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Distributor Sales
Get Serious about Developing Your Salespeople
By Dave Kahle, The Growth Coach®

Rub shoulders with a half dozen distributor executives, and it's clear that there is at least one thing they will all agree on. It's this: "We should do a better job of training and developing our salespeople."

It's amazing to me that almost everyone agrees with that statement. And rightfully so. Industry surveys indicate that the distribution industry is woefully behind the rest of the world when it comes to investing in the development of their salespeople.

For example, ASTD routinely surveys its members to determine what percentage of payroll they spend on training and development of their employees. Over the past few years, the percentage has been pretty consistent at around 3 to 5% of payroll invested in training.

Here's the real problem. While everyone agrees with the need, very few companies actually do anything about it! Get that same group of half dozen of distributor executives together again a year later and ask them what they did about a problem they all agreed on and my bet is that no one will have done anything differently!

If you are reading this, you may be one of those distributor executives who have done nothing recently. Consider this question:

"What have I done differently to do a better job of training and developing my sales force in the last 12 months?"

If your answer is "Very little, if anything," than read on.

The problem is not one of intention. Rather, it's that most distributor executives generally don't know how to go about doing a better job of training and development. That's understandable. Most distributors are good at distribution, not education. It's natural to do that which you know and ignore that about which you are unsure.

For those of you who really want to do something, but are unsure of where to begin, here are three simple steps that will get you well on your way.

1. Mandate Continuous Improvement.

The first step is to let everyone know that you expect continuous improvement from every employee and salespeople particularly. That alone will perk some people up. Proclaim loud and clear that it is not enough to be content with last year's skill set or performances from the past. If they are going to work for your company, they need to commit to continuous improvement.

Write it into your mission or values statement so that everyone knows that continuous improvement is a core value of the organization. Make sure all prospective as well as current employees clearly understand your position.

Include it in your written job descriptions. Make it an item on the list of tasks. Say something like this: "The field salesperson will be expected to continually improve his/her capabilities and skills, investing time every month in personal and professional development."

Model it. Don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Let your salespeople see you going to seminars and conferences, reading books, taking part in a CEO roundtable or small group learning experience. This gives you tremendous credibility and adds power to your mandate.

Include it as an item in your annual evaluations. Rate each salesperson on the degree to which he/she invested in improving themselves.

Appoint a "development czar." One of the reasons that distributors rarely organize any kind of training and development effort is that no one is responsible for doing so. When a task becomes everyone's responsibility, it becomes no one's job. So, delegate the job to someone. Charge that person with the responsibility to organize a system that provides for basic training for all salespeople and then adds continuous improvement for those who have mastered the basics.

Having completed this group of tasks, you will have loudly and publicly mandated continuous improvement. Now it's time to move on to step two.

2. Create a budget for training and development.

Education is not going to be free. Generally, you get what you pay for when it comes to training and development. So, you have to show people that you are really serious by creating a budget.This does a couple of things for you.

First, it adds credibility by showing that you mean it when you mandate continuous improvement.

Second, it makes it easier to implement a plan by putting the parameters around it. When you first decide how much you are going to spend, that helps you to define your options.

The obvious question then is, how much should you spend? There are some benchmarks. We have one set of numbers indicating that average distributors spend 1.5% of payroll on training. We have another from a more general group of companies, indicating that 3.2 % of payroll is the norm.

So, if you want to be average, budget 1.5% of your sales payroll to training and development of the sales force. If you want to be in the group of high-performing distributors, spend 2.7 to 3.5% of payroll.

Let's make this very specific. If your average sales person makes $50,000, 3% of payroll would be $1500. Just add up your annual payroll for your sales force, and multiply it by the percentage that reflects how much you value training and development. So, if you have 10 salespeople, each making an average of $50,000, then your total annual investment should range between $7,500 (the low side) to $17,500 (the high-performing side).

As you begin to wonder about how you can possibly find that money, don't forget your key vendors. There is generally co-op money available from your good suppliers who are often happy to see you invest in developing the skills of the people who sell their products.

Now that you have a public commitment and a budget, all that remains is to wisely invest that budget.

3. Generate learning opportunities.

This is where the rubber hits the road. Let's start by clarifying the purpose of this whole initiative. Training and development has only one purpose: to stimulate salespeople to change their behavior. It's nice if they felt excited about a seminar they attended, and it's great if they acquired some knowledge they didn't have before, but it's more important that they do something differently and better as a result. If your time and effort does not result in salespeople acting differently, than it has been a waste.

People act differently when they are stimulated in two different ways: First, when they learn something new. For example, they learn how to make a presentation of your product or program more effectively. That's new. They never did it that way before. They also change their behavior when they are reminded of something they already knew, but have stopped doing. Following one of my phone seminars, I received the following note from the manager of one of the companies who participated. "I asked my salespeople how many of them already knew what you were teaching and they all said they did. Then I asked how many were doing it routinely, and they all admitted that they were not."

The moral of the story? It doesn't matter what salespeople know, it only matters what they do. So, the purpose of training and development is to stimulate people to do things differently.

With that as a perspective, let's define a "learning opportunity." What's a learning opportunity? An experience where by the salespeople are stimulated to change their behavior by encountering new ideas, and/or being reminded of best practices they should be, but aren't, routinely incorporating into their procedures.

The key here is the identification of a good idea. A good idea is a positive action that the salesperson could incorporate in order to improve his/her performance. Every learning opportunity should generate good ideas.

What are some learning opportunities you can create? Here's a short list.

  1. Buy them all a book. At every sales meeting, rotate the responsibility among the salespeople to read one or two chapters and to share a list of ten good ideas that person obtained from that section of the book. Discuss those chapters and concentrate on identifying good ideas.

  2. Do the same thing, but use a video tape, or an audio recording instead. Tell everyone to listen closely and write down at least 3 or 4 good ideas they get from the presentation. Play the recording. Then ask each salesperson to share his/her good ideas. Create a list, and discuss each. Have people commit to which of the good ideas they are going to implement.

  3. Send them all to a seminar. But, first, ask each person to bring back a list of ten good ideas he/she obtained from that seminar. Look for seminars and training programs put on by your suppliers.

  4. Bring trainers and speakers in to work with your salespeople.

  5. Subscribe to a series of events. This has the added benefit of creating a routine for you and your salespeople. .

  6. Consider training programs offered on the web.

  7. Reimburse individuals for college courses, certification programs, and any kind of individual development in which they chose to invest their time and money.

The important thing here is that you regularly provide some kind of learning opportunity every month. I recommend at least four hours of development each month, with a portion of that being some kind of group, as opposed to individual, learning opportunity. This keeps the issue on the forefront of everyone's thinking, instills a routine, and continually stimulates people to learn from each other as well a from the source.

Follow these three steps, and you'll have taken the first steps toward an organized, powerful training and development program.

Dave Kahle ( ) is a consultant and trainer who helps his clients increase their sales and improve their sales productivity. He speaks from real world experience, having been the number one salesperson in the country for two companies in two distinct industries. Dave has trained thousands of salespeople to be more successful in the Information Age economy. He's the author of over 500 articles, a weekly ezine, and five books. His latest is 10 Secrets of Time Management for Salespeople.

He has a gift for creating powerful training events that get audiences thinking differently about sales.  Dave Kahle's "Thinking About Sales" Ezine features content-filled motivating articles, practical tips for immediate improvements, and helpful tips to help increase sales. Join on-line at

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