Over the last five years, we’ve spoken to thousands of training companies around the world, large and small, and we’re privileged to serve hundreds of training companies as customers, many of whom are small businesses. We define the SMB segment for training companies as any operation that has less than £4 million ($5 million) in revenue per year, and there is an incredible amount and variety of training delivered by companies operating within this market segment!
Our mission here at Administrate is customer success, and we’ve tried to orient everything we do within the organisation to serve this goal, including tying the bulk of the cost of Administrate to learners. This means we’re incentivised to help your training company grow - when you grow, so do we! This also means we’re very interested in learning about, discovering, and sharing best practices with our customer base.
We thought we’d share our observations of common mistakes we see that are especially prevalent within smaller training companies, and we’re breaking this series down into four parts focused on: Strategy, Marketing, Sales, and Operations.
Sales is one of the most difficult things to get right in any business. It’s made even harder because it’s the lifeblood of the company - get this area of your business wrong and you won’t have a business! We get a lot of exposure to training companies here at Administrate, and we thought we’d share some of the most common sales mistakes we see within the training industry in the hopes that you don’t fall prey to one of them yourself!
Rest assured that we’ve also made all of these mistakes ourselves, so you’re not alone if you identify with some of these! The good news is they’re easy to fix with just a little focus and discipline!
1. No Defined Sales Process
Probably one of the most common reasons training companies struggle with sales is they don’t have a clear view of what their sales process is, or should be. Without a roadmap that each sale should be following, it’s difficult to understand how the sales function is working, where things are, and what’s necessary to progress prospects to an eventual close.
Defining a sales process is one piece of this puzzle, the second is you need to have a way to enforce and report on the decisions you’ve made. That’s another common source of difficulty for many training operations! Don’t despair though - Administrate can help with this part. Therefore, lets focus on how to define a great process that works for you.
- Define the broad, overarching stages that every deal must progress through. Common terms typically used are clear and easy to understand by anyone, and are generally words like 'Lead', 'Qualified', 'Engaged', 'Proposed', 'Verbal', etc. However, you may have a much more complex (or simple) sales prospect depending on how your business runs. The important thing is that it works for you, is clear, is enforced by some kind of software solution, and can be easily reported on.
- Within each stage, there are probably some more detailed steps you might need to define which are used specifically by the Sales team. If so, get these steps defined, and set criteria for what’s required to progress through the steps.
- Educate your team on your process, and make sure you’ve got clear written definitions that correspond to each step and stage. It’s good to have a visual representation of the process, and your sales tool should support this.
- Implement the new process with your team. Review how the process is working at least weekly, and take feedback, but don’t lose sight of why you put in the various elements in the first place.
2. Offloading the Sales Function
Many small training businesses are founded by someone who hasn’t had professional sales experience. In addition, many believe they don’t like sales, aren’t good at it, or feel like there’s more important things they could be attending. That’s OK (and normal)!
What’s not OK is embarking on a journey of attempting to offload or delegate the sales function to someone else or another team. This almost never ends well, despite it being a recurring dream of many business owners.
Give into this temptation and you’ll easily lose a year of growth, or worse, jeopardise your business. Our advice is to familiarise yourself with sales concepts like the process, pipeline management, qualification, and be prepared to support your sales function from a subject matter expert perspective, while still actively participating in many deals and weekly pipe reviews.
You’ll never be able to entirely delegate sales, but you can build a sustainable and scalable sales function that you’re familiar with and plays to your strengths.
3. Adding Friction to the Buying Process
Friction is one of the worst things to have within a sales process. You need to make the buying process clear and seamless for your customers. Two areas where we see friction creep into the sales operation of training companies is around information and execution.
- Information - can customers quickly get what they need? Information about your courses such as what’s covered, prerequisites, schedules, and other relevant details should be always accurate and current. Unfortunately this is rarely the case for most training companies because this information is on a whiteboard in the office, in a shared spreadsheet or Google Doc, or worst of all, inside someone’s head.
- Execution - how easy is it for someone to give your training company money? If it takes more than a minute or two and requires anything other than a payment method and some data entered by the customer themselves, you’re adding unnecessary and costly friction to your sales process. You may even lose the sale. Put simply, if you’re not taking online course bookings and allowing customers to pay online, you’re committing sales suicide.
The key to addressing both of these barriers is to make sure you have one source of truth, one system of record, for all the information about your training operation. Our experience over the years is clear and unequivocal - training companies that offer online course booking and payments outperform those that don’t. Every time.
4. Failure to Follow-Up on Leads
“Fortune is made in the follow-up” is something we say a lot internally here at Administrate, and it’s true. Poor follow-up is poison to any sales operation and is unfortunately more common than we’d like to think. Even the best people who have years of sales experience sometimes struggle with follow-up.
One of the most insidious things about follow-up is that it tends to suffer most when things are 'best' - follow-up efficiency tends to crater when there are more leads. This leads to a whiplash phenomenon where everyone is excited because the Lead Velocity Rate (LVR) has increased, everyone is expecting more business to fall out of the bottom of the funnel, and everyone is working really hard. Except because follow-up has degraded, the sales team actually can turn in a worse than normal performance. Yuck!
How do we prevent this?
The simple answer is to invest in systems that can both keep the Sales team on track and also alert us to the fact that follow-up might be degrading. Sales teams should be able to create and work tasks within an online system that feeds them reminders of what they need to do each day, and management should be able to monitor task progress via reports that can illustrate when sales follow-up is failing.
Without these two pieces (task management and reporting) you and your Sales team are doomed to never really be on top of your follow-up. Don’t let that fortune slip through your fingers!
