Shut Up, Listen Up:
Eternal Lessons for Sales Training

Edition: May 2003 - Vol 11 Number 05
Article#: 1538
Author: Repertoire

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks, according to subscribers to MDSI’s Dail-E News electronic news service, who were asked last month to answer several questions about sales training. Subscribers overwhelmingly believe that ongoing sales training is essential for a salesperson’s continued success and growth. They’re insightful answers are proudly featured on the following pages.

There’s always something new to learn, subscribers say, whether it’s changes in the regulatory environment, the industry itself or something more subtle, such as the way today’s buyers regard salespeople and the way they make buying decisions. But just as important as new things to learn are old truths that we’ve forgotten, say subscribers.

Healthcare buyers and sellers agree that the most important skill that can be taught to inexperienced and experienced salespeople alike is to shut up and listen to the customer. More than one subscriber quoted the old saying that there’s a good reason that God gave us two eyes and two ears, but just one mouth.

As for the value of product training vs. sales skills training, well, it seems like a chicken-and-egg situation. Many subscribers feel that if you remain sharp on sales skills, you can sell any product. Others believe that the sales rep has to be the product expert in order to fill a consultative role for customers. It could be a case of “tastes great-less filling,” that is to say, both are correct.

E-vent Question No. 1:

Is sales training a “forever thing?” In other words, is it something you need to do throughout your career, or is it a one-time thing?

Your Answers:

Few if any Dail-E News readers believe that sales training is a one-time thing.

“We always need to expand our industry knowledge and product knowledge,” says one manufacturer. “This industry is constantly changing, and the pressures and constraints our customers feel must be incorporated in how we do business.”

“Education could help, but it’s not magic,” says another. “On the other hand, without education, things could get worse.”

One subscriber points out that training about individual products should be ongoing. “Initial training may only focus on a narrow aspect of the product,” the subscriber says. “Over time, things like reimbursement, use and added features change the product. It’s imperative that sales reps continually update their information.”

According to another subscriber, “Anyone that says it’s not a ‘forever thing’ is not successful, or will never be successful.”

“The top 5 percent of salespeople are in a ‘continual learning mode,” says another. “There’s always more to learn and skills to refine.”

“Training is an ongoing thing which keeps a rep sharp for customers, and makes the job fun and enjoyable if you’re at the top of your game,” says one subscriber.

Another takes a much stronger stand: “When you think you know it all, you stop learning. You stop learning, you die (professionally and personally).”

“Sales training must be continual, reinforcing and/or introducing good habits and identifying and eliminating bad habits,” says another subscriber. “It’s very easy to get into a rut or comfort zone that does not produce optimal results.”

“Embracing new technology, improving time management, and maximizing one’s potential are all things that should be taught continually,” says another subscriber.

Some subscribers point out that training includes more than formal classroom sessions. “Sales training is a continuous process, but it doesn’t need to be only an organized event,” says yet another. “Reading, role-playing and simply watching other salespeople work counts.”

Several people use sports analogies to express their belief in the value of continual training:

• “Can you imagine if Tiger Woods never practiced, didn’t use new equipment or try new techniques?”

• “During the course of a pro athlete’s career, how often do you hear of them skipping spring training? Reinforcing the basics is fundamental to success and the simple execution needed to win games. A quarterback taking snaps, a baseball player taking batting practice.”

• “For much the same reason that a .300 hitter in baseball takes batting practice, observes videotapes of his swing and accepts critique from a batting coach. Practice and external critique correct flaws and reinforce positive behavior.”

Of course, some subscribers hold a contrary view. “I think ‘sales training’ is a one-time thing,” says one subscriber. “Once you learn the skills, you either adopt [them] into your daily routine or you don’t. Some selling skills are second nature to some reps; others will never develop the skills needed to succeed.”

Another subscriber points out the dangers of getting too smug about the value of training. “What happens with most training … is that ‘it goes in one ear and out the other.’ It’s never put into practice.”

Another adds a cautionary note: “Any dog, at any age, can learn anything new, but it requires thirst of knowledge vs. resistance to change. If someone has a desire to expand their skills and product knowledge, they find the way through their own efforts. If they have no interest, then the horse will not drink.”

What’s more, the subscriber points out, many sales training programs are too heavy on theory and too light on practical value. “What would benefit the actual reps and their customers is to have the reps choose to participate in classes focused on listening and questioning skills, marketing techniques with new technology, time management applications, overcoming market barriers (gatekeepers), value of integrity and sincerity, building long-term relationships and networking. These skills would mean far more to a rep in potential growth and customer satisfaction than passing a test designed to measure their ability to temporarily memorize facts.”

E-vent Question No. 2:

If you believe sales training is a “forever thing,” what’s new to learn?

