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Motivating Sales Forces with Enhanced Learning by Jeff Thull


Motivating learners in today’s environment of sensory overload is a formidable task. Directors of media events confirm that 15 seconds devoted to one scene or idea is stretching the limits of today’s audience. Motivating a sales organization to undertake and sustain a learning program takes that task to an even higher degree of difficulty.

Three major considerations for learning success include the context of the learner’s environment, the clarity of the task to be learned and, of course, the content of the program itself. All three elements fuel the motivation of the learner. I will focus on context and clarity of task as the most critical. When these two considerations are optimized, motivational content will surely result.

Radical changes jolt us out of complacency and demand our attention, but slow changes creep up and, too often, leave us behind. The evolution of the profession of selling and the challenge of teaching sales professionals is the story of a changing market environment created by the steady escalation of capabilities, requirements and expectations. The result of this slow change is seen, but its underlying causes are not well understood or articulated. It is reminiscent of the old story of the frog that boils to death because it doesn’t perceive the gradual, inexorable heating of the water.

If a change in learning requirements occurred overnight, it would be relatively simple to detect it, its causes and the required solution. The symptoms that scream for enhanced learning, such as extended sales cycle time, squeezed profit margins and low proposal-to-sale ratios, have been slowly deteriorating the sales process for several decades or more.

After a period of devoting significant resources to functions such as manufacturing, finance and IT, more and more CEOs have shifted those resources to the sales organization and top-line revenues as the hope for the future. What previously had been looked at as the "black box" that no one wanted to mess with is now the focus of serious attention. The result of this attention should include increased learning requirements to upgrade the knowledge and skills of our sales professionals.

How does one enhance the learning process to motivate the sales force? To consider this question, let’s start with a basic set of four criteria that we teach sales leadership to ensure motivation. Motivated sales professionals have these four traits in common:

  • They possess a present projection of a desired future.
  • They understand the costs and are willing to pay the price to get there.
  • They take action.
  • They are able to recognize short-term incremental progress.

To be motivated is wonderful, but motivation without knowledge and ability will be very short-lived and cannot yield the desired performance results. To sustain motivation, we must ensure the ability to perform, accompanied by a significant ability to recognize the desired progress noted in the fourth criterion. As we look to define performance in any profession, we find that it boils down to three major components:

  • Systems
  • Skills
  • Discipline

The system is an organized procedure or a set process that leads to a predictable result. The skills represent the individual’s knowledge or ability to execute the system. Discipline is the individual’s mindset and the emotional stamina required to carry out the system in a timely and high-quality manner. In short, the system is the "what to do," the skill represents the "how to do it," and the discipline is having the personal fortitude to "do it" as required.

Another great challenge in enhancing the motivation of the learner is increasing the level of motivation to do the job that has been instilled by sales management. As CLO, it is important to clarify that sales management has a joint responsibility to provide a motivated learner based on the clarity of the job itself, along with the learning program’s responsibility to fuel that base motivation. Suffice it to say that if the learner is not motivated to do the job itself, your efforts to make the learning process enjoyable, highly instructive and motivational will not likely change the individual’s motivation to do the job.

To meet the challenge of motivating sales professionals through enhanced learning, we must ensure that the learning is built around the context of the four criteria for motivation and the three areas that define professional performance. It is helpful to approach this learning challenge with an understanding of the three eras of evolutionary change the sales profession has gone through and what is still relevant to today’s sales professional.

John Sullivan, director of professional services at Prime Resource Group, first described the three eras in a course on sales training design he developed and taught at the University of Minnesota. The three eras, which span the business environment from 1950 through today, are worthy of exploration because they offer a means of understanding the context of today’s learner environment.

Era 1: The Presenter

In the 1950s, sellers in the business-to-business sector created a product and sent it off to markets filled with "hungry" customers in the post-WWII era. This was the era of the sales script ("Just tell me where to go and what to say when I get there"). The role of the Era 1 salesperson was that of the presenter and persuader. Sales training focused almost exclusively on three areas: presenting, handling objections and, of course, closing.

The business-to-business world worked on the premise that if a company created a product that customers truly wanted, it only needed to draw attention to the product’s availability. The customer would clearly see the value and write a check to purchase it.

The primary assumption behind this idea, that the product or service will "sell itself," is that customers can clearly comprehend the offering and evaluate its value in light of their own circumstances. In Era 1, products, for the most part, hadn’t yet developed into complex solutions, and the customer was able to understand the problems to be solved. The value, or the "benefits," was readily apparent to the buyer.

Era 2: The Problem-Solver

The Era 2 alternative started emerging in the early and middle 1970s. Larry Wilson, author of "Counselor Selling," and Mac Hanan, author of "Consultative Selling," were two of its earliest proponents. The emphasis on presenting, closing and handling objections, characteristics of Era 1, is replaced in Era 2 with a focus on questioning, listening, trust and building a relationship with the customer. Training material from Era 1 rarely references listening, because listening had absolutely no relevance to the Era 1 job. The questioning techniques of Era 2 were aimed at developing an understanding of the customer’s needs. These were defined as the gaps between what the customer has and what the customer wants. The job of the salesperson was to understand that gap and then close it with her product, the "solution." The Era 2 approach has come to be known as "needs-satisfaction selling," and the role of the Era 2 salesperson is that of problem-solver. In Era 2, buyers could still understand their own problems, but they needed help to understand the product or solution being offered.

