Yes, Salespeople Are Different—and So Is Training Them

10 reasons training them is different and what you can do about it.

By Ken Wax

In surveys and interviews with training professionals, one group always stands out as being particularly challenging: salespeople. Here are 10 reasons why, and then 10 ways to work with those differences. By understanding their world, pressures, and what makes them tick, you can improve their experience in classes—and yours.

  1. Training time is almost always costing them money. Just about everyone else you train is getting paid full salary during that training. But that’s not the case for salespeople. A big part of their salary hinges on business they bring in. Time they spend in training is time they can’t spend with customers to bring in the sales they need to reach full salary.
  2. They often have interruptions scheduled. Their world is dictated by strangers. If an important prospect is only available to talk Tuesday afternoon at 2, your course is a lesser priority. Like it or not, they’re going to step out of your class to make that phone call.
  3. They’ve got a lot of pent-up energy. Each day means catering to the whims of customers. They have to keep a nice disposition even when a prospect rejects them or is obnoxious; it’s a job requirement as they represent your company. But they’re still human. A training class may be their only “safe” opportunity to grumble out loud or challenge instead of following instructions with a smile.
  4. This isn’t their first rodeo. Salespeople change companies more often than most people. Many have already sat through multi-day courses teaching a methodology of selling. It can be very difficult to have them happily sit through yet another one (because of Reason #1, above).
  5. Getting them back from breaks can be like trying to herd cats. It’s because of their customers—during breaks, they’re responding to calls and unexpected crises. This often means several won’t be back on time, which can wreak havoc if you have exercises scheduled shortly after that break.
  6. They don’t get together very often. Salespeople work alone, even if they’re all in the same building. Your class may be one of the rare opportunities for catching up or building relationships. Those whispers to the person next to them can distract both the instructor and their peers.
  7. Egos are strong. That’s part of surviving as a salesperson—you need a healthy ego to endure the rejection and frustrations. A few may want to assert their strong selves, whether by humorous comments or by questioning the instructor.
  8. They don’t change easily. Nor would you if you were a salesperson. Once someone has figured out ways to succeed with busy, distracted, and often-difficult prospects, it’s hard to get them to abandon that to embrace new ways they’ve yet to test themselves.
  9. They often raise difficult questions. Customers challenge them every day, so they’re not shy about bluntly asking tough questions. Also, they know prospects will be asking similar questions, so they want to be ready to answer them in ways that will satisfy and reflect well on them.
  10. They’re just different. In many fundamental ways, salespeople are unlike any other group in the company. They meet strangers every day and often are rejected by them. Each month or quarter brings a report card with hard numbers. Each prospect can act like a boss. They don’t even know what their income will be for that year until late December when it’s over. The list goes on and on. They’re different—so it’s no wonder training for them is going to be different, too.

What Can You Do?

For each of the above 10, here are practical, proven ways to make training useful to salespeople, and to get their attention and appreciation.

  1. Help them see the impact on customers. Start by pointing out how this training will make them more valuable to those prospects and customers. That’s their goal because that’s what affects their effectiveness and success.
  2. Build for the interruptions they’ll have scheduled. Well in advance, see if you can have their manager tell them to avoid scheduling anything during your classes. If appropriate, have the salespeople e-mail, with a cc: to their manager, the day before so you’ll know if they have any interruptions already scheduled and can adjust if possible.
  3. Have their manager make the case and calm that energy. See if their manager can kick off the class with a two-minute introduction that cites why this is important to the company. Those two minutes will work wonders in focusing their attention.
  4. Make sure this class will help them in doing their job, and clearly convey why. Be wary of methodology-focused courses for salespeople—most already have sat through at least one earlier in their career (if in doubt, survey to see what similar courses they’ve taken before). Salespeople respond best to practical insights and use-it-tomorrow techniques—that’s how they make more sales and more money. Because of that, they have little time for idealized models of how the company wishes customers would behave.
  5. Give them ample breaks—and let them know well in advance when they will be. That way, they can schedule calls for then. Also, don’t have any small-group exercises right after a break; if one of the group is tied up on a call, the rest sit around waiting.
  6. Acknowledge at the start that they may want to socialize, but ask them to refrain. Just mention how even whispers will distract everyone else. Simply doing that with a smile can have a surprisingly big impact.
  7. If appropriate, acknowledge their “powerful personalities.” Think egos and challenges might be a problem? With a smile, start by saying something along the lines of, “I know we have some powerful personalities in this class; that’s what makes you so effective with customers. But in a class like this, if even half of you exercise those egos, we’ll never get anything done.”
  8. No one can force salespeople to change; it’s up to them. Simply let them know they’ll now have new tools and options at their disposal. If anyone balks at trying new things, explain, “You’ll be the one to decide what you use with customers. But why not try to get as much as possible out of the class and then you can decide later whether or not to use it?”
  9. It’s OK if you don’t have answers to every one of their tough questions. After all, they often don’t have answers when a prospect poses one. Simply say, “We’ll have to look deeper into that to find out, which we can’t do right now. How about we proceed as if this is a valid answer so we can proceed, then you can adjust it later on when we get more information on it? Would that be OK? (Because you asked instead of being assertive, they’re less likely to get defensive and more likely to withdraw their protest.)
  10. Just accept that they’re different. Don’t take it personally. A hundred years from now, salespeople still will be different. So use the tools in this article, proceed, and have a good time.

Ken Wax works with companies ranging from IBM and Monster to start-ups and midsized organizations, 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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