The different types of sales include B2C (business to consumer), B2G (business to government), and B2B (business to business). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2020, there were approximately 14.2 million sales and related occupations in the United States, including both B2B and B2C sales roles. It is estimated there are around 3 million B2B salespeople.
B2B sales training refers to teaching and developing the skills, knowledge, and strategies necessary for selling products or services to other businesses. B2B sales training is typically provided by a company to its sales representatives or teams, and may involve a variety of topics including prospecting, asking open-ended questions, and negotiation. The importance of B2B sales training contributes to the success of the company by ensuring the sales force can navigate a complex, dynamic set of conversations with clients who need to improve their results.
In this article, we'll explore the B2B sales process, several types of training, effective program design, training delivery, training evaluation, the common pitfalls, and emerging trends:
- Understanding the B2B Sales Process
- Types of B2B Sales Training
- Designing an Effective Training Program
- Delivering Sales Training
- Evaluating Training Effectiveness
- Common Pitfalls
- Emerging Trends
Understanding the B2B Sales Process
A B2B sales process is a way to identify each stage of the conversations between a B2B salesperson and their customer. By breaking the conversation into stages, each with its own set of outcomes, it is believed that a salesperson can follow a set process and win the client's business. Over time, the actual path of a sale has become nonlinear, so modern buyers find the established process to be less helpful.
A common sales process starts with targeting prospective clients to ensure the salesperson's sales effort is directed at the most desirable clients and customers. Despite the effort to target well, many sales teams need to qualify prospective clients to ensure they have a need, and that the sales organization’s products and services are a good fit. This stage is followed by the discovery stage, arguably the most important stage of the sales process, where the salesperson creates the most value for their contacts.
With a deeper understanding, the B2B salesperson and their contacts work on designing a solution that will improve the client's results. In recent years, many sales organizations have added a stage where the salesperson helps their clients build consensus internally. More leaders want their teams to agree on the sales organization and solution before making a final decision. This makes building consensus a critical and difficult outcome for B2B salespeople. Once they reach an agreement that the solution is right, the salesperson presents a proposal, before negotiating.
The importance of the sales process is that it allows sales leaders and sales managers to ensure that the individuals on their team are working effectively. It also allows sales organizations to train the skills and competencies needed to effectively pursue the sales process and close deals. The quality of the salesperson's conversation in the B2B sales process determines their success.
The most common challenge in the B2B sales process today is that buyers don't always find it helpful enough. Recently, Gartner published that over 70 percent of buyers suggested they would prefer a "salesperson-free buying experience," suggesting that the traditional sales approaches are no longer working and need to be replaced by modern approaches that better serve the B2B salesperson's contacts and decision-makers.
Types of B2B Sales Training
There are many types of B2B sales training, and a comprehensive program will include a variety. Each of the following training types have different purposes and outcomes:
- Onboarding training: Most sales organizations train during the salesperson's onboarding. This training, however, is often inadequate because most of the time is spent teaching the salesperson to rely on their company and its history for credibility and relevance. It's important to know what their company does and how it helps their clients, but this information doesn't contribute much to the salesperson's effectiveness. This is the chasm between sales and marketing, as marketing is answering the question "Why us?" and the salesperson is responsible for answering the question "Why change?" especially in competitive selling.
- Product training: Product training is often a large part of the onboarding process. This training is often directed at positioning the company's products or services, so the salesperson learns about the features and benefits of different offerings. While this is important, it contributes little to sales performance. These conversations in the sales process position the salesperson and their company as a commodity, preventing them from differentiating in a meaningful way.
- Sales skills training: The B2B sales training that contributes the most to achieving their sales goals teaches sales skills. As B2B buying and selling have evolved in the 21st century, there are new sales skills and competencies necessary for sales success. In addition to skills like asking open-ended questions, negotiating, and gaining commitments, the newer skills include sales skills like business acumen, change management, and leadership, which provide for the long-term success of a sales rep.
