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How Can You REALLY Get Better at Selling?

0428_1 When a chicken lays an egg, it usually lets the world know about it. When a sales expert comes up with a new way to sell more, he or she invents a new title like: value selling, solution selling, complex selling, creative selling, C-level selling, Power Selling, Compelling Selling, Systems selling, No-Bull Selling, Selling Lucky etc.

The obvious question: What do we do with all this information? What are salespeople supposed to learn to get better?

The obvious answer: All of it is “proven and tested” to work, but only if the salesperson is willing, able and motivated to learn.

Next are the sales training methods. Role plays, watching videos, listening to a trainer, logging on to a Webinar, following a multiple choice online learning program, videotaping role plays, rehearsing scripts, and getting pumped up by a motivational speaker.

The obvious question: What works and for how long?

The obvious answer: None of them last. Sales training is like exercise. It has to be ongoing.

How can we learn faster so we get ahead of forgetting?

Next are the learning methods. It’s like with the field of nutrition. We know five major food groups. Sales trainers mix them up liberally.

  1. The sales story. This could be an actual account of “how I made this sale,” or “here is what I have learned from this experience.” The downside: Every customer’s situation is different.
  2. The psychological concept. Here are four types of customers. Here is how to deal with each one of them. The downside: Every customer is different and they don’t fit well into boxes.
  3. The script approach. Many companies create a word-for-word script that salespeople can use for various phases of the sales call. Each salesperson learns to deliver the script until it becomes second nature. The downside: Customers notice within seconds that this is a canned presentation.
  4. The sales formula approach. There are too many to mention like the “blue sheet,” the “strip-lining” method, the “AIDA” formula. The list is endless. The downside: Customers get confused, since their buying process doesn’t match the sales formula.
  5. The “common sales wisdom” approach. Sales trainers impart sales wisdom that is somehow rooted in a larger philosophy such as “Socratic selling,” “Customer driven selling,” or “Win-Win” selling. The downside: Insights are great in theory. Every selling situation requires thinking on your feet, with little time left to lean on philosophical insights.
Why are sales not improving?

With all these “proven and tested” ways of teaching salespeople we have to address the uncomfortable question: Why are sales not improving? Or better yet: how come that virtually no company has a good way of measuring the ROI of sales training? 0428_2c Most companies still use “butts in seats and smiley sheets.” Just today I spoke with a salesperson who complained about his company’s sales training: too much information, too little time to take it all in.

Knowledge is like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. If we don’t eat it, it will melt away. A good story told in a sales training class will fade from memory in a few hours. The enthusiasm generated in a motivational speech vanishes after a few days. The insights gained from reading a book, or an article can wear within a few weeks. The skills gained from a workshop may last a month or two, and then salespeople fall back to their old behaviors.

The Manager’s ignorance is the biggest roadblock to training

As good salespeople get promoted to sales management, they tend to look back at their own struggles with professional development. Here is how many of them reason:
  1. If our salespeople don’t know how to sell, they should not be working for our company. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff and get rid of the bottom 20%.
  2. We don’t have the luxury of coddling our salespeople. We hire only experienced salespeople so we can save the high cost of training.
  3. We build better products to make selling easier. Since our sales have been increasing through innovative products, there is no reason to waste time and money on training. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  4. Our industry is in a slump. We need to save money. Everybody knows that even the best selling techniques don’t work when fewer customers are buying.
  5. We know what creates more sales: greed and fear. Instead of wasting money on training, we can spend half the money on cash incentives and a better commission plan. It’s cheaper to engrave the names of the top salespeople on a plaque than to waste money on training how to sell.
  6. When I started in selling, nobody showed me what to do. We are all graduates of the “University of Adversity”. It you can’t learn on your own, you don’t have a chance in this field. Those who can’t cut the mustard should get another job.
Would you hire this football coach?

Imagine for a moment you hired a new coach for your football team with an eye on winning the Super Bowl.0428_3 At the first meeting with the team you hear the coach say: “I have a simple six point program for winning. First, we fire the losers; second; we hire only winners with a proven track record; third, when we are winning, we won’t waste time practicing; fourth, when we’re behind, we’ll lay low for a while, until things improve as they always do; fifth, everybody is in this game for the money, so we will put the training dollars in the pockets of the best players and finally, everybody knows that the best training is the school of hard knocks. Instead of wasting time with training, let’s go for the real deal. Let’s play ball!” Sounds ridiculous? Yes, but that’s the same reasoning that prevails in many companies today.

Sales leaders are not likely to lead by example when it comes to education

Sales managers want salespeople to think quickly on their feet and they enjoy the art of improvisation. They love the hunt for business and the thrill of closing deals. 0428_4 Sales managers are not inclined to be educators, nor do they seek out education to broaden their horizon.

Case in point: there are over 5 million sales mangers in the US. Less than 2,000 per year attend sales management or sales leadership conferences. Although there are fewer marketing managers than sales managers, every year over 20,000 marketing managers attend marketing conferences to advance their knowledge.

Some people say that selling is not as complex a subject as marketing. A simple Google search returns over 242 million entries under “selling” and over 463 million entries under “marketing.”

Another factor: the level of professionalism in selling has been notoriously poor since most Universities ignore the sales profession. Of the 3,000 colleges in the US, fewer than 50 teach professional selling. Yet every year over 3 million college graduates enter the field of selling without the professional preparation required in their job. The average initial sales training for new hires is less than three weeks.

What’s the solution to really getting better in selling?

If you are a salesperson, don’t depend on your company to hand you the key to sales success on a silver platter. Don’t expect your sales manager to coach you. If you are lucky enough to work with a good coach, soak up every lesson and apply them on the job. Don’t expect too much from a sales meeting, but use the breaks to learn as much as you can from the top performers. Seek out your own teachers.

Your best teachers are:
  1. Your own curiosity.
  2. Your ability to ask good questions
  3. Your customer. Learn how they think, feel and act. The more you know about your customers, the better you will be able to help them create value.
  4. Your willingness to read more. There are over 5,000 books on the subject of selling. Read a book a week, apply a new idea each day and soon you’ll be at the head of your team. Study the masters of success like Neil Rackham, Jeff Gitomer, Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins, Brian Tracy, Josiane Feigon, Jill Konrath, Barbara Sanfilippo, Tony Alessandra, Jim Cathcart, Harvey Mackay etc. Search for sales titles on
  5. Your positive attitude towards professional sales training. Enroll in a Dale Carnegie sales training program and get your company to pay at least half of your tuition. Join a local Sandler Sales training program. Watch the many sales training videos on YouTube, read Selling Power magazine. (That’s the one that over 100,000 sales professionals read – and that 19 million salespeople ignore). If you learn more, you’ll earn more.
  6. Your realization that you are 100% responsible for your success and that you are building your own future.
  7. Your ability to learn something on every sales call. Create your own sales playbook. Write down your best closes, your best ways to handle objections, the best ways to present your solution, the best ways to break the ice etc.
  8. Your willingness to get rid of old habits- to let go of old approaches that no longer work. Become a leader in self-change and self-improvement.
  9. Your determination to embrace new sales technologies and social networking tools. The clock-speed of progress is technology. The faster you adapt, the faster you will grow.
  10. Your ability to be yourself. Selling is not a game we play wearing masks. Customers can see right through you. Customers want authenticity, creativity and above all integrity. Customers will always buy first who you are before they will buy what you sell.

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Gerhard Gschwandtner,Selling Power


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Jeff Garrison

Nice article. I have an idea as to why sales are not necessarily getting better. It is because few sales people, sales managers, and business owners are willing to commit to "growing" sales. Specifically, the ground must be prepared, seeds must be planted, water and sunshine must be available, and there must be protection from invasive plants, animals, and weather.

