Selecting Sales Training Methods

The planners next select training methods. There is a wide variety of meth­ods, but the program content often limits those that are appropriate. It is important to select those training methods that most effectively convey the desired content.

1. The Lecture

This ancient instructional method is used extensively in sales training. Effective training managers use examples, demonstrations, and visual aids. Compared with other training methods, the lecture is economical in terms of time required to cover a given topic. Some lecturing in sales training is necessary. If initial sales training is brief, for instance, lecturing may be the only way to cover the desired content. It may be the only practical way to handle instruction when the training group is too large to permit con­structive audience participation. Given longer training periods and smaller training groups, however, lecturing is most appropriate for introductory and orientation sessions and for providing summaries of major topics taught through methods such as case discussion and role playing. It is used, in continuing sales training programs for providing new information about the company, its policies, products, markets, and selling programs.

When using the lecture method, learning is improved through a mul­timedia approach. The room is equipped with two to six projectors and screens, and the entire lecture is projected visually on succeeding screens across the front of the room. Further support is provided by projecting illustrations, charts, and graphs and through sound effects. This version of the lecture increases attention, comprehension, and retention.

2. Demonstrations

The demonstration is appropriate for conveying information on such top­ics as new products and selling techniques. Demonstrating how a new product works and its uses is effective, much more so than lecturing on the same material. In initial sales training, demonstrating techniques to use in “closing sales” is more effective than is lecturing. Effective sales trainers use demonstrations to the maximum extent—since the begin­ning of time, showing has been more effective than telling! Demonstra­tions are generally used with other methods—they enliven an otherwise dull lecture, and they reinforce the interchange in a curbstone confer­ence on, for instance, how to inform the next customer of an impending price increase.

3. Role Playing

This method has trainees acting out parts in contrived problem situations. The role-playing session begins with the trainer describing the situa­tion and the different personalities involved. The trainer provides needed props, then designates trainees to play the salesperson, prospect, and other characters. Each plays his or her assigned role, and afterward, they, together with other group members and the trainer, appraise each player’s effectiveness and suggest how the performance of each might have been improved.

In another version of role playing a training group is given informa­tion on, for example, a buyer’s objection to a particular product and then is asked to extemporize a solution. Called a “sweat session,” this provides individual trainees a chance to apply what they have learned. Post mortem critiques afford opportunities to reinforce what has been learned through participating in, or viewing, the role playing.

Role playing presents few problems, but there are some. Those play­ing roles must become actively and emotionally identified with the charac­ters they portray; audience interest must be maintained throughout, even though spontaneous reactions are suppressed. Achieving these conditions is not easy. It is even more difficult when role players “ham it up” or when there is laughter or other involuntary audience reaction. Nonparticipants’ comments should be saved for later, until role playing is completed, or during “cuts” called by the trainer. Note taking as the play unfolds distracts some players. This tendency, however, is overcome with repeated use of the method. These problems can be minimized by briefing trainees on what is and is not permissible, the group is limited to no more than ten or twelve, the trainer exercises discipline and control throughout, and role-playing assignments are realistic.

More than offsetting the problems are the many benefits of this train­ing method. It provides realistic practice in applying what has been learned in other training or by experience. It is flexible and adapts to extreme diversity in role-playing situations. Role playing lends itself to training new personnel, experienced salespeople, or even mixed groups. Other benefits include the following:

  1. Trainees learn to accept criticism from others, and the group soon recognizes that sound suggestions benefit everyone.
  2. When a trainee criticizes another’s performance, that individual has an incentive not to perform similarly later.
  1. Role players practice introspection through participating in the appraisal of their own performances. Videotaping makes self­criticism even more beneficial and objective.
  2. The free-wheeling nature of role playing is conducive to generating new ideas and approaches. Defects inherent in stereotyped solu­tions become apparent.
  3. In role-playing sessions for mixed groups, junior people have a chance to learn valuable tricks, and experienced personnel are kept alert as a matter of personal pride.
  4. Role players gain acting experience, which may help later in han­dling difficult selling situations.

4. Case Discussion

This method, originated by business educators as a partial substitute for learning by experience, is widely used in sales training. Write-ups of selling and other problems encountered on the job provide the bases for group discussion. Sometimes, the cases, particularly when they are long and com­plex, are assigned in advance—if this is the situation, then it is imperative that participants come prepared to the session—otherwise, valuable time is wasted in rehashing the situation. In most sales training situations, however, the cases used are short (one or two pages at most) and trainees are given ten or fifteen minutes to read them before group discussion starts. Each case either describes a real selling problem or is developed around a situation sufficiently real to stimulate emotional involvement by the trainees.

Trainees discussing a case should identify the issue(s), organize the relevant facts, devise specific alternatives, and choose the one most appropriate. Most trainers believe that securing a thorough grasp of the problem situation is more essential to learning than the rapid production of solutions. To derive maximum benefit from case discussion, each session should conclude with the drawing of generalizations on lessons learned.

5. Impromptu Discussion

This method, sometimes called a sales seminar or buzz session, begins with the trainer, group leader, or some member of the sales force making a brief oral presentation on an everyday problem. General give-and-take discussion follows. Group members gain an understanding of many prob­lems that otherwise is acquired only through long personal experience. Many complexities and implications that might go undetected by individ­uals are revealed to all, and trainees learn a valuable lesson: fixed selling rules and principles are often less important than are analysis and handling of specific situations. Impromptu group discussion improves the salesper­son’s ability to handle problems.

