An approach to impactful sales training for a high performing salesforce

July 5, 2023
An approach to impactful sales training for a high performing salesforce

Being a behavioral trainer, I am curious about how sales professionals behave and interact in their work environment. I often visit stores in the guise of window-shopping, just to do that. I make mental notes of my observations while casually checking the products. I make sure that I get out of the store with few insights, but I rarely make any purchases. But my experience at the outlet of a famous skincare brand in Hyderabad airport in December 2016 was different.

I entered the store and went about my business as usual. I picked up a product, read the label, and was about to put it back in the aisle when I heard someone from behind.

“Why don’t you try it?” It was Rajesh, a sales representative from the store.

I prefer making my observations without any intervention from the staff at the store.

“I am just looking. Not planning to buy anything today,” I told Rajesh.

“Not a problem. But if you have the time, you might like to try this. It's preferable for your skin type,” he said as he showed me another product.

His calmness and cheerfulness forced me out of my shell, and I got into a conversation with him. After a few minutes, Rajesh noticed another customer checking a few products. He politely excused himself from our conversation, walked up to that customer, helped him with a few queries, completed the sale, and then walked back to join our tête-à-tête.

After about half an hour, I walked out of that store with a facewash bottle worth Rs. 2,500. That was the most I had ever spent on a facewash.

Why did I buy that product? What made Rajesh different from other sales representatives. I came up with a few reasons.

  • Rajesh seemed trustworthy and knew what he was talking about.
  • He was persistent but not pushy. He gave me my space and time to make my decision.
  • He made me feel valued and gave me his time, although he had other customers to cater to.
  • He didn't ‘sell; he spoke to me.

In short, I was inclined to the purchase because of the way Rajesh made me feel.

Whether it is a skincare product, an insurance policy, a technology solution, or a contract for a large deal, the common thread is H2H - Human to Human. The buyer is human, so there is a need to be sensitive to him/her. The seller is human and needs to be authentic. Sales is driven by human emotions of trust and empathy. Even in the case of AI-based selling, the buyer is a human. Hence, that ‘human touch’ can make all the difference.

Difference between a high performer and an average performer in Sales

If business leaders and entrepreneurs were asked what they would rank higher – their product/service or the way it is sold; chances are they would pick the former. However, in today's competitive environment, the sales process or the way a product or service is sold and how quickly it is sold (shorter sales cycles) is equally essential. This is what makes the sales function so critical and a high-performing sales professional so vital.

According to the LinkedIn 2020 Report, top-performing salespeople achieve 125% or more of their revenue goals. An average salesperson does close a few deals but in longer sales cycles and lesser deal sizes. This could cost the organization other deals and bring down the average deal size. Below-average sales performers account for close to 33% of sales-rep turnover, which is a considerable cost for organizations.

What do Howard Schultz, Anne Mulcahy, Warren Buffett, Orpah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and several other business leaders have in common? They all started as sales reps. According to a 2017 survey by Heidrick & Struggles, nearly 15 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs began their career in sales.

Fig: Few of the many successful business leaders who started their career in sales

Here are some similarities between successful business leaders and high performing

Commonalities between top sales performers and top business leaders
Fig: Commonalities between top sales performers and top business leaders

Working in sales sets the training ground for top leadership positions in most organizations. Of course, it is the high performers who can take advantage of that training.

Capabilities in Sales: Technical Skills and Behavioral Competencies

A benchmarking study conducted by McKinsey found that the revenue growth at organizations with more advanced sales capabilities was 30 percent greater than the average organization within their sector. There is more to sales than just achieving the quota.

In the current business environment, sales professionals need a broader range of skills and competencies. There is no single capability that drives sales excellence. Instead, it is a collection of behaviors and skills that can be refined or learned. These capabilities fall into three broad categories:

Sales skill categories
Fig: Sales skill categories

Success comes from these capabilities that equip the sales professional to navigate an increasingly complex buying process. But what makes a star performer stand out, all skills being equal? - Mind-set, mental make-up, and behavioral competencies.

Impact of different categories of sales skills on performance
Fig: Impact of different categories of sales skills on performance

Yet, most sales capability solutions focus on technical or selling competencies. Collaborating with a learning partner who understands the criticality of Mental make-up and drives learning through research-based tools can help ensure sales-training success.

Impact of behavioral competencies on performance

As per research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and Stanford Research Center, 85% of job success comes from having well-developed behavioral competencies and people skills. Only 15% of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge.

Skills may get you the job, but behavioral competencies and mindset ensure your sustainability and excellence. If that’s the case, what specific skills build mental make up in sales professionals?

According to the LinkedIn State of Sales Report 2020, “active listening” ranks #1 among the attributes that buyers most value from salespeople. At the same time, a technical skill like “industry expertise” ranks #8. A HubSpot Research shows only a mere 3% of people consider salespeople to be trustworthy. In comparison, 88% of buyers say that the salespeople they ultimately do business with need to be “trusted advisors.”  Mckinsey researchers quoted an insurance company who said that their most successful reps were individuals who were more assertive and adept at holding their ground on customer discounts and skillful at converting objections into new opportunities. During the current pandemic, it is organizations with exemplary mental make-up that were quick to respond and navigate better.

While technical aspects ensure compliance and standardization, it is clear that behavioral factors create impact at scale.