Your Answers:

Most subscribers believe that there’s always something new to learn, because products, regulations, relationships and customers themselves keep changing. Here’s a checklist of the things to keep on top of, culled from subscribers’ responses:

• “Identifying the value we bring to the customer on an ongoing basis. Customers forget what we did yesterday and we need to always continue to re-sell our value.”

• “How new systems work – GPOs for example. Managing customers from a local relationship standpoint no longer will guarantee future sales.”

• “The details of your product mix. Understanding the competitive situation and your products’ potential fit.”

• “Just selling product and moving boxes doesn’t cut it anymore. Customers are looking to us to be problem-solvers [and providers of] logistical services.”

• “How people buy. They change all the time. You need to be up to speed on the GPO of the customer and the product you are detailing.”

• “How to sell products that are new to match new regulations. How to use the new tools available, such as laptops, cell phones, voice mail and so on.”

• “If one is not abreast of all the new software/hardware out to optimize performance, they’re missing out.”

• “In the medical field, everything [is new]. Not only is technology and legislation changing daily, so is your customer. To sell to today’s customer, you must adapt to the realization that becoming customer-centric is vital.”

• “Reading people can always be improved on. Listening skills always need to be honed. As long as customers are people, there will always be something to learn.”

• “Maybe it’s not [learning what’s] new, but what’s forgotten.”

• “Are you kidding? Take a look at technology as it touches EVERY facet of our lives!”

• “Conceptual selling, strategic account management, interpersonal skills, ethics, creativity, time management, selling to higher-level folks.”

• “Ever since HIV hit the radar screen, safety has been going through a major evolution. OSHA and the new legislation have really driven this. (Remember when the Infection Control office was a broom closet in the basement of the hospital?”)

• “Things you forgot or don’t do any more. Seasoned salespeople get in ruts or forget what got them where they are today. You learn new techniques or tactics on how to approach the customer. You also feel good about yourself for continuing to learn and also model good behavior or habits for your fellow teammates or reps.”

• “I believe that there are ‘natural’ salespersons and there are those who are taught to sell. The naturals instinctively know how to ask the right questions, so as to put on the other person’s shoes and talk to them in an empathetic manner that builds trust. But even the great ones can pick up bad habits that can cost them sales. I think sales training ‘refresher’ courses are a good way to un-learn bad habits and get back into whatever rhythm works best for you.”

• “Adapting to changing market conditions. For instance, Cardinal put all their reps through finance classes to better understand a hospital balance sheet. Once they did that, reps were able to sell solutions to the problems that plague a customer’s bottom line.”

• “There’s rarely anything new to learn; it’s more a refresher course in the tools of the trade. Very few people can be exposed to the large number of concepts used in sales and remember all that they have seen. Going over tried and true concepts, exchanging experiences and solutions can help in future situations.”

• “New products, new technologies, new players, industry consolidation – both vendors and consumers, reimbursement/payment changes, changes in mindset of decision makers, the list goes on and on.”

• “Sometimes you hear something over and over and finally, one day, some little piece of it makes more sense than it ever did before and a whole new world is opened up for you.”

• “There are always new, fresh, innovative approaches to our business. The products may not change. However, the environment that we sell into does!”

• “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

E-vent Question No. 3:

Which one is more important to you – product training or sales skills training?

Your Answers:

Like love and marriage or horse and carriage, product and sales skills training go together, according to Dail-E News subscribers. Some place more emphasis on product training, some believe that sales skills training is more important. Both sides make some compelling arguments. In the end, of course, both are correct. After all, without product knowledge, the sales rep has zero credibility. But without the sales skills, that rep might not be able to even present the product. Listening to both sides of the debate yields valuable insights into the selling process.

On the product training side:

• “Product. If you can’t answer the customers’ questions, what use are you to him or her? And there are competitors out there who can sell and answer product questions.”

• “Product training is required more often because the basic selling skills are constant, while products change and new ones are introduced.”

• “In our industry, product knowledge is essential. An unskilled salesperson will be more tolerated and successful than a good salesperson who doesn’t know the product.”

• “If you’ve been successful in sales for any period of time, you already know how to sell to a certain degree. With product training, you know what to sell and therefore differentiate yourself from the competition.”

• “Sales skills, once learned, rarely need to be changed. If you are successful at selling, then you simply need to stay abreast of the product changes.”

• “If you cannot relate to customers on a technical level, they will see through you no matter how slick you appear.”

• “Once you have selling skills, you should be able to adapt to new situations, but you can’t adapt to new products without training.”

• “Your knowledge of products instills a feeling of confidence in your buyer, who doesn’t have the time to learn new products on his own.”

• “Product training makes reps feel confident. Combined with solid sales skills, [product training] will position you as a knowledgeable, consultant-type sales rep in your prospective customers’ eyes.”

• “Good sales skills without a very good understanding of the product often leads to empty promises.”

