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Sales Training, or Should You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

April 18, 2008

I often wonder how far off the mark I am with our sales staff training programs . . . such as they are. I am concerned that new hires don’t get the kind of education they need to be effective sales people, and I am  concerned about our continuing education program.

The employment pool in New Orleans is not deep. We don’t have the luxury of requiring strong prior sales experience in a new hire. Instead, we only list two requirements in our ads:  applicants must have prior work experience and be computer literate. Of course, we look for people who communicate well, show a sense of style, and impress us with their interview. These minimal requirements mean we are going to have to do a lot of training.

We have a pretty good new hire training system. We use a video sales training system from Portico, the people who make Point of Purchase displays. The series consists of several videotapes and product samples. It starts simply by explaining industry jargon (what is a spring chair, a club chair, a chaise lounge, etc.) and finishes with complete explanations of high performance fabrics. The tapes are self-paced and last about an hour each. New employees watch the tapes at the store during normal working hours. If they want, they can take them home to watch on their own time. After each tape, one of my lead sales people reinforces the lesson. They use furniture on our floor or page through our fabric sample books to bring to life what the tape just taught. Smart cookies have a pretty good understanding of outdoor specialty furniture industry by the end of their first week.

Beyond that, training for new employees is done by pairing them with experienced sales people who they trail  as they work with customers. My sales manager is responsible for teaching our computerized POS system. As part of their training, new sales consultants are expected to read catalogs from the major vendors we deal with. We ask them to walk around the floor comparing what we have with everything in the vendor’s catalog. This teaches them our inventory and allows them to see what other pieces a vendor offers. We expect the new hire to start working with clients after they have been here about two weeks. There is a great deal of hand holding by our entire staff during the first few weeks a new hire works the floor.

The main aspect of the job that we don’t teach is "how to sell." Although there are lots of books written by successful salesmen they could read, some of the techniques they teach are more appropriate to a "hard sell" environment. We aren’t that! I purchased a DVD on selling at one of the CFR mid-year conferences. It helps, but we need more. My senior sales people have developed successful selling techniques over the years. We hope new sales people will absorb some of these selling styles and make them their own. Some do, some don’t. If we don’t have formal classes teaching them how to sell, how can we expect them to become high revenue producers?

We are even "iffier" in our continuing education program. When I get back from markets, I pass along information about new products, manufacturing techniques, and trends to my staff in informal meetings. Sometimes reps will hold training sessions with my staff. Yesterday a rep came in with videos of trips he had made to the offshore factories of two vendors. I didn’t expect much, but once my staff and I saw the video of the furniture being made, we all felt more vested in the product than ever before. Wouldn’t it be helpful if all of our vendors had videos of furniture being made in their factories on their web sites?

Now before you think I have a rag tag unprofessional selling staff, let me reassure you that is not the case. I will put any of them, even the newest, up against any other sales person in our industry and they will do great. However, I wonder how much money we are leaving on the table by not doing more training. But where to get the training?

I am hopeful I will pick up some tips at the next FREE CFR Roundtable-by-Phone on Tuesday, April 29 at 1:00 pm Central Time. The last round table about working with designers was filled with valuable information; I think this one will be just as helpful. If you would like to attend, please contact Holly Lundgren at CFR’s main offices, 1-800-956-2237 or e-mail for the call-in information. Please register by Monday, April 28

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce