The shortage of effective basic sales training is taking its toll

By Jack Bobo

My first civilian job after World War II was as a salesman trainee for a major automotive and industrial supplier. My initial training consisted of working in the company repair ship, overhauling equipment that the company sold. From time to time I would inquire if there was not more to selling than what I seemed to be learning working with tools. At those times I was always admonished, “You’ve got to learn the basics. You can’t sell it if you do not know how it works.” Thus reassured I went back to my workbench and dreamed of clean hands, a white collar and my own territory.

My opportunity for a territory arrived unexpectedly. One of the salesmen had gotten tipsy before calling on our largest account and was promptly fired. I was told to wash my hands, put on a tie and report for a crash course in how to read the company’s voluminous catalogs. Three days later I was officially a salesman. Somehow, though, I felt a bit inadequate for the job. But the manager assured me that even though I might not know everything about our products, it was unlikely that I would encounter a prospect who knew much of anything about them. With that assurance I was off to conquer the territory.

On my way to my first call it suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t know what to do when I got there, except to try and get an order. Well, I strolled into the office of the foreman of our local 7-Up bottling company with a 20-pound pack of catalogs in each hand ready for whatever the company might need. The poor foreman didn’t know what to make of this traveling store that had descended upon him, but luckily he was a kind man and opted to give a small order to boost an obvious greenhorn. The rest of the day was all downhill, for all I got with my technique was strange looks.

Fortunately, I got my first sales lesson the next day. I had lunch and played a game of pool with several experienced salesmen. With good humor they pointed out my mistakes and gave me a few tips about protocol. Not being very good at pool, the lesson cost me $6.50, a lot of dough in 1946, but it was well worth it. In time, I became well established, but I often have wondered how much more effective I would have been had I been given some basic sales training along with service in the shop.

Years later I made my way into the life insurance business, becoming a rookie once more. There were two other men in my indoctrination class, both of whom eventually failed, not because of a lack of product knowledge, but rather a lack of selling skills. I believe that my previous experience was all that saved me from a similar fate.

Agent productivity and agent retention are perennial concerns of the business and seemingly with little discernable traction being made toward a solution. This, despite the fact there is general agreement that any increase in either component would solve a lot of problems. On the productivity side, it is true that over the years the volume of business has increased, but the number of people we insure has not. Doing more and more business with fewer and fewer people is not a formula for long-term success. Productivity is most critical for new people in the business where lack of retention is also most prevalent.

There is hardly any endeavor that does not require significant preparation before production begins. The actor rehearses, the lumberjack sharpens his axe, the ballerina exercises and the scientist experiments. Such activities are referred to as “roundabout production” by economists.

Our business has been blessed uniquely by many opportunities for roundabout production; in particular, the offerings from the American College, seminars, industry meetings and company training programs add to our reservoir of learning opportunities. Many, if not most, of these programs are geared to product knowledge and information about legal and economic factors that impinge upon our marketplace. All of this is important as well as the goal of professionalism implicit in many of these opportunities. But the professional who cannot close a sale is likely to be doomed to mediocrity.

The first and foremost means by which an agent builds a clientele is through selling. Service is important, but if it does not ultimately lead to a sale, there will be no clientele to care for. That being the case, it is only fair to ask whether or not we have placed enough emphasis on basic sales training. Sales training is what pulls all this together, finds prospects and secures action day after day in the face of all kinds of objections and rejection.

One of the reasons I like local life underwriter (or advisor) meetings is that often you hear a great talk on the reality of how to make a sale or a great prospecting idea. Sometimes they remind me of my “pool hall” lesson that started me on the right track as a salesman. Too bad this opportunity is so often missed.

Product knowledge and a working knowledge of our tax laws are all most important, but in my view the shortage of effective basic sales training is the all-too-often “missing link” in our marketing strategy.

The first and foremost means by which an agent builds a clientele is through selling. Service is important, but if it does not ultimately lead to a sale, there will be no clientele to care for. That being the case, it is only fair to ask whether or not we have placed enough emphasis on basic sales training.”