Impromptu discussion differs from lecturing. The discussion leader assumes a less dominant role than the lecturer, trainees are active rather than passive participants, learning receives more emphasis than teaching, and the atmosphere is informal and relaxed. These are important advan­tages, and impromptu discussions are being increasingly used, chiefly in training programs for experienced sales personnel.

For maximum benefit from the impromptu discussion, certain condi­tions must be met. An effective leader or moderator is essential—otherwise, discussion drifts into extraneous subjects or becomes sterile. The discus­sion leader must command the trainees’ respect, be skilled in dealing with people, and be well informed. The room arrangement is important—it helps in generating discussion, for instance, if all trainees can see each other. It is important, too, that someone draws conclusions at the close of the discussion.

Impromptu discussion requires considerable time. Most companies schedule sessions for at least a half-day or, more commonly, for a full day. If their aim is to maximize trainee learning of specific points in depth, the impromptu discussion—properly handled—is an effective training method.

6. Gaming

This method, also known as simulation, somewhat resembles role play­ing, uses highly structured contrived situations, based on reality, in which players assume decision-making roles through successive rounds of play. A unique feature is that players receive information feedback. In one game, for example, trainees play the roles of decision makers in customers’ orga­nizations, using data ordinarily available to make decisions on the timing and size of orders, managing sales forces and advertising efforts, and so on. The results of these decisions then are calculated by referees (using computers) and are fed back for the players to use in the next round of decisions.

Preparation of a game requires research to dig out the needed facts, the incorporation of these into a game model, development of detailed instructions for players and referees, and the writing of a computer pro­gram. Expertness and substantial investments in time and money, then, are required, but partially offsetting this is that, once prepared, a game may be used in many training programs.

Among the advantages of gaming are (1) participants learn easily because they involve themselves in game play; (2) players develop skill in identifying key factors influencing decisions; (3) games lend themselves

readily to demonstrations of the uses and value of such analytical tech­niques as inventory and other planning models; and (4) games, with their built-in information feedback features, are effective in emphasizing the dynamic nature of problem situations and their interrelationships.

Among the limitations of gaming are (1) some minimum time is required for playing, usually three or four hours, to generate sufficient decision “rounds” to provide the desired learning experience; (2) since game designs are based on ordinary decision-making processes, their rules often prevent payoffs on unusual or novel approaches; and (3) players may learn some things that aren’t so, a limitation applying, especially to poorly designed games. These limitations are overcome through careful game design and administration.

7. On-the-Job Training

This method, also called the coach-and-pupil method, combines telling, show­ing, practicing, and evaluating. The coach, sometimes a professional sales trainer but more often a seasoned salesperson, begins by describing partic­ular selling situations, explaining various techniques and approaches that might be used effectively. Next, accompanied by the pupil, the coach makes actual sales calls, discussing each with the trainee afterward. Then, under the coach’s supervision, the trainee makes sales calls, each one being followed by discussion and appraisal. Gradually, the trainee works more and more on his or her own, but with continuing, although less frequent, coaching.

The instructional effectiveness of this method depends mainly upon the coach’s qualifications. Given a qualified coach, the trainee starts off on the right foot, using appropriate selling techniques. Early deficiencies are corrected before they harden into habits. If, however, the coach is not qual­ified, the trainee learns the coach’s bad habits as well as skills.

Many seasoned salespeople, otherwise qualified for coaching, are unwilling to spend the necessary time and effort. This is especially true when personnel are paid commissions on sales. The problem of recruiting coaches, nevertheless, is resolved through paying bonuses for each person coached, or “overriding” commissions on pupils’ sales.

On-the-job training is an important part of most initial sales training programs. No more effective way exists for learning a job. This method is appropriate for developing trainees’ skills in making sales presentations, answering objections, and closing sales. Training in these selling aspects requires practice, and this method provides expertly supervised practice.

8. Online Courses

This method is used in both initial and continuing sales training. In the insurance field it is used to acquaint new salespeople with industry fundamentals and to instruct in basic sales techniques. Companies with highly technical products and small but widely deployed sales forces use online courses to acquaint experienced salespeople with new product developments and applications. This method is used also to train non-com­pany sales personnel, such as distributors’ salespersons, to improve their knowledge of the manufacturer’s product line and selling techniques. Few companies use this training method exclusively.

Online training is most appropriate as an interim training method when trainees are scattered geographically but are assembled periodically for lectures, seminars, role playing, and other instruction. Initial sales train­ing, for example, might be by online courses begun at different times and places; continuing, or follow-up, training might come later through group methods at a central location. Preparing a standardized online course cov­ering technical product data, general company information, selling tech­niques and markets presents few difficulties other than those of choosing, organizing, and writing up the material.

Successful use of the online method requires administrative skill. The greatest problem is to motivate trainees to complete assignments on schedule. Not only are enrollees engaged in full-time work requiring that online lessons be done after hours, but few have sufficient self-discipline to study without direct supervision. It is necessary to provide regular examinations, prizes for completing work on time, or other incentives. This method does not answer enrollees’ questions; hence, successful users arrange for periodic face-to-face discussions. Similar problems are met in processing completed assignments, evaluating work, and correcting errors. Despite these administrative problems, online training is a useful supple­ment to other sales training methods.

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.

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