Inside The Sales Training Industry (Part 1)

An interview of me, originally published November 4, 2009 on Dave Stein’s blog.


I finally got around to meeting my telephone and e-mail colleague, Tom Martin, face-to-face a few weeks ago.  Tom is someone I hold in high regard for his experience, integrity and deep understanding of the sales training industry.

Tom is a 20-year veteran of the sales methodology and training industry, with a diverse set of global experience crossing sales (direct, indirect and inside), channel management, marketing, SFA/CRM, consulting, finance, legal, training, systems and operations.   He is currently General Manager of Channels at Force Management, LLC.  He’s got quite a background including full or part-time roles with Channel Enablers Pty Ltd., Think! Inc., OnTarget Inc./Siebel Sales Methodology Experts, and Miller Heiman, Inc., where Tom was President, North America.

Over the course of a few days in Orlando, Tom and I compared notes on a number of important issues germane to sales trainers, sales training companies, and buyers of sales training.  The result is this “discussion” I’ve reconstructed with Tom’s help.

Dave Stein: On the subject of content and IP (Intellectual Property) licensing fees… I know you have worked on a large number of methodology licensing deals, especially while you were at OnTarget/Siebel. Do you think those deals were good for customers and for the training companies?

Tom Martin: A lot of training firms started to do license deals because customers asked for them without understanding the impact of some of their decisions. For example, most training firm standard licensing wording does not benefit the customer if they want to seamlessly integrate IP from multiple suppliers.   License deals could become better deals for both the seller and buyer by expanding their thinking beyond simply price, volume and terms length.

DS: Almost every corporation we’ve worked with has an amalgam of methodologies, processes, terminology, tools, and coursework from multiple vendors.  I suspect, according to the strict licensing wording in many vendors’ contracts, these companies are in violation of some contracts.

While we were talking after my keynote speech at the SMT conference you commented about how many veterans of the high-tech world don’t pay much attention to most sales training because they say they’ve heard it all before in a prior training class and have even heard the same “war stories” used by different training firms.

TM: To some extent, that’s true. Many training firms were founded by alumni of other firms and their courses often have substantial similarity to each other, while legally being new copyrightable works.  Some trainers who have “adopted” others’ approaches would say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

DS: Of course if you’ve had your content pirated, as I have, you might not be in such a benevolent state-of-mind. I’ve got a folder with emails from vendors who accuse others of stealing their stuff.  I know it goes on.  More often that the general public knows or cares about.

TM: There are some great new elements, often from lesser known firms, but you and I agree that many (but not all) of the 20-year old selling concepts are still valuable to some salespeople.

DS: That’s why I founded ESR—to end the destructive cycle of selecting the wrong sales training companies for the wrong reasons.

TM: I should also mention that what I see differentiating competing training firms most often is not their core content but their implementation approaches – these vary far more widely.

DS: Some very successful sales leaders we’ve worked with don’t worry much about which sales methodology they use.  They’re only focused on compliance, measurement, and ongoing process improvement.

TM: Then there is the all-to-common situation where new training initiatives are commenced by a VP Sales new in their job. Someone who wants to bring in “their” language and so they often force 200 people to learn something new as opposed to the VP learning something different—or being open to finding a way to blend the two.

DS: We see that a fair amount ourselves.  When you think about the average tenure of a sales VP being less than two years, there may be a link here, or I should say, maybe a link needs to be broken.  Too many sales training buyers pick a vendor based only upon comfort, past experience, whoever is “hot,” etc.  It happens all the time

We also talked 2 weeks ago about how training firms can make it difficult for a past client to integrate their methodology with complementary methodologies from other firms.  With theDealMaker Partner Network and WhiteSprings helping customers address this to some extent do you see a shift coming in the market?

TM: I could make the analogy between the cell phone market and training – now we’re able to keep the same phone number when we change carriers and in some cases we can take a phone from one carrier to another—all because consumers demanded more power in the relationship.  I expect more and more mid-sized firms to be demanding licensing rights around derivative works and the ability to integrate multiple methodologies without being held hostage because their contract wasn’t set up with those rights.  The largest firms have been doing this for the past five years so I think it will trickle down to smaller and smaller firms until it is a generally accepted standard in the market.  Some training firms will fight this but it’s the right thing to do for clients.

DS: Yes, I think some of these restrictions are very one-sided—the vendor’s side. Some vendors collect big licensing fees each year for delivering no new value.  Someone bought their stuff ten years ago, signed an agreement and they’re stuck.  Some of ESR’s work with training and methodology buyers raises brings this issue into the light of day.  We want vendors to make a profit and continue to invest in new products and services.  On the other hand, there has to be value for the buyers’ investments.  Paying royalties on the use of an irrelevant, decade-old training manual, a term, a word, or an outdated form doesn’t make sense from their perspective.  Just today a large buyer of sales training invested in ESR’s Sales Training Vendor Guide as a first step in firing their current, well-known provider for precisely this reason.

What do you see out there with respect to integrating methodologies, Tom?

TM: There are some training firms that do a nice job as “methodology integrators” but I think too many customers allow themselves to be forced to treat every set of training IP as its own silo, which ends up minimizing the effectiveness of their sales people and especially their sales managers.  The sales manager does a deal review and has to pull out pages with all the Opportunity Management  methodology information, then another set of pages for the Negotiation element, then more pages about the Questioning program from a different vendor, and then when they are done they create a Sales Call Plan from a different vendor that is less useful because it doesn’t have all the right Opportunity Management and negotiation words—and can’t because no one has the legal right to create that amalgamation and it’s too much legal hassle to ask for it.

The result is that sales managers are burdened with 3-inch-thick, 3-ring binders that they rarely pick up because they’re simply not usable. What is more “sales-consumable,” in the words of Force Management’s Grant Wilson, is being able to manage your sales force with no more than 10 well-designed pages. I first saw the 10-page sales manager playbook when I attended Force Management’s “Command of the Plan” training and wished I could go back 10 years in time—I didn’t enjoy life as a front-line sales manager because I had a stack of 3-ring binders and wonder how much life would have changed with the elegant simplicity of a 10-page manager playbook.