Era 3: The Businessperson

Era 3 represents a convergence of two main influences, both of which could be described under the general rubric of "business acumen." If the role of the salesperson in Era 1 was that of a persuader, and in Era 2 that of a problem solver, then the emerging role of the salesperson in Era 3 can be described as that of a businessperson, specifically, a source of business advantage.

As a source of advantage, the Era 3 salesperson is challenged to think simultaneously from two different, complementary perspectives. One point of view is that of the "consultant," being a source of business advantage to the customer. When operating from this point of view, the salesperson must think like a businessperson, applying his business acumen and understanding of the customer’s business processes and priorities to create a solution that the customer would truly value but has never experienced and would never think to ask for (to paraphrase Peter Senge, author of "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization"). Clearly, this requires process knowledge and skills beyond those required by the needs-satisfaction selling of Era 2.

The other point of view is that of the "strategist" who must think like a businessperson and apply business acumen from the point of view of his or her own company. In Era 1 and Era 2, the salesperson was concerned only with revenue. Margins and costs of sales were somebody else’s problem. That paradigm never did work very well, even in the ’90s. Today, it’s a formula for self-destruction.

So, Era 3 salespeople are concerned not only with revenues, but also with cost of sales, shortening the sales cycle, ruthlessly qualifying opportunities and walking away from unprofitable business. As a "businessperson/consultant," the Era 3 sales professional is a source of advantage to her customers, and simultaneously, as a "businessperson/strategist," she is a source of advantage to her own firm.

Attaining a Desired Future

Designing your program from the Era 3 perspective will provide measurable motivation to the learner by meeting the first criterion - the ability to see in a current action the attainment of a desirable future. In other words, "Why would I want to learn this?" By designing learning programs with the objective of developing Era 3 sales professionals, your programs will connect firmly with individuals’ motivation to be accepted as professionals and be respected by their customers and colleagues. Their value to the organization will be clearly defined, and the knowledge and skills they are developing will position them in high regard with their customers and within their own company.

The content of today’s programs must reflect the sales professional’s desire to become a trusted business advisor. The content needs to be about business, not about selling. It needs be about guiding customer decisions, not about presenting volumes of solution information. It needs to be designed to connect the business drivers of the customer to the value of the solution, a relationship that extends significantly beyond the one-to-one nature of the feature-to-benefit relationship.

Paying the Price

To meet the second criteria of motivation-willingness to pay the price-we must answer the learner’s question, "What will it take to get good at this?" The learning path should be precise, the field applications specific and the expected time commitment clearly defined. Explain your means of supporting the learner. Will there be personal coaching, reference materials and, if relevant, a sample of the expected output? At this point, the learners should know what they want to accomplish and will understand exactly what is required to get there. This allows the learner to make an informed decision to "pay the price and do what it takes."

Taking Action

The third criterion of motivation-taking action-must be built into the design of the program. Very specific application steps should be presented during the learning process. It should not be an option to participate in the program or to be unable to demonstrate the knowledge or skills being taught. I realize this seems like a very basic tenet of program design, but again, sales training is notorious for being served as a smorgasbord of ideas - use what you like and ignore the rest. Imagine the effect of programs such as Six Sigma or Principles of Finance being served up as optional. Built-in application and accountability ensure that the learner is expected to take action.

Recognizing Progress

The fourth criterion-recognizing progress-is dependent on defining measurable and relevant milestones for each learned behavior. The milestones should tie directly to the desired success and should be defined in both quantitative and qualitative terms. However, waiting for a completed sale to recognize such success in long-term sales cycles will no doubt be very demotivating. Measurement of application should provide qualitative and quantitative performance measurements in a timely fashion, so the learners can recognize the progress they are achieving.


The challenges of today’s sales professional have vastly surpassed the level of learning required by historic feature benefit/product training. We are well advised to design our learning programs to reflect the characteristics of the programs designed to meet similar challenges of other professions, such as teaching scientific principles to research scientists, diagnostic methods to physicians or the laws of aerodynamics to pilots. All of these learning designs fully meet the four criteria for motivation.

By meeting these four criteria, you lay a mandatory foundation for motivation. Upon that foundation, you can build a program that meets the requirements of performance: a system that will guide performance, the skill that enables the system to be executed and the discipline to address the emotional inhibitors of performance. With that accomplished, you have successfully delivered on your commitment to motivate the sales organization through enhanced learning.

Jeff Thull, CEO and president of Prime Resource Group and author of Mastering the Complex Sale: How To Compete And Win When The Stakes Are High! has more than 20 years of expertise in sales and marketing strategies. He is a leading authority and valued advisor for executive teams of worldwide companies, including 3M, Microsoft, Shell and Georgia-Pacific.

This article originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer magazine, www.clomedia.com.

Jeff Thull's Best-Seller!
Mastering the Complex Sale
How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High
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