In previous years, companies have generally assumed that investments in sales training will increase sales productivity. Because the sales team is on the front line of revenue and profit, it seemed intuitive that improving sales skills would have a positive, immediate, and direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

That assumption, however, has not served companies particularly well. Companies spend billions of dollars every year on sales training, much of which is wasted, according to Dave Stein, CEO of ES Research, a firm that studies the sales training market. He has identified five basic reasons that sales training frequently fails:

Reason1: Trying to fix the wrong problem

Sales managers often assume that a top training firm is always a safe bet, much the same way IT managers used to believe that “nobody ever got fired for going with IBM.” Unfortunately, the confidence that sales managers place on established training firms is often misplaced, because even the largest firms have particular areas of expertise that might not meet the needs of an individual sales team. If the root cause of a sales problem is not a core competency of that particular sales training organization, it’s likely that the training will simply be wasted effort. For example, if a sales staff is having trouble closing fully qualified leads, sales training that focuses on lead generation is only going to make the problem worse.

Reason 2: Valuing motivation over sales process

While a motivational speaker can get people pumped up or give them insights into their own character and the psychology of customers, in most cases it can’t fix the root causes of sales ineffectiveness. For example, even a team that’s incredibly motivated to close business is unlikely to close more of it when they lack a pragmatic selling methodology or are not training the sales staff on its use. This is not to say that it’s not important to be motivated, only that motivation needs to be harnessed to a sales process that directs the energy in productive behaviors. Otherwise, the “motivated” sales staff spins their wheels “chasing garbage trucks rather than Brinks trucks” as the saying goes.

Reason 3: Too much focus on technology

There’s no question that there’s been a major revolution in sales technology. However, while it’s true that new skills and new tools are required to sell in an environment where much of the communication takes place online, those skills are not greatly different than the skills required to sell face-to-face or on the telephone. While technology has its place, every salesperson needs to be competent at the basics of selling, or that technology is largely wasted.

Reason 4: Too many tips and techniques

There is a seemingly endless supply of sales tips available on the Internet, not to mention thousands of how-to sales books and courses. However, if they’re going to be of long-lasting value, sales tips and techniques must be incorporated into an overall approach to selling. When sales training is presented in terms of bite-sized nuggets, there’s no context to see how those sales tips fit into the larger picture, or whether they will actually work inside any given sales environment. In fact, many sales tips available on the web are contradictory. For instance, there are about as many sales tips for how to avoid cold calling as there are on how to successfully make cold calls.

Reason 5: Little to no preparation or follow through

Effective sales training requires upfront work building processes, tools, and metrics, as well as post-program reinforcement. It must also be combined with coaching, technology refreshers, and reinforcement. When sales training is presented as an event that begins and ends in the classroom, whatever is taught is likely to be completely forgotten within a few weeks. Without the supporting infrastructure, the money spent on training is largely wasted.

What’s interesting about the above list is that it hasn’t changed much over the past decade because the perpetuation of those mistakes is very much in the financial interest of the sales training industry. As a result, there’s not been emphasis placed upon measuring the impact of sales training in a way that would quickly identify and eliminate programs that fail to increase sales productivity.

In fact, many sales training programs measure themselves (and encourage their customers to measure them) through highly subjective survey vehicles, like course evaluations. Such “measurement,” however, simply reflect the presentation skill of the instructor along with the attendees’ assessment of whether the material taught will be useful. Evaluations presented at the end of motivational speeches are particularly prone to attendee enthusiasm. In the worst cases, the speaker is given the authority to write the survey, distribute the survey, and compile the data – a recipe for cooked results.

Another way that sales training firms measure their effectiveness is through before-and-after comparisons of revenue. While this approach has a certain simplicity, any increase (or decrease) in sales revenue could be the result of many factors, including the state of the economy, the general buying habits within the industry, the behavior of competitors, massive discounts, and so forth. More importantly, the evaluation “equation” often looks like this:

  • revenue up=the training worked
  • revenue down=the sales team didn’t follow through

In other words, the measurement of sales training is often a “heads you win, tails you lose” situation. As long as the measurement of sales training continues to be done so haphazardly (or, worse, fraudulently), it is impossible to ensure that sales training actually has its promised impact on sales productivity.

One solution to this problem is to compare the ROI for training of one sales group (the subject group, which gets trained) against the performance of a second sales group (the control group, which does not get trained).

Taking this approach has several advantages. If the two groups are reasonably similar, the use of a control group filters out other factors that might be influencing sales because both groups are operating under similar marketing and sales conditions.

For example, the sales training will show a positive relative ROI, even if overall sales are down for both groups. Using a control group also allows you to assess whether the sales training you’ve selected is effective at creating ROI, before you roll the training out to the entire sales force.