How to Teach a Course That Doesn’t Exist

Sales 101 exists only as a concept. It’s really the sum of a vast amount of knowledge and perspective a salesperson has gained over many years.

By Ken Wax

People—usually successful, senior-level people—will speak of this course easily, almost casually. They seem to know it well, as if they’ve taken it themselves. And the day may come when you hear it requested, with little further explanation, as the cure to some pretty serious problems.

What course is this? It’s called “Sales 101”—and no one has ever taken it.

Watch out if you’re expected to teach it. Here’s why it’s so popular, and what to do—and not do—if you’re casually given that assignment.

Despite the certainty of its prescribers, Sales 101 exists only as a concept. It’s really a collection of one’s memories; the sum of a vast amount of knowledge and perspective that person has gained over many years. Experienced Sales VPs and managers have internalized all those insights and techniques to the point where they are automatic and effortless.

When they say, “It’s just basic Sales 101”—referring to what’s needed to improve selling —they’re really saying they’d like all more junior salespeople to quickly know what they’ve already learned and assimilated over the years or decades.

That’s just not possible. It’s as if a 43-yearold wanted all 28-year-olds to quickly grasp all they’ve learned in the intervening 15 years. “It’s really just ‘Life 101’—can you teach it to them please? And quickly.”

The reason Sales 101 comes up, and why solving a sales problem is so important, is because sales determine a company’s future. It may sound a bit melodramatic, but the revenue that team brings in pays for everything in the company. If executives feel sales performance is stymied, and lackluster sales performance continues, careers are on the line. Sales managers have little room to dance when the spreadsheets with monthly sales are compiled.

Compounding the problem is that sales executives are always busy. There’s never downtime, because they’re involved in all those unpredictable customer situations. When there’s a crisis, they’re even busier trying to help bring in the business. Despite the best of intentions, it can be tempting to try to dump this problem into your lap.

Here are three things to do if this happens:

1. Ask very specific questions.

  • Where is the problem? Is it product knowledge? Or ability to convey that knowledge in compelling ways? Or is it about creating desire? Do they need help reaching prospects, or has business changed so the ones they know how to reach are now less effective in delivering what the company needs?
  • If they are calling on the wrong levels at target accounts, is that all they’ve ever done? Why would someone higher up, or in another department, want to spend time talking with them? What skills do they have in reaching and intriguing such people? What new ones do they need?
  • Are they losing accounts, or not getting enough new ones? Those are two very different problems; they call for different skills and techniques.
  • Do you plan to invest the time of the sales team, or are you dreaming of a magical potion or silver bullet to solve this important problem? Wishing won’t solve a pivotal problem.
  • Are you expecting the solution to be serving up an online course? As a breed, salespeople rarely change soft skills by watching a monitor. Is this important enough to warrant other approaches?
  • How involved will you be?
  • What happens after the teaching?
  • What does your ideal solution look like, and how will you know if you see it?

2. Beware of the 30,000-foot solution.

Even though you need to solve specific problems, managers sometimes suggest, “Let’s just get some solution-type sales training in here. You can do that, can’t you?” That’s usually because, much earlier in their career, a generic methodology training course helped them understand the sales process. Also, sometimes they don’t know what else to suggest.

Those multi-day courses have their place, but salespeople will tell you that once per career is plenty. Unless your salespeople are all brand new to selling, most already have a fine grasp of the desired steps in the sales process. A 30,000-foot view won’t help much; their success depends on what happens down below.

Process-focused training, even with your company’s names and products inserted, is not tactical. It leaves the salesperson at the door, then picks up once that step is successfully completed. But when managers ask for Sales 101, they almost always want their people to know and begin using additional approaches and techniques in real-world situations. Make sure there’s a match—you don’t want to hear afterward, “Nothing changed; why did you make those choices?”

3. Salespeople don’t change without comfort.

They may nod in agreement during training, but rare is the salesperson who will risk looking foolish in front of real customers. Too much is at stake.

That’s why your training must involves practicing—out loud in real interactions about your products and competitors. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when most salespeople ignore it all and go back to their comfort zone the next day. And because of the nature of selling, no one will even know.

It’s easy for an executive to tell you, “They need Sales 101.” To get your company the results it’s looking for, however, you have to make sure the salespeople actually get sales training for the problem at hand. Guide those sales managers; they’ll thank you for it.

Ken Wax works with companies ranging from IBM and Monster to start-ups and midsized, and is author of “The Technology Salesperson’s Handbook” (on Amazon). He’s taught salespeople all around the world, develops sales tools and tactical courses, and is a keynote speaker at conferences. You can search him on LinkedIn or Amazon, or reach him at kwax@kenwax.com.

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