Every Company Wants to Grow Sales.

Using sales training as a mechanism to achieve that goal is certainly plausible. Unfortunately, whether the programs are developed internally or purchased from a supplier, most sales training initiatives fail to produce truly worthwhile results, such as increased revenue, higher margins, or expanding market share. Thought leaders in the sales training industry cite a thousand reasons why the dogs don’t eat the chow. Frequently blamed culprits include the program’s content (it’s poor or wrong), inadequate reinforcement, lack of buy-in from learners, lack of accountability for learning—the list goes on. After decades of arguing about what causes sales training to flop, it’s about time for those of us in the training business to gather factual data on what does and doesn’t work, and to chart a course that assures success. But what kind of data would be truly persuasive?


Typical research, even by folks in the research business, is based on surveys. We’ve all participated in these Survey Monkey questionnaires. And, we’ve all probably stretched the truth; at the very least, we’ve made honest errors and omissions. For example, a survey might ask individual salespeople (or their managers) to rank their effectiveness at planning sales calls. So, everyone inputs an opinion. When enough opinions are gathered, the survey somehow, supposedly, translates those opinions into facts. Is it possible that this type of data is biased—or maybe downright useless? After all, who wants to look bad or cause someone else (other than an enemy) to look bad?


In my opinion, survey data cannot be regarded as validated data when it comes to measuring mental capabilities and processes. Therefore, survey data cannot form the basis for developing fact-based, data-driven solutions. Validated data comes from validated assessments. Validated assessments are developed by credible professionals in the business of psychometrics (the science of design, administration, and interpretation of quantitative tests for the measurement of mental capabilities and processes). Validation further requires that these psychometry tools be administered to a statistically significant number of people—a whole lot of people.


When salespeople are asked to rank themselves in certain critical selling skills, and these rankings are then compared to hard data from validated assessments, the data shows only 60% congruence. What does that mean? It means that for skills such as sales-call planning, questioning, closing, and others, salespeople perceive themselves to be far more skillful than they actually are. If surveys are what you use as a basis for sales training decisions, you come out of the starting blocks being 40% wrong. (For those familiar with Donald Kirkpatrick’s four-level model for training evaluation, even Kirkpatrick got this wrong in his thinking about Level 3.)


You can’t teach salespeople a hundred different things and expect their performance to improve in a significant or consistent way. In designing sales training, it makes sense to start by identifying a handful of measurable and trainable skills to teach. But who cares whether you can measure sales skills in a validated way unless the skills you’re measuring are, in fact, the ones most critical to real-world sales success? Based on research, here are the five selling skills that offer the greatest leverage for performance improvement in real sales environments.


  • BUYER/SELLER RELATIONSHIP – When sellers understand the incremental buying decisions that every customer makes, they can improve their use of an effective sales process to succeed at each incremental decision.
  • SALES CALL PLANNING – Data shows that 99% of salespeople fail to establish, consistently, the right kinds of objectives for every sales call. This is the most common mistake in selling.
  • QUESTIONING/LISTENING SKILLS – Two-thirds of salespeople need significant help in this area. As a consequence, they sell themselves poorly and present unimportant capabilities to the prospect when describing their solutions.
  • PRESENTATION SKILLS – You’d think this would be the one skill that salespeople excel at. Not so fast. Even though they generally know what they ought to do, they apply best-in-class skills at a miserable rate.
  • GAINING COMMITMENT (Closing) – Here, sadly, self-perception and reality are 100% in accord. Salespeople (and their managers) agree that this is their weakest skill. On the bright side, it presents the greatest opportunity when the problem is fixed.


Once you’ve got the critical skills defined—and you have accumulated a very large number of validated assessments of those skills, before and after training—you can answer some very interesting questions about sales training.
  • Which skills are most deficient in a particular sales team?
  • How much can training improve the skills of sales teams in any particular industry?
  • What does the data say about knowledge gains in training courses versus gains in skill application back on the job?
  • Which skills, when improved, produce the greatest ROI for salespeople and for their companies?


The Big Data we’ve been discussing for the sales training world now exists. Over the past 20 years, more than 400,000 salespeople from 3,500 companies have been measured before and after training, using validated skills assessments that measure gains in both knowledge and application. The results are conclusive. Here are just a few examples of findings from this study. BigDataDrivenSalesTraining MarketingArticle1 - Big Data-Driven Sales Training Notes:
  1. BLUE bars indicate average assessment scores prior to training. GREEN bars indicate average post-training scores.
  2. Two bars on the left indicate Knowledge measurement. Two bars on the right indicate Application measurement.


  1. Salespeople had a reasonable amount of knowledge (64%), but the ability to apply sales-call-planning skills was surprisingly low (37%). Salespeople are generally poor planners.
  2. A post-training Application score of 82% shows that salespeople are using nearly all of the new Knowledge (83%) they acquired.
  3. The 121% skill gain in Application suggests that sales-call planning is the #1 most important skill to focus upon.
BigDataDrivenSalesTraining MarketingArticle2 - Big Data-Driven Sales Training


  1. We expect salespeople to be great presenters. It was shocking to learn that they were only applying 37% of what they knew before training. With a 111% skill gain, this was the most surprising skill-development opportunity turned up by the study.
  2. This skill had the biggest pre-training gap between Knowledge and Application (67 – 37 = 30 points). Training dramatically closed the gap to 8 points.
BigDataDrivenSalesTraining MarketingArticle3 - Big Data-Driven Sales Training


  1. Salespeople and sales managers admit that this skill represents their greatest weakness. With pre-training Knowledge and Application scores of 56% and 36%, respectively, the study agrees with them.
  2. Since gaining commitment from buyers is the principle duty of all salespeople, this skill gap is a huge problem. After training, salespeople improved by 119%. That is a big win for everyone.


More studies are in the works using this treasure trove of data. With 78 million data points and 20 years of history, the analytic opportunities are endless. Here is the topic currently under investigation: The data has been sorted by major industry. Reports were produced that provide remarkable insights into the uniqueness that exists within each industry’s sales challenges.


  • Each piece of Industry data is compared to the Universe of all salespeople.
  • Some Industries lag the Universe. Some have clear sales skill advantages.
  • Certain Industries have greater learning potential than all others in the Universe.
  • Shocking skill deficiencies are remedied and Skill Gains approach 200% improvement.
  • See how your peers and competitors transfer skill gain into sales revenue.
GET BIG DATA REPORT ON YOUR INDUSTRY: Thanks to this two-decade long mountain of validated skill measurements, sales training will evolve at a rapid pace going forward. Learn what’s going on in your Industry today and what is being accomplished. With more than two decades of historical data, you’ll quickly be able to understand what’s working and what isn’t. Until this Big Data became available, the sales-training world had only hunches based on opinion, not solid knowledge based on facts. You just couldn’t know whether or how sales training would produce reliable gains in job performance. Now you can! About the Author: Duane Sparks is Chairman of The Sales Board and Creator of Action Selling.