HR & Management

Continuous learning is the key to a successful sales team

7 min read

14 March 2014

To develop your sales team, you need to keep them learning. Dr Philip Squire looks into how learning affects sales.

Recent research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) examined data from over 6,000 sales representatives and concluded that less than 10 pre cent of sales people exceed sales targets.

This is supported by our own experience, which shows that one of the big challenges companies face is with sales performance linearity; sales performance is not spread in a balanced way across the sales force and too few are hitting their performance goals effectively. 

Naturally, this is very much front of mind for the many CEOs who are rewarded on factors influenced by sales performance.

So, what do CEOs think of sales force effectiveness? Research from Forrester in 2011 highlighted the following frustrations:

  • Speed: the sales force is always 12-18 months behind strategy
  • Calling too low: sales reps are not getting to the decision makers
  • The sales force can’t tell the story: the focus is on price and not on the full value and quality of products
  • We have the wrong people: they are not smart enough and not tuned into the market

Yet, when sales performance drops, travel and other restrictions come into force and, even though training budgets themselves may not be cut, sales performance training initiatives are cancelled as people are not allowed to travel. All at a time when additional pressure is put on the sales force to meet targets.

Of course, this is counter intuitive at the very time that sales people need the most help. 

Most organisations have a sales performance culture but learning is seen as a “utility” – something that is turned on or off; often with little notice. 

Turning the tap on and off

A learning culture will only co-exist if there is a strong belief that it will have a direct impact on performance and therein lies the challenge. It is notoriously difficult to correlate learning to performance and it takes time to see the benefits of learning. Can Boards, therefore, be blamed for turning the learning tap on or off?

With this in mind, we have gathered academic research source data on learning effectiveness from many different sources.

Get smarter

According to Dr Brent Petersen at the University of Phoenix who conducted research on training effectiveness, part of the problem is that many learning initiatives fail before they start. 


The research identified that roughly a quarter of the learning effectiveness comes from pre-work, a quarter from the learning event itself and half through follow-up. This compares with the investment made by many companies that shows 10 per cent invested in pre-work, 85 per cent in the learning event itself and just 5 per cent in follow-up. 

Clearly organisations need to get smarter in planning how they deliver learning. Responsibility for this lies not just with the L&D teams inside companies but also line management; many of whom focus on event driven initiatives and take less interest in follow up.

Teaching your staff to think

Another related research study shows a more fundamental shift in the nature of the learning required for the job. 

Research from Robert Kelley at Mellon Carnegie showed that in 1986 typical knowledge workers were able to retain 76 per cent of the knowledge to do their job; by 2013 that figure has reduced to 5 per cent. The other 95 per cent of the knowledge comes from elsewhere; from Google and the Internet through to our own technology and personal network.

The approach to learning needs to change to one more focussed on teaching people how to think and one that is less focussed on knowledge itself. 

Howard Gardener in his book, Five Minds of the Future, comes to similar conclusions and outlined a radical rethink of our educational systems; one that is less focussed on knowledge and more focused on critical thinking techniques.

We believe that what is required in our current age is “persistent learning on demand” – here more responsibility for learning is shifted to the learner. In order to thrive this has to exist in a learning culture with a “core” based on:

  • Accreditation: to measure reflective learning effectiveness
  • Mindset: a core belief that learning enhances personal and organisational effectiveness
  • Frameworks, strategies and maps: tools to help creative and critical thinking for learning

Product knowledge is key

At a recent event in Singapore, Narendra Kumar, Regional Head of Training for Allergan, shared some interesting insights from his 2013 MBA dissertation into the correlation of learning and sales performance as it applies to new product launches.

Pharmaceutical product development can cost more than $3bn dollars and he cited research that showed that unless the product was firmly established in its market within the first three quarters it would not succeed. 

He also found that the least important factor to sales people for a new product launch was financial reward. The most important was their own product knowledge – how to sell it – and doctor education. 

Kumar also learnt that new product training has to be scheduled at least 12 months in advance; quite radical when most new product training happens in the month prior to launch.

With research such as this pointing the way and being tested and validated in markets around the world, slowly but surely an increasing number of organisations are coming to realise that a sales performance and learning culture absolutely can co-exist. 

Where training was often bottom of the agenda on the board review of new product launches, it’s now rising up that same agenda and being taken as seriously as marketing.

Dr Philip Squire is CEO of Consalia.