- Industry and market training: Part of the value of business acumen is that it allows the salesperson to understand their industry, their client's industry, and the place at which the two come together. Sales organizations that still use a traditional sales approach may not recognize the value of this, but sales organizations who use a modern sales approach based on insights will spend more time and money to enable this training, as it is the most effective while also being preferred by B2B buyers and their teams.
- Technology training: As software is eating the world, sales teams are using more technologies. In addition to training on the company's CRM (customer relationship manager), salespeople's data sources allow them to reach their contacts without having to research to acquire their contact information. Sales leaders who want efficiency to add more technology, but as the sales stacks grow ever larger, many are streamlining things.
- Management and leadership training: A rapidly growing company would accelerate their results by first training their managers and leaders. Leadership is a variable, and good leadership delivers results. Our advice is to train managers and leaders before training the sales force, as it produces far better results.
The importance of a thoughtful, well-rounded B2B sales training program will cover these training types, tailoring them to the needs of the sales organization. Different companies need different training at different times. It's important to design an effective sales training program.
Designing an Effective B2B Sales Training Program
When designing a B2B sales training program, it’s important to take a methodical approach. The following steps will allow you to create an effective program.
- Conducting a needs assessment: Any B2B sales training program should start the assessment with a competency model. The competency model should include the sales skills and the competencies that allow salespeople to succeed. Skills like negotiating or presenting are important, but competencies and attributes that support those skills must also be included. As an example, a salesperson who is other-oriented will produce better results than one who is self-oriented. Salespeople who lack discipline struggle to succeed. Your assessment should give you an understanding of the areas the sales force needs to improve to reach their goals.
- Setting clear training goals and objectives: Much of the time, sales training is done to check a box. Without specific goals and objectives for the overall program and each session, the sales training isn't likely to produce better sales results. It also means there is no way to assess it. To determine your objectives, consider what signs of greater effectiveness would you look for.
- Choosing appropriate training methods and materials: To reach your salespeople on an individual level, it's important to use different materials to cover different learning styles. You need methods and materials for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Because sales is built on conversations and commitments, it's important to include role-plays in all cases. This provides all learners with the ability to practice in a safe environment.
- Measuring and evaluating training effectiveness: It's difficult to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of B2B sales training. The best approach is to measure the increase in sales and the sales force's sales effectiveness. It's important to recognize that training isn't going to produce results without sales leaders and sales managers coaching their teams and insisting they make the necessary behavioral changes.
- Best practices for designing an effective B2B sales training program: The best practice for B2B sales training should begin with a long-term view of the skills and competencies the sales force needs to succeed, hit their targets, and achieve their sales goals. A single training in a year isn't likely to produce a meaningful increase in revenue or effectiveness.
Delivering B2B Sales Training
The way you decide to deliver B2B sales training will impact how effective the program will be. There are a number of things to consider, including the following:
- The role of B2B sales trainers in B2B: Trainers provide the sales force with effective strategies and tactics, frameworks, and methodologies. The trainer should also explain the underlying principle and demonstrate the behavioral changes the salespeople will need to do in order to apply what they learned. The trainer should also engage the audience and ensure the sales force enjoys the learning experience.
- Choosing the right delivery methods: There isn't a better delivery than live sales training. Many sales organizations hire trainers to travel and train the sales force at a specific site. Some prefer live virtual training to avoid travel expenses, especially when the sales force is scattered across the country. Others acquire access to development platforms that provide a complete program on video, using the courses to level up their team's skills. The best approach is often a combination of these.
- Tips for successful virtual training: While live virtual training is popular, salespeople spend a lot of time behind a screen. To make live virtual training work, you want to limit the time to 90 minutes. Modern online conferencing platforms allow the trainer to assign salespeople to breakout rooms and do an exercise, breaking up the content and allowing attendees to learn from each other.
- Addressing common delivery challenges: Sales leaders should participate in sales training, explain why it is necessary, and describe how it will help the sales team better serve their clients. They should also explain how it will improve individual results. Sales leaders can help with buy-in and, when necessary, address the skeptics and the small portion of the sales force who believe they don't need training. The sales leader's presence will also support the behavioral changes and the accountability that, when missing, cause sales training to fail.
Evaluating B2B Sales Training Effectiveness
The starting point for evaluating the effectiveness of B2B sales training begins with knowing what new skills and competencies the sales force needs. Once you know what you need the sales training to enable, you can reach out to companies that provide the content that best aligns with the needs of your sales force. Every sales training company can provide you with references, case studies, and the results they helped produce. Here are a few ways to measure how effective B2B sales training is:
- Salesforce survey: Sales organizations often survey the sales force to gauge the effectiveness of the sales training. This allows the sales organization to assess whether it was helpful. It also allows the salespeople to describe what they liked and disliked about the program.
- Manager feedback: Sales managers should provide feedback on their team's ability to execute what they learned in the training.
- Win rate and won deals: Effective sales training should increase your team’s win rate. In addition to winning more deals, your sales force should be winning a higher percentage of their opportunities.
- Return on investment: There are several ways to calculate your return on investment (ROI). The increased revenue that results from the training should be worth many times the investment in the program. As a bonus, consider that employees who are trained not only improve their results but also stay longer. You should be able to see a decrease in churn among your sales force.
Common Pitfalls to Avoid in B2B Sales Training
There are many reasons sales training fails. The following list highlights the most common ones to look out for:
- Lack of alignment between training and business goals: The leadership team must do the work to assess the gaps in the sales force's skills before deciding on a program. Without doing that, it’s challenging to tie the training to the sales organization’s business goals. Companies that do check-box training fail. For example, imagine a company chooses negotiation as the topic for their annual training because they have never covered that topic. Depending on the sales force’s weaknesses and competencies, training them in negotiation may not support the improvements they need. You want to make sure the investment in training is tied directly to the company's business goals.
- Failure to address individual learning styles and preferences: Great sales training programs use a careful mix of reading, listening, and exercises to help individuals acquire new skills and competencies. What's most important is that the training is based on andragogy (how adults learn). When exploring training, one way to verify the trainer will succeed is to ask about adult learning strategies. Ask a potential trainer how they address individual learning styles to make sure they can reach everyone on your team.
- Ineffective training delivery methods: It is important for a training program to transfer the information the sales force needs, but information isn't enough. Ineffective training is any training that doesn't deliver what we call competency transfer. When there is no follow-up or accountability to take new actions, the training will not produce the best results.
Emerging Trends in B2B Sales Training
Many of the trends in education and business are also being used in B2B sales training. A few of the biggest are:
- Artificial intelligence: The recent explosion of artificial intelligence has given salespeople access to tools that provide real-time guidance as they work through the B2B sales process. These tools will eventually assess the sales force's data and provide insights on how to improve sales results.
- Gamification: Leaderboards, point systems, and other elements of gaming are becoming more popular in sales training. The ability to tie gamification to the behavioral changes that improve salespeople’s results can help reinforce the training. The more you can remind the salesforce what is important, the better your sales training results.
- Emotional intelligence: Recently, more sales organizations have discovered that interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and other soft skills are vital for hard skills, like building rapport, developing relationships, and winning the client's business. This is because business has become increasingly transactional, contributing to the commoditization of everything. Soft skills support and enable the hard skills, so don’t overlook them.
- The transformation of B2B sales: The largest emerging trend is the shift to a modern sales approach. As the traditional sales approaches lose their effectiveness, net new revenue growth comes from an approach built on value-creation strategies. Effective sales training must align with the modern sales approach.
Start by understanding your B2B sales process and the stages where new skills are necessary. By assessing the B2B sales training that would best support critical new competencies, you can design and deliver a training program and evaluate its effectiveness.
Because professional selling is increasingly complicated and complex, develop a long-term plan for sales training and development, including sales coaching and the accountability to change.
Our best advice here is to explore a conversation with sales training companies to determine whether their approach is right for your sales organization and your salespeople.