The Best Sales Training is SMART

Acronyms are useful devices for visualizing and remembering information.  And I’ve made a career out of helping clients turn complex data sets into easily retrievable nuggets.  And frankly, at times that’s involved some Procrustean hacking as I attempted to make the data fit the acronym.

In this case, it’s the opposite: This is one of the best, most natural marriages of approach and acronym EVER.  This one took literally one minute to create.

Results first!

First, I believe that the basis for anything “smart” is a clear objective. In sales training, the results you’re striving for are behavioral changes that result in more effective selling.  The specific development objectives come straight out of your sales competencies and how sellers assess against them.

(Note that we did not say “sales results” – the goal of sales training is behavior change that leads to results.  Too many variables make sales results a poor measure of sales training effectiveness.)

Traditional training is not smart

My co-Director Matt McDarby and I have learned these lessons the hard way via years working for big-box training companies and traditional training vendors.  In fact, it was the very lack of “smart” that frustrated us to the point of launching businesses devoted to a better (dare I say smarter?) way to get results.

SMART criteria

Simply put, sales training is SMART when it meets these criteria:

  • Specialized
  • Measurable
  • Applied
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Let’s break down each of the criteria and look at a key strategy to achieve each.


Sales managers tell us, “Our sale is unique.”  Consultants say, “Our clients think they’re unique, but they’re not.”  We believe that both are right…but not as right as they think.

In reality, sales managers tend to overrate the uniqueness of their sale, and that’s natural – they’re deep into the nuance.  Likewise, consultants tend to overrate the applicability of their training – after all, they’ve got a program to sell.  The challenge is, how do you achieve the right blend of universal and specific?

KEY STRATEGY:  Start with Learning Objectives

Here’s a three-step process to make sure your sales training is specialized to your business:

  1. Start from the best practices that separate your best sellers.
  2. Break those best practices down into specific learning objectives (we recommend using Bloom’s Taxonomy, as always).
  3. Build/deploy training according to learning objectives – don’t start from a vendor’s agenda!


What gets measured gets done.  Expect what you inspect. There are plenty of ways to say it, but the fundamental truth is this – training without assessment is less likely to be adopted by the people who need it most (see the Dunning-Kruger effect).

The good news:  If you’ve created training according to your own, specialized learning objectives, you have the basis for measurement.

KEY STRATEGY:  Leverage “Game Tape”

Measuring complex people skills is like measuring skill at chess – a written exam may reveal the player knows what they should do (Level 2 evaluation according to the Kirkpatrick model), but if you want to measure what they actually do, you need to see them in action.

Three ways to gather the performance data that really helps you measure sales effectiveness:

  1. Recording calls you can record. Phone calls are the most obvious example – even a recording of the seller’s side only (legal in every state in America) is useful.
  2. Transcribing calls you can observe but not record. This requires the observer (sales manager, usually) to put their focus on the seller and their behavior, not just the deal on the table.
  3. Simulating calls you can’t observe or record. This is actually our favorite!  We find that a realistic simulation recreates all the pressure of a real sales call while giving you maximum measurement opportunity.


Several years ago, I used to facilitate a world-famous sales training program. A staple of our two-day, off-the-shelf sales skills program was the “glassware exercise” – the seller attempted to sell glassware to a customer using a questioning method.

Hopefully, that exercise is no longer used, except with customers who sell glassware!  Life is too short to practice selling something you don’t sell.  However, most sales training settles for only one better – “case studies” that attempt to portray a composite or representation of a real customer.

But if you’re going to go that far, why not apply training to real opportunities?  That, in our opinion, is the smartest way to train – apply it immediately, not afterward.

KEY STRATEGY:  Use real customers and opportunities to practice

This strategy is not just more results-oriented, it’s more efficient – you don’t need to create a case study when your case studies are already living in your pipeline.

Three important things to consider:

  • Use more typical opportunities, not one-offs
  • Put teams to work on each other’s opportunities
  • Use opportunity strategy and call plan tools to apply learning


By “relevant,” we mean “helping salespeople get paid.”  For most salespeople, training that doesn’t achieve the payoff they want (more money, making goal, better work/life balance) will simply not be adopted.

KEY STRATEGY:  Sell sales training

Follow the same consultative process you would use to sell your own solutions, and you’re most likely to ensure the relevance – and just as importantly, the perception of relevance, or face validity, of sales training.

Here are three simple ways to achieve relevance:

  • Assemble a core team. Mine this team for opinion, perspective, and best practices.  Create a core group of champions and evangelists.
  • Conduct a broad needs assessment. Make sure you’re hearing the voices of all your customers, then segment and target your solutions.
  • Be explicit about the connection. When you can “Lead with the Need” and describe sales training in terms of the payoff sellers want, you’re at your most relevant.


Just in Time (JIT) training is a popular buzzword, but is that enough?  We think there are three dimensions to timely training – what’s delivered, when it’s delivered, and how it’s served. Training that doesn’t meet all three criteria doesn’t measure up.

KEY STRATEGY:  Flip the classroom

Flipping the classroom (using traditional lecture time for practice and vice versa) creates more timeliness if you use these three ideas:

  • Put your content online. Let sellers get as much lecture as they need on their own time, not at the expense of group time.
  • Use live time for simulation. If you’re using the other SMART elements, this means using group time to attack higher-level learning objectives that will help move real opportunities.
  • Personalize learner support. Whether it’s using adaptive learning systems or live, on-demand coaching (we’ve had massive success with both), make sure you’re offering timely learning support for different styles, speeds, and aptitudes.

Summary:  SMART = Results

Put these five elements together and you have the basis for sales training that achieves results.  Why?

  • Specialized to your sale
  • Measurable in practice
  • Applied to real opportunities
  • Relevant to seller needs
  • Timely and personalized

Look at the best-run sales training organizations, and more often than not, you’ll find these SMART criteria being met.  We look forward to helping you get your own best results!