Mostly, we just want to go to the store and pick out a mature plant for our garden. If it thrives, great! If it dies, we'll go back to the store.

There are lots of great selling systems and trainers out there. Pick one. Take the time to practice and master it. Measure what will likely be slow and steady progress. One day, sales will explode!

Dan Wood

Excellent article. I especially liked your football analogy. To extend this analogy, it's up to the players to stay in shape and hone their skills.
It's also important that they have the best equipment for the job, and sadly it seems that the majority of the tools available to salespeople today are missing the mark one way or the other.
CRM often feels like a management tool that is forced down from above, and many of the promises of Sales Force Automation are yet to be realized.
There is a new breed of sales tools, of which ours is one, that hope to change this for the better.

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Personally I find listening to Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins and Brian Tracey CD's in the car are the best way for me to stay motivated and continue learning


Great article, Gerhard. Comprehensive take on the state of sales cultures that leaves no one without an excuse- managers or AEs. It truly amazes me how many of each have blinders on to what will either make their team and/or themselves better.

Take this to heart if you have truly chosen sales as your honored profession.

Dick Wooden

Great useful summary and to the point. Personal accountability and continuous learning are key principles I have found helpful.

In my consulting and implementation of CRM systems I see too many sales people not following these teaching points and taking control of their own careers.

Personally I have gotten helpful principles and tips mostly from Jill Konrath, Tony Parinello, Neil Rackham, Jeff Thull, Jeff Gitomer, Tom Hopkins, and Brian Tracy.

I'd suggest the interested reader find an author(s)that relates to their prospects and customers. Learn and put into practice.

Jacques Werth

You article is an excellent treatise on why it is so difficult for salespeople to learn what works in sales and how to sell. My own quest to learn how to sell started in 1955 after I got my first college degree majoring in Industrial Sales, where I Aced every sales class.

Back then, the latest "scientific" selling method was called "Needs Selling" which originated in the 1930s. Now it is generally called "Consultative Selling" and it includes all of the systems that are included in the first paragraph of your article.

In my first sales job, I found that hardly anything I learned in school worked consistently. So, I started to go out on sales calls with top salespeople in many different industries to watch how they work.

The first thing I learned is that they way the top 1% of salespeople sell is radically different from the other 99%. The second thing I learned is they can seldom tell you how they sell because they learned what they do intuitively.

Since 1955, I have observed hundreds of top salespeople interacting with customers and prospecting. Their sales methods keep evolving as market conditions keep changing. Unlike all the aforementioned selling systems, they have made major adjustments for the age of Information Overload, which started circa 1985. Another adjustment has been made for the advent of the Web. And, further adjustments were based on the latest studies of psychology and brain science.

Top producers have the unusual ability to intuitively understand what works in selling, to constantly improve, and they are avid, life-long learners.


Great Post

Personally I find listening to Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins and Brian Tracey CD's in the car are the best way for me to stay motivated and continue learning

Jill Konrath

Excellent article! You make a ton of great points about why salespeople are struggling today. At the core is a lack of personal accountability.

I've worked with numerous companies whose salespeople don't know anything about Sales 2.0 tools, who won't read books unless they get reimbursed and have no desire to upgrade their skills.

As they cost merrily along, they're fast becoming dinosaurs. But they don't even know it and neither do their bosses. They're just hoping to meet their numbers - which clearly gets harder and harder each year.

On the other hand, I've worked with young, aggressive companies who have created a culture of learning. The future of our economy lies with these organizations. I'd bet on their success any day!

P.S. And thanks for including me in your "masters of success." I am honored.

Kelley Robertson

Great post Gerhard.

It's unfortunate that the vast majority of sales people receive little to no formal training. While I agree that people need to take responsibilty for their own development, in today's highly challenging business world, it only makes good business sense to give your team a competitive advantage.

Although training can be expensive, when it is properly executed, the return on investment can more than make up for the initial investment.


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