By Jacob Eli Thomas, CPT

Start-ups lose billions of dollars each year due to ineffective sales practices, ineffective sales learning design, and ineffective sales training delivery. The reasons are clear and the solution is simple.

The first training dollar a start-up spends is typically on product training. To speed up time to market, start-ups need to familiarize customers, channel partners, and new employees on the features, benefits, and application of their products. Product training is usually designed by technical or product development experts; it is rarely designed by sales or learning experts.

The second training dollar start-ups spend is typically on sales strategy training. Who are the economic decision makers, decision blockers, decision influencers, and decision implementers? How should sales people navigate their way through a customer’s organization chart to find the right person to make the sale? Then how do they navigate their way through their own organization to get pricing approval and contract approval, or implement a proof of concept, get the product configured, delivered, installed, or customized.

Sales “strategy” training is typically delivered by the same technical or product development experts who delivered the product training, and they have now become the start-up’s training department. However, they still are neither sales experts nor learning experts, but they do have a new title.

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It Is All About Changing Behaviors

Successful selling requires a complex configuration of best practices. Practices are habitual behaviors, and habitual behaviors are very difficult to change. If you do not believe that, try losing weight some time.

There are four critical challenges that technical subject matter experts (SMEs) face when they evolve into a training department:

  • Technical SMEs do not know a behavioral “what” from a “how.”
    (Processes? Procedures? Actions? Activities? Principles? Concepts? Values? What is the difference?)
  • SMEs do not know a lot about the root causes of behavioral “whats” and “hows.” (Gilbert’s model? Kirkpatrick’s model? Addison’s work, worker, workplace? What are those?)
  • Technical SMEs are typically untrained instructional designers so they have little expertise in selecting which interventions will be most effective at augmenting which behavioral root causes. Training is just one of more than 100 performance interventions. (Ask Allison Rossett.)
  • Even when training is a useful intervention, SMEs are typically untrained as facilitators, so they are often both unconscious and incompetent as course facilitators.

No technical expert in his or her right mind would ever ask a behavioral psychologist to design a new microchip or write Xcode. But the organizations think nothing of asking a hardware or software engineer to play the role of behavioral psychologist. Changing behaviors? How hard could it be?

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many training consultants and sales consultants have little expertise in behavioral psychology, instructional design, and learning facilitation. Most consultants have simply “been in sales” or “been in training” for many years. It is all too easy to confuse “arrogance” and “competence.”

Six Questions to Ask Potential Sales Skills Training Partners

To address these challenges, when technical start-ups are looking for experts to help them improve their sales force skills and effectiveness, there are six questions you might find useful in separating the arrogant from the competent sales training partners:

  • What data do they have to prove their results?
  • What empirical evidence supports their models, concepts, and principles?
  • To what extent can their program be customized to your team’s needs, products, industry, or competitive environment?
  • Are their consultants and facilitators experts in performance improvement, changing behaviors, and developing skills, or do they simply provide tips and techniques?
  • Does their skill development include ongoing intensive, scenario-based video practice and feedback to internalize new skills and develop habitual behaviors?
  • How would they feel if your customers were sitting next to your salespeople as they were learning the skill models? If they would not like that, why not?

How would you answer these questions for your sales skills programs?


Allison Rossett. Bio. Retrieved from

About the Author
Jacob Eli Thomas is a multi–award-winning talent and organizational development leader. He is a highly regarded facilitator, technical trainer, and speaker; and he holds an MS degree in electrical engineering, a BS in electronics and telecommunications, and a certificate in organizational behavior. His hobbies include volunteer work, body transformations, and cooking.