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ATD Blog

Tailoring Training for Different Sales Roles

Thursday, July 12, 2018

How well do adults transfer training into actual on-the-job performance? In other words, what carries the professional sales person from their participation in training to the point where they are comfortable and fluent in using what they learned? Surprisingly, it is a big question with only a few answers.

It has been well established that one of the most important elements in knowledge transfer is to provide coaching and reinforcement. It has also been well established that providing this support is increasingly the domain of sales enablement professionals. What hasn’t received much attention, however, is an equally important element of both the training itself and the post-training period. Specifically, both the introduction of new sales techniques (training) and the process of helping people make new habits (enablement) requires that these efforts are tailored to fit what each sales person faces day-to-day.

At the macro level, professional selling can be defined as playing the role of “decision coach”; the job of the professional sales person is to coach a buyer to make the easiest, fastest decision that is good for both parties. Too much sales training and far too many sales enablement professionals are focused on the application of general skills and strategy training with too little attention to how their customers make buying decisions. In fact, research has shown that the single most important skill a seller can acquire is the ability to recognize how a buyer’s decision journey drives (or should be driving) every sales interaction.

How does this apply to sales enablement? Any kind of sales training and all post-training enablement activities will be far more effective if tailored to reflect how the organization’s actual customers behave at each stage of their decision journey. Step one of this kind of tailoring is to consider the various roles that make up the overall sales organization.

The modern sales force is now routinely made up of at least three basic roles:

  • business development representative (BDR) or sales development representative (SDR) who is responsible for setting initial sales appointments with new opportunities
  • account executive (AE) or consultant who takes the opportunity from the first scheduled appointment through to close, loss, or removal from the sales funnel
  • sales engineer or subject matter expert (SME) who provides subject matter expertise in support of an AE at critical points during the sales effort.

Clearly, each of these three roles will be viewing the opportunity through a different lens. As such, their performance improvement training, coaching, and reinforcement should be structured to reflect this reality.

For the SDR/BDR role, for example, their job is to reach out and make first appointments. Obviously, it is not possible that everyone they call is going to be at the beginning of a decision journey, or that they are even poised to begin considering a purchase. Therefore, the organizing framework for performance improvement is empowering people in this role to recognize current opportunity, near-term potential opportunity, and the people and organizations that should be funneled a marketing cue for longer-term nurturing.


For an AE, the focus of their performance improvement needs to be on four overriding questions and on empowering them to answer, or revalidate, the answers to each:

  • How do I know that this opportunity is real?
  • What evidence is there that we can compete for this business?
  • Is there evidence that we can win the business?
  • Is this business that we actually want to win?

Training and coaching these folks therefore requires slightly different and more robust application of the buyer decision journey. The vital issue, however, is that these efforts (both learning and mastery) need to reflect how buyers behave at each stage of their decision.

Lastly, consider an individual who is playing the role of SME. They are brought in to the sales effort when the actual solution is being designed or presented. The key here is for them to develop presentations around three essential elements from the buyer’s journey: how the buyer defines a successful outcome from the purchase they are considering, what points of comparison the buyer is using to evaluate their options, and who is contributing to the final decision. This means understanding in detail the portion of the decision journey where buyers look at their options so that the SME is not forced into providing a one-size-fits-all demo.

Ultimately, providing enablement of any kind to sellers in any role will always be vastly improved if these efforts are designed with the idea of the customer as a decision maker in mind.

About the Author

Tom Snyder is founder and managing partner of Funnel Clarity. Formerly CEO of Huthwaite, he has extensive sales leadership experience and a keen grasp of how human behavior and sales results are linked.

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