On the sales skills training side:

• “Anyone can learn the features of a product, but it takes a sales professional to properly communicate and connect the buyer with the ultimate benefits of what is being sold.”

• “Industry knowledge. I need to be keenly aware that medical admissions cost hospitals money vs. surgical admissions, which generate revenue. I need to be pushing my company to bring me new products to sell that can help reduce medical admissions. By having this knowledge, I become a sales consultant and sell solutions as well as product.”

• “If I can sell myself and meet people’s perceived needs, the details will take care of themselves.”

• “Product training can be delivered from text/pictures; sales skills cannot.”

• “There are ALWAYS people who know the product, but can’t sell it.”

• “Sales skills involve either creating a need or identifying a problem for a customer and fitting your product to the need. It’s about reducing costs, adding revenue and reducing inefficiencies. Straight features-and-benefits selling is old.”

• “Sales skills. Most products in the medical equipment world have similar competitors or like products. At the end of the day, companies buy products from people they like.”

• “I’d hire selling skills over product knowledge any day. If a rep can sell, I can teach him about the products.”

• “Product info alone is useless in selling, otherwise there would be no need for sales reps. Data dumping is NOT selling. It’s all about relationships, trust, helping, consulting, problem solving, meeting needs and finding the right product to accomplish these things.

And those who say that both are equally important:

• “Product training makes me a better ‘resource’ to my clients. Skills training helps me achieve both personal and corporate financial goals, and achieve a higher level of selling. I’m not sure that one can exist without the other.”

• “I think skills training is important for new reps. But for seasoned reps, the skills are either there or not. Product training is more important for the seasoned rep, but benefits both seasoned reps and rookies.”

• “You must know your product and how to present. You also must understand how to get your customer to say yes and buy your product.”

• “Both as needed. The skills are more important if the product offerings are somewhat stable, and vice versa on a rapidly change product stable.”

• “Product knowledge: 40 percent; customer needs fulfillment: 60 percent. Probably more skewed to product in case of Class III devices vs. Class II.”

• “Both. You can be an extremely technical person, but have the sales skills of an ape.”

• “You must know your product to be able to sell it, but you must know how to sell to move the product.”

• “Both are important. You need enough product knowledge to make the right recommendations and create credibility with the customer. Having said that, all the product knowledge in the world won’t sell a product. Basic selling skills, such as learning to listen (really listen), reading people’s body language and asking the right questions all allow you to find out what is important to them. Then you must skillfully explain how your product solves a problem, improves efficiency and brings value. Finally, knowing the right time to close, when to talk and when to keep your mouth shut. Most of this can be learned.”

• “That depends on what you are selling. If you sell to the laboratory, then I think product training is paramount. Laboratorians are typically a technical bunch, and they tend to trust people who they feel are on their level. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll only be able to answer the most basic of questions, so you’ll tend to shy away from asking questions. And asking questions is the key to selling. You just don’t want to come off as a know-it-all.”

• “One without the other is a little foolish. Why train someone all about a product, but not have them prepared to sell it?”

• “Please don’t make me choose! If I’m forced to choose, it would be products in my industry, because technology is changing every minute of every day, and my customers expect [me] to be a consultant and guide them in making the proper choice.”

E-vent Question No. 4:

If you were asked to train a group of rookie sales reps, what would be the most important lesson you could offer them?

Your Answers:

Learn your products, learn the resources your company has to offer, be straightforward with your customers, have confidence in yourself and always, always listen. These are the things that Dail-E News subscribers say they would impress upon rookie sales reps if they had the chance.


First and foremost, “LISTEN to the client and address their issues only,” says one subscriber. Indeed, this reader is not in the minority. Given the chance, many others would teach rookies the very same thing.

“The first thing would be to always listen to the customer, and not do all the talking,” says another subscriber. ‘You can learn a lot by understanding their needs and work forward from there.”

“Listen to what’s important to your customer,” says another. “Helping them succeed helps you succeed.”

“LESSON: LISTEN!” says another.

Says another, more bluntly: “When you’re in front of the decision-maker, SHUT UP and listen to them. You’d be amazed by how much you can accomplish when you let them tell you what they need.”

More than one subscriber points to an old saying to make the same point: “God gave you one mouth and two ears; therefore, you should ask questions and listen to what your customers are telling you.”

Closely related to listening is eliciting from the customer what he or she needs, wants and expects from the sales rep and his or her company. Rookie reps should learn “how to probe to discover the client’s problems and concerns they have about finding a solution,” says one reader. “Probing effectively is a great skill that unfortunately, many salespeople don’t have. Many times, they’re talking about a solution before they know the problem.”

A briefer response along the same lines: “Ask good questions, shut up and listen.”

And again: “Listen, think, help your customer do what they want to do and make them think they came up with the solution.”

