosity, drying properties, resiliency, and so on.

Within the first few seconds of this onslaught, the salesperson had lost our interest. He didn’t seem to be aware of that. He droned on for many more minutes, telling us far more than we ever wanted to know. Finally, he paused to take a breath. Leaping through this narrow window of opportunity, we commented that he had described his products as if they were nouns. We then suggested that he try to discuss his adhesives as if they were verbs.

Give him credit: He gave it a shot. He stepped away from his normal presentation mode (inward focus) and came up with applications of his products (outward focus). He described how some of his customers were using his company’s adhesives, which was far more interesting and easier to understand than listening to him drone his way through a laundry list of properties, attributes, and features. And something else interesting happened, too: We had a conversation. No, that conversation could not have been described as scintillating, but as a sales approach, it represented an enormous improvement over his feature-dump approach.

Perhaps because they are aware of (and maybe even feel a little guilty about) the intensely inward focus of their new-hire training, some companies attempt to provide their new salespeople with industry knowledge. These studies of industry segments typically represent a small percentage of the total class time. They often appear to be an afterthought, or filler—a kind of cultural time-out.

In this small percentage of the overall sessions, attendees are exposed to the functions and responsibilities associated with the various job titles within vertical markets. They may be introduced to industry buzzwords and potential buyer hot buttons, both of which they are encouraged to work into their sales calls. Hope springs eternal. The hope is that by using these terms, salespeople will appear to possess industry knowledge—perhaps even expertise—which of course should prove useful when the salesperson attempts to relate to the person on the other side of a desk or on the other end of a telephone line.

In our experience, it’s a forlorn hope. The new salespeople rarely gain expertise through these truncated, but often intense, industry segments. For them, it’s information overload—the equivalent of trying to drink from a fire hose. And even if they’re successful at ingesting and regurgitating buzzwords, the potential buyer is rarely impressed. The seller may just be one question away from exposing an underlying lack of understanding of the buyer’s business environment. The buyer lives this industry every day. When a salesperson misses by an inch, he or she misses by a mile.

Another difficulty with this overall sales-training approach is that it is not integrated. It presents product, sales, and industry information separately, and leaves all three in separate “silos” of information. Salespeople are thus required to do the integration themselves, and to create a coherent message that they can deliver during sales calls. This is a huge challenge. Even customer-focused salespeople can require months in the field to accomplish this integration and convert product knowledge into product-usage knowledge. Think about how wasteful it is for salespeople to learn to achieve this integration and conversion individually. And how unreasonable it is to expect traditional sellers to ever get there.

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