5. A Poorly Groomed CRM
One of the best indicators of a well-run and highly performing Sales team is the state of the data within their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.
Things you should look for:
- Well understood data structure for the team - are all the fields understood, clearly labeled, and supporting a specific question, problem, or piece of information the team needs to do its job?
- Less freeform, more structured fields - the more pick lists (or drop-downs) your CRM has, the better, as this means you’ve put in the time to think through the data you’re capturing, and it also means that you can easily report on the information your team is capturing.
- Up-to-date, completed information - show me a sloppy entry within a CRM and I’ll show you a sale that’s not likely to close. There is simply no way a lead that’s poorly groomed will be maximised, and in the event there needs to be a handover of the prospect to another individual within the business (even if it’s just to answer a quick question), there will simply be frustration and confusion.
Training companies that religiously maintain and update their CRM data outperform those that don’t. This is a lesson training organisations shouldn’t have to learn as the same principles apply for managing and running their training operations, but it’s something we often see, so don’t become a statistic!
6. Poor Lead Qualification
Effective sales funnel management (the answer to the question of how many deals can I expect in a given timeframe) boils down to pretty much once concept: proper qualification.
Qualification is the process of determining whether your prospect is a good fit for what you’re selling. As you work with the prospect you want to try to figure out as quickly as possible whether they fit your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP). Those that don’t should be disqualified and removed from your funnel. Don’t waste time on leads that aren’t going to become customers!
Once you’re convinced that a lead fits within your ICP, a good way to further qualify a lead is to remember the acronym BANT.
Does your prospect have:
- Budget - to buy your product?
- Authority - are they able to approve the purchase themselves?
- Need - what’s driving them to acquire your service or product?
- Timeline - are they looking in the next week, month, quarter, year?
Answering these questions will help you properly qualify, hone in on the prospects that matter, and give you a more accurate picture of your funnel and leads.
7. Competing on Price/Over Using Discounts
We see this a lot from training companies. They compete heavily on price (we covered this a bit in our previous post on strategy) mainly because they lack differentiation. That’s a strategy mistake that may take time to fix. In the meantime, if you find that you’re losing deals based on price, the temptation is to start discounting aggressively. This is a trap that can be very serious for training companies, and is a temptation we recommend you don’t engage with. Instead, work on differentiation from a strategic level. In the meantime, your sales strategy should be to maximise customer stickiness to buy yourself time to implement the differentiation you need. If you must discount, trade it for a commitment from the customer for training that is over a longer time frame, or sell them training tokens, which effectively ensures that they come back to you in the future for their training needs. Never give a discount without getting something back from the customer in return.
Administrate will help you avoid the discounting in two ways:
- Save you huge amounts of time which can then be plowed into building your product and investing in that differentiation that you need.
- Providing you a customer retention mechanism in the form of training tokens, which can be sold to your customers and redeemed by them for training over a specified time - just like a gift card!
A related trap is overuse of discounts: a few years ago I bought some clothing from an online retailer and was extremely satisfied with my purchase. Now, almost every few weeks I receive heavy discount offers from that company for portions of their product line. What this has done is trained me to delay my purchases until I see a discount that is relevant to what I want. They’ve trained me to expect and wait for a discount by their overuse of discounts! Don’t do this!
8. Not Selling the Brand
Rookie Sales teams compete on features and benefits. Seasoned, successful Sales organisations compete on brand. This important focus is even more important within heavily commoditised industries. If you can work to develop a brand that customers know, trust, and resonate with, you will be able to command higher loyalty, prices, and ultimately be much more successful.
Now, when we say 'brand' we don’t mean TV advertising, logos, look and feel per-se, although if you have the funds to invest in those things it might be a good investment! Instead, we mean the ethos of your training company, how you do business, how you engage with your customers, and how you build value for them.
Here’s how to build a brand that is authentic and will be an asset for your training company over time:
- Your brand should start with your company values, and these values should be evident in every aspect of how you and your team operate.
- Why did you start this training company in the first place? What drove you to become passionate about the training you offer?
- Don’t hide from who and what you are. Are you a small company? Use this to your advantage! Inject personality and be creative. People love dealing with authentic teams that have a clear mission that they can buy into.
- Consistency over time is important - don’t rebrand every few months or every year, instead, slowly tweak, update, and evolve your brand.
- Take a long-term view. Nothing destroys a brand faster than a short sighted response to a problem or challenge. Embrace the idea that you’re trying to build relationships with customers that last a long time.
- Invest in your team as they are your most important brand conduit to your customers. Motivated, successful, happy customers are ultimately what your brand is, so make sure your team is on board!
9. Relying on 'Hail Mary' Deals
An extremely common mistake that is often made in sales is relying on 'Hail Mary' deals, which refers to a last chance, desperation play in American football where the entire team runs downfield and the quarterback hurls a desperation attempt hoping to score and win the game.
If your Sales team operates like this and is relying on one or two deals to make their monthly or quarterly number, you have a problem. Don’t get into the habit of relying on single deals, instead, work as hard as you can to build a balanced and rich pipeline. Your stress levels will go down, your team will be able to work more sustainably and ultimately you’ll be more successful!
Hopefully this was helpful! Here are some other sales resources we use internally here at Administrate and recommend to customers:
- To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink
- The Challenger Sale by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon
- Action Selling by Duane Sparks
Download the Whole 'Common Mistakes' Series Now!
Why not download the whole 'Common Mistakes We See Small(er) Training Companies Making' with our new eBook! All the posts in one place, so you have a handy reference with how to avoid those strategy, marketing, sales, and operational mistakes!