The content of a sales training program, whether an initial or continuing program, derives from the specific aims that management, after analyzing its training needs, formulates. Initial sales training programs are broader in scope and coverage than are continuing programs. Initial programs provide instruction covering all important aspects of performance of the salesperson’s job; continuing programs concentrate on specific aspects of the job where experienced persons have deficiencies. Therefore, the following discussion relates to the content of initial sales training programs.
For an initial sales training program to contribute maximally toward preparing new sales personnel, it must cover all key aspects of the salesperson’s job. Content varies from company to company, because of differences in products, markets, company policies, trainees’ ability and experience, organizational size, and training philosophies. No two programs are, or should be, alike. However, different companies tend to cover the same general topics despite the fact that variations exist in exact content. Every initial sales training program should devote some time to each of four main areas: product knowledge, selling skills, markets, and company information.
1. Product Knowledge
Product-knowledge training is basic to any initial sales training program. Companies with technical products devote majority of their training programs to product training. But in many situations, especially with standardized products sold routinely, new sales personnel require only minimal product training. In all cases, new salespeople must know enough about the products, their uses, and applications to serve customers’ information needs. Product knowledge is basic to a salesperson’s self confidence and enthusiastic job performance.
Understanding product uses and applications is important. Trainees receive instruction on customers’ problems and requirements and learn how company products can solve these problems and meet these requirements. Training provides them with full appreciation for buyer’s viewpoints. New salespersons learn how to relate company products to the fulfillment of customers’ needs, thus equipping themselves for effective selling.
Many companies, especially those with technical products, include a period of initial sales training at the production facility. Trainees observe and study the products during manufacturing and testing. They talk with or even work alongside production personnel. The benefits are thorough product knowledge and increased confidence in demonstrating products to customers. Inordinate time, however, should not be devoted to technical production detail—such detail is important only in so far as it helps in actual selling.
Some training on competitors’ products is desirable. Salespeople should know the important characteristics of competitors’ products and their uses and applications. They should know the strengths and weaknesses of competitive products. Thus, informed, salespersons gain a decided advantage. They can structure sales presentations to emphasize superior features of the company’s products. Training on competitors’ products must be continuous, the focus shifting as changes are made in both competitive and company products.
2. Selling Skills
Most new sales personnel need training in selling skills. Some sales managers believe, however, that careful selection of sales personnel and product training are sufficient to ensure effective selling. They believe, in other words, that if an individual has an attractive personality, good appearance and voice, and reasonable intelligence and knows the product, he or she will sell it easily. But the predominant view is that new sales personnel need basic training for selling. Training on selling skills is very important in the current hypercompetitive context as highly skilled sales people can make the difference between an average sales call and an outstanding sales call that garners better profits and good customer relationships.
The new salesperson must know who the customers are, their locations, the particular products in which they are interested, their buying habits and motives, and their financial condition. In other words, the salesperson needs to know not only who buys what but, more important, why and how they buy. When trainees are not given adequate instruction on the market, they take years to acquire the needed understanding. During this trial-and-error learning, through no fault of their own, productivity is low. In fact, left to their own devices, some trainees never gain important market information. For instance, a salesperson who is unaware of prospects’ potentials as buyers may neglect completely to canvass them. Markets are always changing, so training in this area should be continuous and the content changing with market changes.
4. Company Information
Certain items of company information are essential to the salesperson on the job; others, not absolutely essential, contribute to overall effectiveness. The training program should include coverage of all sales-related marketing policies and the reasoning behind them. The sales person must know company pricing policy, for instance, to answer customers’ questions. The salesperson needs to be fully informed on other policies, such as those relating to product services, spare parts and repairs, credit extension, and customer relations.
The initial training program must equip the salesperson to perform such tasks as recording and submitting customers’ orders for processing and delivery, preparing expense and other reports, handling inquiries, following up on customers’ requests, and so forth. Each firm develops its own systems and procedures. If trainees are to perform properly, the initial sales training program must provide the needed instruction. Otherwise, company systems and procedures are learned, if at all, through trial and error.
The sales department’s personnel policies should be explained in the initial sales training program. Coverage should include selection procedures, training programs, compensation and incentive systems, advancement requirements and opportunities, savings and retirement plans, medical and insurance plans, and the like. Having this information contributes to employee morale and job effectiveness. Not having it shows up in employee uncertainty and excessive sales personnel turnover rates.
Contributing to the building of morale is “general company information.” This concerns the company’s history, its importance in the industry and economy, and its relations with stockholders, unions, competitors, government, and other groups. Knowing something about the personality, or image, of the company bolsters the recruits’ confidence in its products, which they will shortly be selling. It is worthwhile to provide formal training on general company information. But a common failing is that too much time is spent on company background, history, and prestige building. The challenge is to provide sufficient general company information, but not to allocate instructional time disproportionate to its importance.
Source: Richard R. Still, Edward W. Cundliff, Normal A. P Govoni, Sandeep Puri (2017), Sales and Distribution Management: Decisions, Strategies, and Cases, Pearson; Sixth edition.