It probably won’t surprise you to hear that sales training is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, formal sales development has been going on for well over 150 years. As far back as the 1870s, salesmen (sadly no saleswomen back then!) who sold subscription books door-to-door received a “Sales Talk” before embarking on their trade. In the early 1900s, “salesmanship” was apparently taught to new joiners at large manufacturing companies. As early as 1912, Dale Carnegie was running forerunners to his world renowned personal development program, based on the teachings of his book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. As the decades have passed, organizations have continued to invest in the development of their employees’ selling skills.

As our previous blogs outline, establishing a common language and approach across sales and support roles is just one of a number of benefits that sales training can bring in the ongoing  bid to boost sales. However, sales development has gone through a fundamental shift in recent years and organizations who find themselves relying simply on the faithful approaches of the past may well find themselves left behind moving forward.

Developing sales capability has transcended traditional classroom-based methods alone. The shift towards adopting a more comprehensive approach that not only equips professionals with skills, but also aligns learning strategies with organizational goals is well underway. Towards the end of the twentieth century we saw organizations replace the traditional sales training function with the more learner-focused Learning & Development (L&D) approach. Within the world of sales specifically Learning & Development has since been consumed within the Sales Enablement remit and, more recently, Revenue Enablement. In this blog, we explore the evolution of sales capability development and highlight the pivotal shifts that have reshaped the way sales teams need to embrace skills development, in order to compete successfully in today’s market.

1. Traditional Classroom-based Sales Training: Laying the Foundations

Those around long enough to have experienced training in the 1980’s and early 90’s will fondly recall the overhead projector (spare bulb a necessity for anyone presenting via OHP), and hand crafted acetate sheets. For all you millennials out there, think medieval PowerPoint. Locked in a hotel or conference centre for anything up to a week at a time, salespeople were shipped in from far and wide to learn how to sell. Some notable exceptions aside, the format of these engagements followed a consistent pattern. An old-school motivational trainer (almost without exception male, and ironically the exact antithesis of motivational) would spend hours imparting their war stories and, if you were lucky, maybe a bit on the steps of a sales process. You’d return to the office with a huge sales manual and the business cards of the contacts you’d met, all of which would sit in a drawer somewhere until you changed job and were asked to clear your desk.

Looking back, the big question is why more businesses didn’t question the value and true impact of this sales training stuff.  

In truth, not a huge amount changed over the next decade, save for the advent of PowerPoint. Sales trainers everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief at no longer having to carry a spare OHP bulb, and duly celebrated by indulging in an approach to training design that has become commonly known as ‘death by PowerPoint’. Sales training still centred primarily around disseminating product knowledge and honing very basic selling skills. Classroom-based workshops and cold calling scripts featured as standard, providing a foundation level understanding of products and processes.

Needless to say, this traditional approach had its limitations, often resulting in a one-size-fits-all model, inflexible to the diverse needs of different markets – and as a result often driving a disappointing return on investment. Furthermore, the emphasis on the ‘tell’ approach to training meant participants often left these initiatives feeling that something had been ‘done to them’ rather than having experienced an engaging, learner-centric event. Moreover, with the focus still very much on training meaning the imparting of information, the extent to which sales training was truly developing best practice skills and behaviors can be questioned. As we know, there’s a big difference between knowing something versus consistently putting it into practice. So…not the most positive picture so far.

Good news however, was on the horizon, and it came in the shape of a guy called Neil Rackham. Rackham’s late 1980’s research in partnership with Xerox still remains the largest sales effectiveness study ever conducted. In essence he and his team identified what it was that differentiated high performing salespeople from the rest. Guess what? It wasn’t their product knowledge, or their ability to execute the steps of their sales process. It was the behaviors they demonstrated in conversation with their customers. More specifically it was the types of questions they asked. Rackham identified four types of questions that the most successful salespeople employed, and from there developed the SPIN framework (Situation, Problem, Impact, Need/Payoff). SPIN marked a seismic shift in the world of Sales Skill development for two reasons:

  1. It pinpointed specific salesperson behavior in driving sales effectiveness – versus product knowledge, or selling process
  2. It was a customer-centric framework. Rather than beginning the interaction with an almost immediate focus on what the salesperson could offer (products and services) the research demonstrated that high performers focused first on the customer; on better understanding their world, on helping them recognize their current pain and the benefits of resolving that pain. This all seems fairly basic by today’s standards, but at the time was a significant shift from the product led approach

By the mid-1990s SPIN had gained international acclaim, and we don’t think it’s too bold a claim to suggest that variations on the SPIN approach sit at the heart of most Consultative Sales approaches that exist today.

And it gets better…because at around the same time that SPIN was ushering in an increasingly buyer-centric, collaborative approach to selling, so the traditional instruction-led world of sales training was gradually giving way to a more participant-centred and personalized approach – the world of Learning & Development…    

2. Learning & Development (L&D): Nurturing Continuous Growth

Recognizing the limitations of traditional formal interventions like classroom-based training, and the need for a more practical, dynamic and personalized approach, sales training was slowly being superseded by Learning & Development (L&D). The L&D approach marked a departure from knowledge building and rote learning, introducing a culture of continuous improvement and skill development. The Learning & Development era introduced personalized learning paths and championed technology, via online programs, virtual classrooms and interactive modules that were able to accommodate the changing world and evolving needs of sales professionals.

