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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

How important is Sales Education?

I don’t usually preamble a Sales Blog with my ‘qualifications’,
so the fact that I tell you, Dear Reader, that I have worked in Sales Education for 30 years, is significant.

For more than a decade I have wrestled with a really thorny question.

How important is Sales Education?


Here I included both Training as well as Coaching; and both Skills and Knowledge.

I am, I have been, and will continue to be VERY critical about much that is sold and delivered as Sales “Education”
most of it is, for the want of a better word, “BUNKUM”,

if you run your Thesaurus over that great word Bunkum you get:
Nonsense; Claptrap; Twaddle; Hogwash; Humbug; and Codswallop.

None of these words are too strong, to describe such ‘education’ as:
Always be Closing, Handle Objections, Never Discount, ‘steps’ of the sale, or the Sales ‘Gene’ theory.

Yet, that is not my worry.
Younger, and smarter, salespeople, with ‘Big Data’ tools and Analysis Apps can spot these dysfunctional selling skills in days,
rather than practice them fruitlessly for decades!

My worry is one which is facing Educators world-wide, and NOT just in Sales.

It is this:

Does Education really make a difference in Productivity?

And its subsidiary question:

Does Sales Productivity depend on Sales Education?

We have generations of Sales Educators,
Trainers and Coaches who have offered their “evidence” that Sales Education is the key to Sales Productivity.

But, they all have a vested interest in finding the positive correlation. I confess Guilt.
I have shown proof that MY Sales Education correlated with improved Sales results.
I have shown relationships between my Training and/or Coaching and improved results.

But, I have never answered my own question:

Does Sales Productivity depend on Education?

It is only since 2010 that I have delved into this question.

Here I share my results.

    • The best educated Sales people do not always make the best sales people.

    • The best educated Salespeople does not lead to Corporate Success.

    • Poorly educated Salespeople can be TOP Sales Performers.

    • Corporate success is linked to having the right Education, not the best.

Education, as I am presenting it, includes but is not limited to: Schooling, further education College/University, Continuing Professional development [Sales Skills, Product and Marketplace Knowledge, Negotiation Skills]. It includes Formal and Informal education as well as structured, semi-structured and self-directed Learning.


The conclusion has to be that Education=Productivity is a myth.

And, a very expensive myth as Sales Education is a multi-billion Dollar business.

Poor Sales performance CANNOT be explained by IGNORANCE,

because the ‘ignorant’ often sell and the ‘educated’ do often not sell!

Poor Sales Performance is NOT attributable to a “Lack of Education”;
nor is Sales Productivity the result of Sales Education.
We have to look deeper, and think a lot harder,
rather than simply prescribing “Education” by Training Knowledge, Skills or Coaching.


Before we run our next expensive Education program,
before we burn Valuable Salespeople’s, and Sales Manager’s time on Coaching,
we have to ask ourselves, and answer honestly

Does it really matter?

Or should you work on another aspect of Sales Performance?


  1. Provocative, as usual. This one compels me to comment.

    Brian, as someone with nearly as many experience in "sales education," I'd offer that debunking sales education because there are charlatans who claim to be educators and teach ridiculous content that damages our profession, is like an extraterrestrial landing on Earth in a big cattle pasture, and returning home to report that Earthlings all eat grass and moo. It just isn't the whole picture, and becomes more of a semantics issue about how you define things, or a case of how well things are done.

    Does a rep need to be "educated" to succeed in sales? I'd have to ask, what type of sales, and how are we defining "educated?" These are the kind of questions I usually see you asking, when others offer up broad-brush comments. Is it possible for uneducated* (your definition repeated below) reps to succeed in sales? Sure, I've seen it. Are you likely to build a sales force of them? Doubtful. Are you likely to move the needle and vastly improve the productivity or performance of a large sales force, without education? Even more doubtful, in my experience.

    * "Education, as I am presenting it, includes but is not limited to: Schooling, further education College/University, Continuing Professional development [Sales Skills, Product and Marketplace Knowledge, Negotiation Skills]. It includes Formal and Informal education as well as structured, semi-structured and self-directed Learning."

    Providing the right education (mindset, knowledge, skills, behaviors) to the right reps in the right way, can have a major impact on organizational sales productivity. The wrong content, delivered poorly, offered to the wrong people - is a waste of time and will have no positive impact on productivity or performance.

    1. Hi Mike, Thanks for your comments. I acknowledge your 'insider' experience of Sales Education matches mine. And, that you too have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly. However here I am not condemning all sales education simply because some of it is poor or useless. Rather I am asking the question [which is being asked of not just Sales Education but Education in General] Does it really improve productivity?

      If education is the answer, then ignorance is the problem.

      We have accepted the 'goodness' of all types of education for all of my lifetime, since the 1950's.
      We have believed in a link to Productivity, which appears now as a myth.

      Has our focus on Education as the answer disguised the real problem?
      Of course, the "wrong content, delivered poorly, offered to the wrong people" we both know that, and have demonstrated that to Clients time and again.
      What about when the 'right;' content, well delivered to the 'right' people doesn't move the needle then what?

      What if ignorance was NOT the problem?

      Let me end by asking you a question:
      if your Client asked you "to move the needle and vastly improve the productivity or performance of a large sales force, without education?" could you do it?

