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Align Sales Managers and Training to Drive Real Results in 2017

Jan 18th, 2017


We hear a lot about the need for sales and marketing alignment. While you won’t hear me disagreeing that this is important, there’s another alignment and partnership opportunity that gets a lot less airplay yet has equal potential to drive sales results: the alignment and partnership between sales training and front-line sales managers (FLSMs).

This is not ignoring the need for top-down support for training from company executives and especially sales leadership – sponsorship and support is critical.  Leaders have a key responsibility in sharing the ‘change’ story, inspiring and gaining support from frontline managers and employees.  But without buy-in (not just compliance) from FLSMs, getting large-scale organizational results from training is a pipe dream.

The role of these managers in driving change seems to be a fairly-well acknowledged point of view.  Given that, engaging FLSMs is a critical strategy and worthy of discussion. The following are 4 recommendations for sales enablement and sales training leaders to get FLSMs engaged in sales performance change projects.

Start with FLSM Buy-In

Gaining FLSM buy-in is the first step.  Executive sponsorship and top sales leader support are certainly important, but if you don’t have true buy-in from managers, top-down support will only gain you a certain level of compliance.  

We can (and should) debate this practice, but we all know that most FLSMs get promoted because they were good sales reps. Because they’ve been in the trenches and see their reps grappling with reality every day, your FLSMs are a great source of content, customization advice, feedback and training program reality checks. 

Getting your frontline managers involved in content development or customization is a great way to not only ensure your content will make a difference when used, but also to gain your managers’ support.  Engage them, listen, take their advice when you can and explain why if you can’t (and have a good reason). This will go a long way toward getting their buy-in.

Prepare FLSMs to Coach

It’s hard to ask FLSMs to coach if they haven’t received great coaching as a model, or been trained to do it. 

This isn’t a post on coaching, specifically, but generally, to coach behaviors effectively after sales training or a sales methodology implementation, managers must know how to:

  • Use reporting and analytics to identify areas for improvement
  • Hypothesize about the possible behavior gaps that are responsible for the performance gaps
  • Have a dialogue with their rep and observe them in action to confirm their hypothesis or determine the actual behavior gaps, compared to what was taught and known to be an effective practice
  • Conduct an effective coaching session where the rep is engaged in both the discovery process (coming to their own conclusion about what the manager now realizes) and building the solution (interestingly, this is not much different than what we expect reps should do with their buyers)
  • Engage the rep in the construction of an action plan to implement a solution that will address the issue and improve their results
  • Get the plan in place and follow-up appropriately, coaching further, as needed

With content that will work, FLSM buy-in, and effective coaching skills as a foundation, here’s a formula for a successful partnership between sales training and frontline sales managers:

Formula for Success: Sales Training & FLSMs

In short, this is the formula:

  • Train Managers First
  • Involve Managers During Sales Rep Training
  • Partner for Knowledge Sustainment
  • Partner for Skills Transfer and Application
  • Partner for Coaching to Mastery

Train Managers First

Depending on the size of your sales force and management team, some managers will have been involved in the Sales Methodology Content development. If you have a small manager force, involve everyone.  If you can’t, select wisely.  Often, the involvement of key, respected sales managers will help with the buy-in of others – especially if the involved managers update the others (positively) during the content development cycle. 

Even if they were engaged, your FLSMs should still be trained first in the final program content – as should those who weren’t as closely involved – before their reps are trained. 

If you expect your managers to coach and drive results, they need to be the experts in your organization. They will need their own sustainment, transfer plans and coaching on both the rep program content and the sales coaching training, and this is where the sales training department can partner with sales leaders to support the FLSMs.

Show your respect for the FLSMs and support them in doing their jobs more effectively and getting better results from their reps, and you’ll have all the support you need, in return.

Involve Managers in Sales Rep Training

Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  

“But Mike, I just trained them on the rep training. You expect me to ask them to attend the training TWICE??  You’ve lost your mind or don’t get reality!” 

I may have lost my mind, but that is exactly what I’m recommending, and what I have done multiple times across multiple organizations, from SMB to Middle Market companies to Fortune 500 corporations.  Is it always an easy sell?  No, of course not.  Is it doable?  Absolutely. 

When managers attend rep training sessions, have them set the stage upfront, observe and  be an extra coach for exercises, activities and role plays.  Plan for some preparation and alignment between the sales trainer and the FLSMs to ensure the right expectations are set in advance, including roles, participation, and effective classroom behaviors.

Knowledge Sustainment

There are various ways to support knowledge sustainment, including post-training sales meetings, follow-up testing and assessments, follow-up webinars and/or e-learning. But today, there are also options on the market that offer technology support for sustaining knowledge gained in training programs (like Brainshark!)

Skills Transfer and Application

Getting people to use what you teach on-the-job has been a Holy Grail pursuit for so long in the learning/training profession and I’m amazed we’re not better at it.  Some ways to overcome this are using performance support (job aids) and “Meetings in a Box” (a tool I’ve used for years) to help managers run post-training meetings that help reps apply what they learned to real-world situations.  

Coaching to Mastery

If reps remember what they were taught and apply it on the job, you are still only halfway home. (Sorry.)

When was the last time you learned a new skill or a shift in a complex behavior and mastered it while you were learning, or immediately afterward?  If you’re a sports-minded person, think about a tennis or golf lesson that involved a new grip or swing.  Or perhaps trying to become a better public speaker or changing eating and exercise habits.  These examples usually resonate with people and prove the point. Changing behaviors and habits is not always easy.  Initial application does not equal mastery.  Mastery is gained over time. 

Elite athletes and public speakers often engage coaches to reach higher levels of performance, just as some people engage a personal trainer to reach health goals. Why we would expect this to be any different for sales professionals?

After training, your reps will need coaching, and you’ve prepared your FLSMs to do it.  Now they need to execute, not just to help reps apply new skills and behaviors, but to develop new habits, and refine how they’re doing things over time, until they reach mastery, often to a level of unconscious competence.  Although, I will say that my personal experience with top-producer analysis suggests that the very top-tier of performers (top 4%) shift between conscious and unconscious competence more frequently, as they continually try to learn and improve on their own as well.  This is not common, however. Most of us mere mortals need coaching.

Coaching to mastery is a longer-term effort, of course, and should be part of every FLSM’s arsenal and every rep’s personal development plan.  I can go one step further to suggest that what was learned in training become part of the organization’s entire performance management system, but that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’ll end here.

Ready to learn more? Check out:

  1. Sales Leadership & Coaching: Keys to Igniting Productivity
  2. B2B Sales Has Changed – Why Your Training Should, Too
  3. How to Make 2017 the Year of Sales Manager Enablement

This post was originally published by Mike Kunkle on LinkedIn.