This shift in focus extended beyond imparting product knowledge, centring on competency development together with developing communication skills, emotional intelligence and strategic thinking. Underpinning the rise of the L&D era was the ethos that sales professionals should take increasing ownership of and a play a pro-active role in their own personal development. Businesses themselves stepped up their Learning &Development game with assessments and feedback loops increasingly  integrated to measure the effectiveness of training initiatives, enabling organizations to demonstrate ROI and/or tailor programs accordingly.

It is during this phase that the spotlight started to shine on the 70:20:10 model, coined by McCall, Lombardo and Eichinger. According to their research, only 10% of what we learn comes from being told what to do and how to do it (i.e. formal learning), whereas 70% of our learning comes from doing (i.e. on the job or through challenging assignments) and 20% from coaching or social learning. The 70:20:10 learning model helps to maximize the effectiveness of any learning and development program, through other activities and inputs outside of formal learning. It is an approach we adopt at Flame Learning when designing and delivering our learning solutions.

3. Sales Enablement: Bridging Gaps and Boosting Efficiency

The digital era ushered in a new wave of change, leading to the emergence of Sales Enablement. This phase recognized the need for a more strategic, technology-powered, and collaborative people development approach. Accelerated by the global impact of the Covid pandemic when sales teams were increasingly distanced from both their customers and one another, Sales Enablement aims to bridge the gap between sales teams and their supporting functions, providing the necessary tools, insights and resources to empower them throughout the customer’s buying journey. The objective is to provide a consistent and scalable approach that allows all contributors to the customer value chain to add value in every customer interaction.

Sales Enablement is not a one-and-done initiative, rather it is an approach that must be applied consistently and collaboratively to achieve results. According to Korn Ferry, those organizations with an established sales enablement practice report an average opportunity win rate over 15% higher than those that do not.

Key components of Sales Enablement include content management, sales analytics, and the integration of technology. As such, Customer Relationship Management (and CRM Tools) sits very much at the heart of Sales Enablement. Furthermore, AI-powered tools empower sales professionals to access relevant information, track customer interactions, and make data-driven decisions, enhancing overall productivity and efficiency.

For the individual salesperson Sales Enablement goes beyond the conventional parameters of training by capturing a more strategic and comprehensive development journey from sales onboarding to continuous coaching and mentoring. This personalized approach ensures ongoing support, enabling salespeople to adapt to market changes and evolving customer expectations.

Sales Enablement aims to add value to the sales process by providing sellers and other customer-facing employees with relevant skills and insights that create value whenever the organization interacts with a customer.

4. Revenue Enablement: A Holistic Approach to Success

And so to the present day. We are now seeing a broader shift within many of our customers’ organizations from Sales Enablement to Revenue Enablement. The key difference here is in broadening the focus from a sales-only perspective, instead seeking to support all revenue-generating streams.

Disjointed messaging and operating activity across sales, marketing, service and other customer-facing roles has built barriers to revenue generation rather than growth. With the acceleration of technology, the increasing number of customer touchpoints means different functions are working towards different, often conflicting, metrics or KPIs. To counter this disruption, commercial leaders are now expanding commercial roles, prioritizing end-to-end revenue metrics and technology and establishing more effective alignment across customer-facing functions. In doing so, they are consolidating the overall customer (and revenue) lifecycle and meeting evolving buyer preferences.

From an internal perspective, this means ensuring that all those in customer-facing roles have the opportunity to develop strategic, long-term skills. Developing long-term selling skills, together with having access to appropriate content, tools and support, is critical to their success. According to recent research by MindTickle, strategic sales skill development is often overlooked, with only 24% of sales reps being coached on long-term personal development, compared to 85% of sales reps being coached on closing open deals.

The holistic Revenue Enablement approach integrates sales with marketing and customer success efforts, recognizing that revenue generation is a collaborative effort involving multiple functions. It leverages revenue technology and uses data and analytics throughout the entire customer journey to create and improve enablement efforts.

AI and machine learning will continue to play pivotal roles in Revenue Enablement, analyzing vast amounts of data to identify trends, predict customer behavior, and optimize sales strategies. Advanced analytics tools will provide valuable insights into customer preferences, enabling more targeted and personalized engagement.

Transitioning to a Revenue Enablement model also seeks to reduce the complexity of the sales ecosystem that currently exists in many organizations, where so many sellers find it challenging to sell and so many B2B buyers find it difficult to buy. By creating a seamless flow of information and collaboration between sellers and buyers, it provides a more cohesive customer experience.

When Revenue Enablement is executed well it places a strong emphasis on customer success and post-sale engagement. Ongoing skills development training and support ensure that sales professionals are equipped to handle evolving customer needs and challenges, transforming customers into advocates and driving referrals and repeat business.

Revenue Enablement expands supporting roles, prioritizes end-to-end metrics and technology, and consolidates functions. This ultimately provides the consistency, alignment and visibility necessary to enhance the modern buying and selling experience.

The evolution of sales capability development from Training to Learning & Development to Sales Enablement and now Revenue Enablement reflects the adaptability of sales professionals in a rapidly changing business landscape. Today’s successful sales teams are not just equipped with product knowledge; they are strategic thinkers, effective communicators, and continuous learners. This evolution is not merely a response to change; it is a strategic imperative for organizations seeking sustainable growth and long-term success and further highlights the need for businesses to embrace a more comprehensive approach to sales skills development.

If you are interested in finding out more about how you can evolve your organization’s sales development, get in touch!