      I KNOW I can. I know others CAN. And, I suspect you would simply pull another lever too. ;-)

  2. Brian, could I "move the needle and vastly improve the productivity or performance of a large sales force," without education?

    Possibly. It depends.

    As you well know, in every organization, there are a variety of performance levers that can be aligned and pulled.

    As an example, one possible common lever is territory optimization. In one nameless organization I've worked with recently, account and territories have been analyzed to the Nth degree and optimized about as good as I've ever seen. In that organization, trying to better optimize territories would not yield the greatest lift or return on effort. I'm not saying it can't get better, but to get the best productivity lift and return on effort, you'd need to pull another lever.

    The knack of our work, or at least mine, is determining where the gaps are, and which levers to pull, to get the most productivity lift for the effort.

    While there are certainly a bunch of other levers to analyze, in my experience, a very common large gap is the difference in methodology and behaviors, between the top 20% of reps, and those in the middle.

    By conducting a sales performer analysis, determining differentiating behaviors, and building effective learning systems around them to develop and grow the middle producers and "move the middle," you can usually get a significant lift.

    Personally, while I can tinker with comp plans, implement CRMs, utilize sales enablement systems, analyze pipeline trends, and pull all sorts of other levers, I have historically seen the biggest returns through (effective!) learning systems for both sales reps, and sales managers, and usually in combination.

    That's been my experience, Brian... so that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. ;-) So, could I pull another lever if asked that question? Yes. But unless there isn't a gap in behaviors between the top producers and the middle, I have no idea why I'd ignore the education angle, to close those gaps (again - as long as it's an effective learning system - not just training events).

    In case you're not as familiar with my work in that area, you can see

  3. This is a fascinating post and comments from two of the best (on this topic) in the world. I'm still mulling through the possibilities, but thought I'd offer some random thoughts.

    1. Even if education may not be the answer, ignorance is a core problem.
    2. If we want to achieve and accomplish something, then we have to be driven to learn. Without this our achievement is purely random.
    3. Education and learning are not synonymous. We learn through all sorts of formal and informal sources. We all have seen people learn through experience/OJT/the school of hard knocks.
    4. We have seen good and bad education programs and good and bad educators. But education can help. It can help reduce the time to results, help reduce the need to constantly reinvent the wheel, and to help learn from the experiences of others.
    5. So education can contribute to productivity, but to say education = productivity is wrong. (Though it sells a lot of training).
    6. There are other things that contribute to productivity--systems, tools, processes, programs, etc.
    7. As we look at productivity, we have to take a systems approach, productivity and effectiveness is a combination of a lot of elements, The absence of any diminishes the potential.
    8. Perhaps a more fundamental issue is the drive to achieve and the drive to learn. Absent these, education, effectiveness and productivity have no meaning.

    Enough for now, thanks for a great discussion!

  4. Great additive thoughts, Dave. Agree. I will say that drive to learn and achieve is true at an individual level. Collectively, however, even with a wide mix of people with varying drives, we still need to get organizational results. That's why setting up systems and processes that enable and support the work, can be so effective, because it makes it easier for average people to do better than they would otherwise. To quote Geary Rummler, "Pit a good performer against a bad system, and the system wins almost every time." The opposite is also true... great processes, education, systems, tools and support, will rise the tide for many performers.

    By the way, I'm clear that a lot of money is wasted in corporations on poor training or education, and cite that frequently. I also agree that education does not directly equal productivity. It'd be more accurate of me to say that I believe that education/training, done well, as I've attempted to describe above, can be a key component of improving sales productivity and performance. The exception would be if there were no knowledge or skill gaps, but the only cases I have ever seen where that was true, were in *very* small companies where each of the reps and managers were very experienced, well-selected, and all A-players. (And even in small companies, I find that to be rare, but I have seen it.)

    Best discussion I've had in awhile.

  5. "Pit a good performer against a bad system, and the system wins almost every time." I wish I had read this 30 years ago! Thanks Mike.

    Geary Rummler must have travelled my path, before me. He calls it the 'system', Dave calls it SCARS, Mike in a number of Articles and Presentations 'LEVERS', and I am calling it Sales 'politics'. The biggest impact on Sales Performance comes from Sales Institutional 'politics'.
    The VERY place where Systems, Processes and Education emanates from!

    It has to do with the Company's approach.
    There are two basic approaches:

    The EXTRACTIVE where the Sales function is used to produce the maximum result for an elite who keep the Lion's share of the rewards for themselves or
    The INCLUSIVE where Sales is an 'integrated' and integral function which operates on an inclusive basis where the contributions of many are recognised and the rewards are shared widely on a merit/contribution basis.

    The Extractive Institution and Sales politics is failing, they resist change, they detest Creative Destruction, and they prevent progress.
    They use Education as a tool for preserving the Status Quo.

    The Inclusive Institution and Sales politics is rising, they promote change by moving resources People and Money from falling Product/Markets to RISING Product/Markets.
    [others have described this as Business "Agility", but I am concerning myself mainly with the Sales Function.]
    They initiate and support Creative Destruction and Innovation, they readily adopt and discard New Technologies.
    Inclusive politics promotes Education based on CHANGE.

    Thanks for your additions and contributions.