How to maximize your investment in formal sales development
March 19, 2023
Wayne Tessier

The case for providing the right mix of training experiences for sales teams could hardly be more robust. Companies with comprehensive training programs achieve better performance per sales employee than those without, delivering higher individual income generated and better overall profit margins1.

Through our work with high-growth companies, we see how effective adopting the 70:20:10 model of learning2 can be. This practical principle describes a blended learning approach to development:

  • 70% from on-the-job experiences
  • 20% from relationships and interactions with people in our networks; and
  • 10% from formal training, educational events and workshops.

Given how established and well-discussed the 70:20:10 model is, it is perhaps surprising how frequently we encounter sales teams where all skills development is “on the job” and opportunities for formal training are absent.

But it is even more surprising to us when firms provide formal training but fail to maximize this investment, either by not dedicating the right level of resources or by investing these resources in capability areas where sales professionals typically perform well.

Formal sales training takes sales teams away from their day-to-day activities and can require substantial resources to do well. So, it is critically important to prioritize the training to provide. Clearly, you should target competencies where improved capability will impact performance most.

But which competencies are these?

Identifying priority competencies through a rapid assessment of context and needs

We find two perspectives are needed to enable firms to make informed decisions on the composition of their formal sales training programs:

  • Environmental context: Understanding the environment in which your team operates (including processes, systems, organisation design, target markets, propositions, culture, competitors and customers) to validate what competencies are needed
  • Needs assessment: Assessing your sales team against the identified competencies and confirming the interventions required

One tried-and-tested starting point to assess the training needs of sales professionals is a cross-industry competency framework that Better Faster Growth has successfully applied in many high-growth companies. This framework comprises 14 dimensions in three components: Business Acumen, Sales Skills and Professional Conduct. Successful companies will demonstrate consistently high scores across these dimensions:

Two critical competencies in the current environment

If asked “what skills are important for a sales team?”, most people would likely focus on components within “Sales Skills”: lead generation, building relationships, negotiating and closing. However, in recent discussions with leaders of high-growth companies, we know that two other competencies are increasingly pivotal in today’s complex and uncertain environment:

Understanding of customer, market and competition

  • Operating conditions in many markets are experiencing immense pressure and change. Making a case for your product or service in this context is challenging. Sales teams must have the skills to draw out and respond to customer insights. When markets are turbulent, initiating constructive customer conversations can be tricky.
  • Ask yourself: is my sales team proactive and inquisitive with my customers? Are they asking the “killer” questions:
  • What is your greatest pressure right now?
  • What plans are you adopting to ensure your business outperforms the market?
  • How can our service or product help support you to outperform the market?

Financial and pricing literacy

  • To maintain profits and mitigate cost increases, sales teams seek to “pass on” cost and inflation pressures. Sales teams may lack the confidence and skill to broach such topics successfully with customers. Unexpectedly, profitability challenges can provide an opportunity to deepen partnerships with customers, strengthen the bond by sharing the pain, and achieve mutually-beneficial outcomes for longer-term competitive advantage.
  • Ask yourself: does my sales team understand my customers’ financial and pricing issues? How confidently can they describe:
  • Which customers’ products are more volume-sensitive to inflation?
  • Which products are most affected by current and future inflation?
  • What are the traded variables that the buyer has at their discretion?

Maximizing your investment in formal sales development means dedicating the right resources and addressing the right competencies. When documenting the business case for formal training, you should consider the financial cost as an investment with multiple benefits. Better training will drive improved performance. But it will also drive engagement and retention. Good training ranks fourth in the list of desirables offered by prospective employers3. If you don’t look after your employees, someone else will!

  1. MacLeod, David, and Nita Clarke. “Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement: a report to government.” (2009).
  2. Eichinger, R., and M. Lombardo. “The career architect development planner.” Lominger Limited, Minneapolis (1996). This research was the first to formal the 70:20:10 model, based on a two-year study of seven major US employers.
  3. Randstad. “Employer Brand Research.” (2022).