The Rise Of The Sales University (Again)

The year was 1916, and the new "Bureau of Salesmanship Research" at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) was launched in order to isolate and define the characteristics of successful salespeople. Founded by psychologist Walter Dill Scott, the bureau focused on identifying the training methods, processes, and personal characteristics necessary to sell complex products like insurance and financial services. Underwriting the organization were well-known names like Burroughs, Ford, Heinz, and Westinghouse. There, at the bureau, Scott went about the business of compiling what he could learn about improving "human efficiency." His work on compensation, loyalty, competition, imitation, and even "love of the game" led to a book on the subject that's now in the public domain (thanks, University of Virginia).

Today, almost 100 years later, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that over 33 million people are in a sales role (representing about 25% of the US workforce). Since the days of Walter Scott, it's clear that the ways in which organizations try to "help the sales team sell" have continued to evolve along with the sales team itself. Interestingly enough, the "ways to help salespeople sell" have moved sharply away from the domain of psychological theory and Walter Dill Scott to the domain of complexity theory and, some would argue, chaos. The evolution of what it takes to help the sales teams sell continues to create a debate — some argue that the evolution in what is necessary for sales teams to know and do to be successful has actually been quite slow, while others argue that sales technology and changes with buyers have altered the knowledge and skill requirements of today's salesperson at an accelerated pace.   

Many of the people I talk to in sales roles today remember the "good ole' days" — where sales training boot camps helped level-set and ramp up new salespeople. It may seem shocking to think about it today, but some of those boot camps actually lasted for 3-6 months. These sales universities were centrally managed and located at the corporate headquarters, fully funded and staffed full time, they were given a clear charter (e.g., decreasing salesperson ramp-up time) to guide their programs. New sales hires were provided knowledge and skills to aid their success in the sales profession in addition to product, industry, competitive, and buyer knowledge. Training within these sales universities wasn’t just about knowing the portfolio — it focused on making sure salespeople were professional representatives of the company.  Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, the number of centrally managed sales universities has slowly dwindled to the point of near extinction.

The downsizing of sales universities happened for a number of reasons. First, most salespeople were fully trained and ramped up by their companies. This created a large pool of skilled people, and talent could more easily be hired with the necessary skills so in-depth training became unnecessary. Second, selling in the Web age was relatively "easy." For example, buyers would learn about products and services and move themselves further toward a purchase decision, bringing in vendor sales team members later on in the buying process which limited the burden on the rep. Third, technological advances changed the nature of sales training with virtual learning becoming more widespread making it unnecessary for participants to be in the classroom to learn. And finally, the changes within the buyer were often slower moving, allowing for salespeople to keep up with the lower levels of volatility in their client-base more easily.

The decline of sales universities combined with the more complex selling issues has contributed to the challenge that sales training teams see in helping their new and experienced reps have more valuable sales conversations.

Obviously, The Web has facilitated the development of significantly more knowledgeable buyers and, in more recent years, buyers have become more complex causing them to begin look to vendor salespeople to help navigate that complexity — placing new requirements on salespeople to drive results, not just push products. Additionally, the number of salespeople who were "classically trained" or benefited from the boot camps of the past in the sales profession is dwindling. Furthermore, the pool of seasoned salespeople has actually decreased — generating not just a skills shortage, but a talent shortage as well. In short, these changes have created a "net-new sales talent" shortage where new salespeople being brought into the profession aren't able to fill the void created by those who are leaving it. This net-new sales talent shortage creates a challenge in driving revenue, and more importantly, creates a roadblock to tech vendors who want to help buyers navigate their complexity, solve challenging business problems, and drive necessary innovation.

Last week, Forrester was briefed on the new HP Sales University just launched in Plano, Texas. Headed by Joanne Moretti, the Sales University is part of the company’s overall learning and development strategy aimed to help the sales team more clearly focus on the customer. Sure, it's easy to say that HP might have launched their Sales University to drive more revenue; the real reason that HP launched the Sales University may lie in the fact that they had to — in order to drive the right type of interaction between their future sales force and future buyers as they continue to evolve. This focus on the customer, and the valuable sales conversations they require, means that organizations like HP are finding they need to close the skills gap in any way they can — in the case of HP, by investing heavily in the skills of their new sales hires, for the sake of their customers. 

The question before the technology industry is: what investment is required to help drive more effective and valuable sales conversations with buyers? Clearly, HP believes a long-term and sustained effort is required. Only time will tell if that investment pays off.  

 

The theme for Forrester's 2011 Tech Sales Enablement Forum is New Buyers, New Demands: Accelerating Sales Performance. I have a keynote talk planned on the emerging sales behaviors necessary to drive sales results with today's sophisticated (and increasingly complex) buyer. These behaviors require a renewed emphasis on the organizational and individual dynamics necessary to help salespeople get outside their comfort zones. It seems as if we're not the only ones thinking about the growing gap between buyer problems and the sales team behaviors required solve those problems.