Due to the evolution of the omnichannel customer and the post-pandemic world, there is a tectonic shift in the way customers explore, discover, compare, and buy. Sales teams need to work holistically, understand the customer’s phygital behavior, and embrace new ways of working to stay ahead of the curve. The mental make-up that is so crucial to sales outliers is not an isolated skill set but rather a culmination of experience, strong sales fundamentals, and demonstrated behaviors. The best way to depict, visualize and understand such complex, interrelated skills is through a competency model.

A Sales Competency Model should incorporate business acumen, people partnerships, execution excellence, and mental make-up. It needs to accommodate an entire ecosystem of skills across levels and domains. The model needs to be drilled down to sub-competencies and further into role-specific skills that the sales force can be trained on. Such a model would serve as a foundation for developing and maintaining the necessary skill-sets for sales success in the organization.

Enparadigm’s Sales Competency Model
Fig: Enparadigm's Sales Competency Model
Enparadigm’s Sales Competency Model drill down
Fig: Enparadigm's Sales Competency Model down into sub-competencies & role-specific sets

How to enhance behavioral competencies

Before understanding what enhances behavioral competencies, it is essential to look at the common pitfalls of developing behavioral competencies through training.  We have listed below a few of them.

Common pitfalls in trainings on behavioral competencies
Fig: Common pitfalls in trainings on behavioral competencies

Enhancing behavioral competencies requires a robust sales competency model over which multiple learning-elements need to be built. The first key element is to identify and address competency gaps while keeping in mind the business and learner needs.  This can be done through conversations with the manager, sales competency assessments, or administering psychometric tools to check the learner's current level of skills and competencies. Secondly, it is essential to state learning objectives to decide the impact of the training. Changes in behavioral competencies may not reflect immediately through business results. However, an individual's growth can be tracked and measured through self-analysis, manager assessments, 360-degree feedback, and various psychometric tools.

Thirdly, companies need to take a comprehensive and continuous approach to sales training and learning by focusing on training journeys, rather than a standalone n-day 'Sales Module,' with a one-size-fits-all approach. Technology can be a significant enabler in this regard by making learning available to learners at their convenience and making customization at scale possible. Customized sales journeys and competencies further fragmented to specific skills and behaviors will ensure deeper understanding and accurate learning outcomes.  

Additionally, when trainings incorporate scenarios that reflect reality and recreate what happens in sales professionals’ jobs, it gives learners the chance to practice their skills. Balancing training and coaching and post-training support will ensure the implementation of learnings by the learners in their day-to-day sales process.

Specific approaches & delivery models of sales training

Approaches and delivery models should be designed to excite, engage and nudge human behavior in ways that create shifts in workplace performance. Learning partners should help clients choose the best models for them and tailor the same to their requirements. Often learning journeys are best undertaken through a blended approach consisting of the following elements.

Experiential/Simulation-based learning

Experiential/Simulation-based learning is based on the premise that most impactful learning happens through experience. Simulations replicate real experiences in a risk-free environment that supports learning. The effectiveness of sales simulations comes from providing instant and personalized feedback to the learners. Subsequently, learners are provided the opportunity to act on the feedback and practice recommended behaviors, thereby enabling accelerated learning. Various studies have shown that while traditional learning has a retention rate of just 5%, the retention can be as high as 75% in experiential learning.

Instructor-led training

Having an experienced instructor makes a learner more confident. With an interactive environment, the instructor can offer the best insights to the learners through the personal experience and learnings of the instructor. Thanks to the dialogue between the instructor and learner, the instructor can also align the insights delivered to the day-to-day work of the learner.

Virtual Instructor-led training

Replicating the effectiveness of classroom training in a virtual setup means more than just presenting the same content on a platform. Virtual instructor-led training needs to combine experiential learning methodologies with various learning techniques to help integrate core concepts into practice.

Bite-sized microlearning

Bite-sized microlearning makes content and learning easily accessible to sales professionals. Carefully curated, bite-sized content can ensure that learners get what they need when they need it. Smaller chunks of information translate to increased comprehension. According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, learning in bite-sized pieces makes the transfer of learning 17% more efficient. But the key here is to ensure that the content created is not just engaging but is also part of a broader learning journey.

Coaching calls

Coaching is a continuous relationship where the coach acts as constant reinforcers, sharing their knowledge and asking the right questions to nudge learners. Coaching calls can play a crucial role in providing clarity and direction to the learners and make their learning journey fruitful.

While these are some of the approaches to sales training delivery, you need to choose the delivery methodology that works best for your organization. Your organization’s learning partner should design the competency model based on the company’s sales-skill gaps and develop a blended learning process by combining multiple delivery models. The approach needs to be customized to your organization’s business and culture. It needs to have inbuilt mechanisms to track the progress of both individual learners and the organization as a whole.


Considering the change in the sales landscape, increased remote working, and the need to be resilient in a post-pandemic world, leaders need to consider multiple factors while designing sales training.

Though technical skills are essential, behavioral competencies are the secret sauce that can create exponential impact. They can make the difference between just selling and comprehensively addressing customer needs. The latter ensures lasting impact and a deep relationship with customers.

Sales being a dynamic profession, requires one to think on their feet, face challenges and navigate them and be open to rejection. A robust mental make-up ensures the emotional resilience that a sales professional needs to thrive in an uncertain yet demanding business environment. Although certain attitudes and mental frames are pre-programmed in individuals, mental make-up is a learnable skill.

Working with a training partner who develops sustainable learning journeys built over comprehensive competency models is crucial. The right training partner can enable collaborations with industry experts and design content and delivery methods that are customized, immersive, and curated to your organization’s needs. Seeking such training partners who have rich experience in your industry or domain will help your organization leapfrog in sales capability.


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