TALKING SALES 43: “Creating a Perpetual Sales Learning Environment”

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Sue Barrett

In this interview Sue Barrett talks to John Smibert about how most sales training is ineffective, frustrating for salespeople and provides poor return on investment.

She explains that the best alternative is to create a sales culture where salespeople learn how to learn – where salespeople develop and grow in a continuous learning environment.

She says that the key to this is the role of the sales manager. Sales managers typically need to spend less time with the numbers and administration – they need to recognise that each of their salespeople are at a different level and each needs individual training, coaching and support.

Sue makes some recommendations as to how a continuous learning environment can be developed. See her interview below.

Sue is an authoritative thought leader and an accomplished author on the selling profession. She’s also founder and CEO of Barrett and

See more interviews with Sue Barrett here


John: Welcome back, Sue!

Sue: Thank you, John!

John: Sue, in some of our other discussions we’ve had we talked about sales training and the lack of effectiveness of a lot of sales training. I’ve seen it happen, where you run the annual sales training, or you do a bit of training with a kick-off meeting in the beginning year and so on, and you think “That’s the training we’re going to give to people.” It tends to be a big investment, with a very limited return on investment.

You’ve got a lot of ideas about how we avoid that happening. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Sue: Absolutely. Unfortunately, salespeople have been trained, like sort of dogs, to receive their annual dose of sales inoculation training, and it doesn’t help actually create or develop people over the long term.

John: It doesn’t, does it?

Sue: No. We have to think about it like fitness training. How do we set up a learning environment where we’re doing lots of little bits of learning over a period of time. I mean, the sad truth is is that your top performers are actually good despite sales management. They’re already out there and doing self-development, they’re actually already out there trying to find how to be better. Because what they’re getting often in terms of this “sales training” is not helpful to them.

John: I’d seen it many, many times; the really good salespeople do know how to self-develop.

Sue: Yes.

John: And yes, despite the sales management.

Sue: In fact, there was some interesting research about top performers in sales, and the number one thing that distinguished them, amongst about five things, but the number one thing was engaging in self-appraisal and continuous learning.

John: I can relate to that.

Sue: Yes. So, they’re very open and curious; not everyone’s like that though. How do we create an environment that actually captures everyone else and allows them to learn even if they don’t even know they’re learning?

John: Okay, good point.

Sue: Yes. There’s some interesting ways of doing that, and with technology now and online and self-paced learning and videos, and the things that you’re doing here now – videos and stuff that we’re producing. This is ways that we can actually feed people with information, help them actually get access to information in little bits over a regular period of time.

John: And relative for what they’re doing right now rather than train for something that you might not use for six months.

Sue: Yeah. The other thing too is that we have to get away from the “pump your tires up – ra-ra” motivational training. That is not training, that’s like having a hot bath; it soon gets cold.

John: [laughs] Yes!

Sue: What we have to do is actually provide contextual-based training, and there’s some concepts like flip learning for example that they’re using in schools, where they get the children to actually go – and we can do this with salespeople and other people as well – where they actually go and do the theory offline, in their own time; now, whether that’s online with videos and things, or reading a book or some articles. When they come to training  it’s much more applied and contextual around their real world; so that’s one of the ways we can do that.

The other thing is training up managers. In the olden days sales managers were the sales trainers, and so we want to get them back into actually out there coaching and out there training, doing lots of little bits and pieces, and not rushing around trying to fill in so many different reports back up to senior management.

John: I relate to that. Having been a sales manager in one form or another most of my life I tended to be the coach, the mentor and the trainer for a lot of what happened.

Sue: Yes.

John: And yes, we did the annual training, but the reality was that as a sales manager I knew that wasn’t going through so I had to help.

Sue: Absolutely. And that needs to come back. The other thing is with sales management is that with all this data that we can gather, they get caught up with data and they forget that actually if they develop their people on a regular and consistent basis, but also encourage their people to develop themselves. My goal is to create self-directed learners out there in sales.

John: Yes.

Sue: And be more like those top performers, there’s a really important process there. So, if we think about the concept 70/20/10, which is out there in the ether and people can look it up online, most of our learning happens in the real world. So, 10% classroom, 20% coaching and 70% learning out in the real world. Self-reflection, thinking about that call, having check-lists to look at “How did I go on that call?” and so on and so forth.

Gearing people up to actually pay attention to what they’re doing is how we can start to actually generate a greater perpetual learning environment where people will be self-directed learners, and we will actually get whatever the content was delivered in a course actually applied in the real world in real ways.

John: And we all continue to grow and develop, even old-time guys like me. Right?

Sue: Yes, and we can teach an old dog new tricks, John – don’t you worry about that!

John: [laughs] Okay, there’s some great ideas there, but from what I understand we’ve really got to focus on making sure  it’s a continuous learning environment for the people, and they learn how to work within that environment rather than rely on the once-a-year training programme.

Sue: Exactly, so they learn how to learn.

John: Thank you very much, Sue! Great advice, and I look forward to the next time we talk!

Sue: My pleasure, thank you!


More interviews with Sue Barrett:


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John leads three related organisations, Custell, Strategic Selling Group and Sales Masterminds APAC. These help B2B selling organisations, who recognise the need to transform their sales capability, to respond to the tsunami of change that is starting to wash over us all. He works with people who recognise that to survive they must more strategically support their customer in their buying journey - and understand that they must become specialists in the customer's domain in order to be of value to them. He also helps sales teams build differentiated personal brands and leverage the digital and social worlds to engage to create trust and value.

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