For the Pros, School Is Never Out

Knowledge is power -- and for a sales rep, it means profits as well. Gaining the wisdom to close deals can be as easy as picking up a book

By Michelle Nichols

I just heard a statistic that made me go crazy: On average, Corporate America spends four times as much money training buyers as it does educating sales reps. I can't vouch for the absolute accuracy of the figure, but two conclusions come to mind.

The first is that managers seem to worry more about controlling expenses than reaping revenues and profits. Don't get me wrong. Keeping expenses down "is a good thing," as Martha Stewart would say. But sales training increases your revenue, which grows your business -- and that is a very good thing, too. If business was football, sales training would be a vital drill for building a dynamite offense.

The second conclusion is that the buyers are better trained to do their jobs than the sales reps they encounter. It's as if we folks who sell are armed with sharp sticks while our customers are packing AK-47s. When you think about it that way, training also is vital to the sales team's defense. Reps won't have much of a chance if they are always being outgunned.


  The two main reasons I hear for not providing more sales training are that it costs money and takes time. Baloney! In Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 7 is, as he puts it "sharpening the saw." A woodcutter cuts more wood with a sharp ax, the author reminds us. Likewise, a rep with strong, up-to-date sales skills does better than a counterpart with weak, old-fashioned ones.

Great athletes don't just show up for their games, they work out and practice constantly throughout their careers. Great musicians and opera singers do the same. Even accountants, nurses, and teachers must continue to train, forever furthering their educations to stay on top of developments in their professions. Why should a sales rep be any different?

Sales training is not an expense, it's an investment. As motivator Zig Ziglar says, "If you want to earn more, learn more." When I see a book that promises to improve my selling, I admit my first thought is that buying it will put me $25 in the hole. But then I remind myself that one good idea in those 200-or-so pages could help me make a sale and net a $1,000 commission. By that yardstick, I just made 4000% on my investment, which beats Wall Street's payouts any day.


  Salespeople and their managers sometimes find themselves at loggerheads over who will foot the bill for sales training, which is very shortsighted. What both sides need to do is sort out the differences, make a decision, and get going! One good compromise: The company pays but the training takes place on the rep's personal time.

The quickest way to start selling better is to visit a big bookstore, either online or at the mall. Start with the sales books, then look at those dealing with marketing, psychology, and, maybe, personal development. Limit yourself to two books. This will increase the liklihood that you'll actually read at least a chapter or two. If you buy an armload of books, the stack can seem so overwhelming that you may never get around to reading any of them. Also, there is plenty of sales training available on the Internet, Savvy Selling being but one example. Schedule some time every week to surf the Web and keep up with what's new in selling.


  Over the years, I have met intelligent people who can't come to grips with books on selling. That's O.K., we all have our blind spots. Me? I'm hopeless with technical manuals. But there are alternatives to the written word -- classes and tapes.

Sales-training classes come in two basic varieties: the all-at-once approach and what I call "the drip method." While sitting in a classroom for a day or a week is the most time-efficient approach, I believe it is less effective in terms of the amount of knowledge retained. The problem is that the mind's ability to absorb information is directly related to the tush's tolerance for contact with a hard seat. Sit too long, and no matter what is being taught, you just won't take it in.

The drip method is better because you learn a little, try it out, then learn a little more. The downside, of course, is that it takes longer to cover the material.


  If time is really tight, try sales-training tapes or CDs. Twenty years ago, I invested in some tapes and credit them with making my sales career take off. I played the tapes over and over as I drove to my appointments. Since then, I've bought a lot more. Check out, for example, and look for audio training aids at bookstores and music outlets.

And then there is the do-it-yourself method. Once you have read a good sales book or two, get out your tape recorder and read aloud the sections you believe are most useful. You can even add inspirational sayings and maybe even some motivational music. Anyone in the mood for the theme music from Rocky?

There is no magic in sales-training aids if the lessons aren't put to use. Just as Harry Potter's magic wand doesn't do anything until he picks it up and uses it, nor will information turn into sales until you put it to work. You may have to modify the ideas and recommended strategies. You also may be forced to abandon sales ideas if customers don't respond. But try them out first -- and then try something else.

Just remember, sales education isn't graded with a final exam --it's graded by results! Happy selling.

Michelle Nichols is a sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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