Some more responses related to listening skills:

• “When I see a rep struggle with the sales process, it’s usually because he or she has a preconceived set of assumptions about what the customer’s issues or interests are. One of the things I sometimes challenge a sales rep to see is how long they can engage a customer in a business-related conversation before mentioning the product. The more you learn about a customer’s situation, the more effectively you can present your product as the answer to the need.”

• “ANYONE can detail a piece of literature, but few know how to make what’s on the literature piece indispensable to the customer. THAT trick is done when a rep listens before speaking.”

• “Ask questions and listen. Qualify the lead. Find out what [customers] are doing NOW with [your] product, what they like about it, dislike about it, who the decision maker(s) are, what the timeframe is, and then and ONLY then do you present a solution with your products.”

• “Learn as much about your customer as you can – their needs, their wants, their resources, their competition, their philosophies, their market share, their specialties, their objectives, their challenges, etc.”

Be prepared.

• “Always know more than the person you are talking with. Not necessarily more knowledge, but applications, examples, etc.”

• “Mental and physical preparation is the key to a successful day.”

• “Plan and focus. ‘Shooting from the hip’ and ‘[being] all things to all people’ are two of the biggest mistakes new reps make.”

Be honest. Don’t overcommit.

• “Whatever you promise, do it and do it when you promised. If you make a mistake, admit it and offer a solution; don’t blame others. The long-term results will be customers you can count on and who will turn to you for solutions to their needs.”

• “Never tell lies or cheat your customers, your employers or yourself. Such falsehoods may get you out of a ‘jam’ in the near term, but as my Grandma used to say, ‘When you s**t in the snow, it always shows up in the springtime.’ Integrity is what you do when no one else is looking.”

Work hard, be persistent, follow through and believe in yourself.

• “Probably to work hard to become a reliable and valuable information source for your customers. If they believe they can come to you for the right answer, they are far more likely to want to buy from you.”

• “Live by the 10-10 rule. Make 10 calls a day to get 10 sales presentation opportunities and close 10 small accounts while pursuing the big one, and make those calls to get in the door and work every day to build the base and create a referral base.”

• “Persistence. Don’t be the guy that knocks on the door two times and then quits. Keep after it and try new avenues to make the contact/sale.”

• “Never go out into a new territory promising turn-around times that can’t be met, or promising to meet their customer service needs and then not following through. Make your calls, do what you promise to do and follow up.”

• “Know your product. Know your customer. Know your competitor. Plan your work and follow your plan. Be creative and persistent as well as respectful. Always ask for the order and always say thank you.”

• “Pick the right customers. Spend your time wisely. Create value EVERYDAY. Do things differently. Be a consultant to your customers. Have high standards of integrity. If you don’t believe in what you do, leave.”

• “Humility with confidence! In the healthcare industry where I work (medical gas equipment – respiratory), the best approach to the clients is to let them know you’re aware they are the experts in their field and you are the merchant source for their specific need. At the same time, express your ability to fill their need and solve their problem with confidence!”

• “FOLLOW UP. Most business is lost and territories not expanded because reps don’t consistently follow up with their accounts. Be someone the account can count on. If you just do that, you’re better than 80 percent of your competition.”

• “Believe in your message. Anything short of that is superficial and you’ll soon be exposed.”

• “Be yourself. If you like your job, it will show and people will like you.”

• “Show up.”

See the big picture.

“Rookie reps need to learn the industry and product. They need to understand how their products help save lives and how their products help save lives and impact the hospital's bottom line earnings. By teaching this concept, I've enabled [reps] to sell with a sense of purpose that what they do and sell makes a difference."

"Don't sell, be a resource. Know your market, not just the [features and benefits] of your product. Know about your competitors, reimbursements, who's involved with the product (doc, nursing, purchasing) and how your product impacts those involved. Remember the patient."

"I tell new reps to treat their territory as if it were their own small business and that they were going to be running that business until they retire. The message is, don't ever lie to or cut corners with a customer, because you're in it for the long haul, not just one sale. Always do what's best for the customer and achievement of your objectives will follow. People buy from people (people they like and trust). They will go out of their way to justify doing business with you. There are exceptions to this, however, and it's important for a good salesperson to be able to recognize when this is the case. Price is the first thing a customer wants from you and the first reason they'll give you for why you lost the order. Most of the time it's not true; it's an easy answer, which avoids the real issue. You failed to sell yourself first and then your company. Many products are contracted with a group purchasing organization of some type. Some of these contracts are quite binding on the customer, and even if they like you, your product and your price, you will still lose. Do your homework, know when this is the case and allocate your time to those opportunities that you have a chance of winning. Your time is a precious resource. You only have so much of it, so spend it wisely. Finally, never promise what you can't deliver and always deliver what you promise...it's called building a relationship."