Willingness & Ability: Why Sales Training Doesn’t Work, Part 1

In my experience, I’ve found most companies approach sales training the wrong way. This might sound surprising, but hear me out. When sellers consistently fail to meet growth targets, the automatic assumption tends to be, “It’s a skills-related issue.” The company believes that all its sales team needs to succeed is proper training by an outside consultant or someone within the organization.

The truth is, skills aren’t always the problem. And if they aren’t, sales training will only be a waste of everyone’s time and resources. As a sales consultant and trainer myself, I’m continually trying to save clients from making this mistake.

Before your company invests in sales training, you should consider two important factors: the willingness and ability of each individual on the team. To what degree do your sellers want to contribute toward growth? And do they have the tools to do it? In other words, do you have a sales team that’s:

Able but unwilling? or Willing but unable?
(Or, unable and unwilling, which means it’s probably time to hire new sellers!)

Knowing these answers will determine if training is the right choice for your sales team.

Able but unwilling  

I once worked with a company that, despite having a great team of sellers, constantly missed its growth targets. There was plenty of demand for the laminated trade show booths, restaurant tables and signage they sold. However, all the training from the past had only made them better sellers to existing clients, not to new prospects.

Then I discovered this: The company wasn’t reaching its goals because the team, in reality, wasn’t willing to grow. The sellers were in a rural area with a very low cost of living and were on full commission. They lived comfortably, so they didn’t feel a need to push themselves to make even $100,000 a year. Short of forcing everyone to buy bigger homes and expensive toys, there wasn’t much we could do. Sales training would’ve been useless.

In another case, I saw age and experience have a direct effect on willingness. I interviewed a potential VP of Sales who, at age 42, was very successful. He was interested in working with a client of mine at a start-up where a major hunt for business was underway. Right off the bat, however, he said he wasn’t willing to make cold calls  ̶  that he was “beyond all that.” In the end, he wasn’t the right fit because he wasn’t willing to do the work needed and receive further training in that area  ̶  even though he was able.

Willing but unable

Let’s now examine the ability factor. Consider those sales teams that are willing to grow but can’t because their skills aren’t up to snuff.

For example, a client of mine works in a very mature market with a well-established team of channel partners and resellers pushing their products to buyers. Their sellers have never had to make cold calls, develop territories or request referrals before. The reason? The company’s resellers have always pushed the deals to the sellers and called every hour with leads.

Recently, though, there’s been a push to grow more aggressively and increase market share in response to stronger competition. Now the sellers have to do the work of the resellers. The problem? They were hired to be reactive versus proactive and don’t know how to prospect. They’re being asked for a 40 percent increase in sales – more than three times what they’ve ever accomplished – but their current growth rate is still hovering at 12 percent.

In this case, the sellers are willing but unable. Sales training is clearly vital in order to sharpen their skills so the company can achieve target growth.

Customize the training

Once your company decides sales training is the right approach, it’s time to gather input. If you’re a leader that approaches training based on what you think your sales team needs, you’ll likely miss the mark and nothing will get implemented. Sellers won’t accept new information nearly to the degree they would if the training were based on what they actually want to improve.

Before calling in a consultant for training sessions, ask your sellers to describe their trouble spots. This does the following things:

  • It ensures your company isn’t wasting time and money by addressing the wrong areas in training.
  • It allows your team to be involved in creating the solution. They’re being heard and see that training is being developed to meet their needs. This means they’ll ultimately buy in and implement the information.

If you option for one-on-one coaching, rather than a group training session, you can often skip this step because sellers will typically provide straightforward feedback during your coaching session. In this case, the material covered can therefore be adjusted on the fly to meet their immediate needs.

The next step

We’ve discussed, in overall terms, the effect of willingness, ability and customized training on your company’s growth. In Part 2 of this article series, we’ll get down to specifics. This includes how to determine what level individual sellers are at and how you can harness their talents. Further, you’ll learn how to fully implement sales training and use the power of accountability to ensure long-term success.