We can all agree that sales forces are change-intensive organizations. To succeed, fast-growth companies require adaptable salespeople who can quickly acquire new knowledge and skills, and demonstrate them on the job. These teams must be “built to learn” in order to navigate shifting buyer needs, embrace changes in their product and services mix, and respond to new competitors.

In a new research study sponsored by Qstream and conducted in partnership with the Sales Management Association, we asked senior sales leaders to help us identify emerging trends in sales rep development, and specifically assess how agile they believed their companies were when it came to helping their teams manage through dynamic change. What we discovered is that managers face major obstacles when it comes to implementing and sustaining programs for developing sales reps, beginning with the hiring and onboarding process and continuing through ongoing knowledge and skill development of both new and experienced team members alike.

Exploring the data, we’ve highlighted a few of the most challenging findings, and how culture and organizational priorities play a critical role in the success of sales development initiatives.

Onboarding is Most Critical, Yet Least Effective Development Task

As a group, survey participants rated onboarding new hires as their most critical training and development task, yet despite its stated importance, many organizations still don’t have a structured onboarding framework in place. Given that information, you might not be surprised to learn that respondents rated their onboarding programs as ineffective.

A formal onboarding process not only helps attract top talent (especially when those hires are Millennials given their craving for ongoing professional development), but will also assist in getting new hires to full productivity faster. A well-balanced program should include multiple modalities, such as classroom and field-based engagement, supported by one-on-one coaching and peer mentoring to ensure new reps are mastering the knowledge and sales skills required to add value for the customer, as well as the behaviors that drive the highest possible performance.

But, what about more tenured reps? According to the survey, only 24% of development efforts are focused on experienced hires – a huge gap that can have an equally outsized effect on their long-term performance. It’s likely that critical players on your sales team were onboarded years ago, yet even experienced reps need help to stay competitive given the inevitable shifts that will happen in your business, and your larger industry. Respondents themselves underscored why this is so critical, with nearly ¾ of participating firms stating that significant changes over the past year warranted new or additional sales training, yet only ¼ of those firms were agile enough to adapt and execute new development programs in response.

For many, the solution may include the notion of ‘reboarding” -- a process which applies the structure and rigor of your sales onboarding program in a repeatable cycle to deliver continuous improvement for the entire sales organization. Reboarding not only helps keep your sales team sharp, it can lead to higher satisfaction and engagement – a huge benefit given that turnover is both costly and demotivating for the entire organization.

The Role of Management in Successful Sales Development

A positive highlight of the research was that as more organizations realize the shortfalls of their sales development programs (68% of participants rated their current programs as ineffective), priorities are shifting and new or increasing investments are being made. To realize the full potential of these initiatives however, companies must also invest in the coaching and development skills of sales management.

In our survey, only 63% of participants indicated that their senior leadership team supports a culture of professional development, while only 57% of front-line sales managers were said to support individual sales rep skill development. This lack of support likely comes from the fact that only 21% of firms measured sales leadership on their success in helping direct reports improve. If culture, performance, and in some cases compensation, aren’t linked to sales force development, there is simply no accountability for managers.

Our research clearly shows that while investments in salesperson development are viewed as important, significant challenges remain when it comes to identifying and implementing programs to manage and grow sales capabilities in a sustaining, yet agile way. Sales organizations must prioritize the development of their managers, and create a coaching and development culture that results in maximum impact for their team.

If you’re interested in learning more about the survey findings and how your organization compares when it comes to investments in sales force development, we urge you to listen to the on-demand recording of our webcast hosted last week.

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