Training budgets: five reasons why company training fails in SME’s

Many SME’s (small to medium enterprises) assume that increasing training budgets in sales training will automatically increase sales productivity. And, because the sales team is on the front line when it comes to revenue and profit, it seems intuitive that improving sales skills would have a positive, immediate, and direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

That assumption, however, has not, historically, served companies particularly well, and the reality is companies waste large amounts of money every year on ineffective sales training.

This is clearly an issue, not least because for SME’s, there is often pressure to provide training in order to retain talent as it is seen as an essential benefit for employees, that many larger competitors offer. Similarly, with smaller learning and development budgets than larger corporates, SME’s have to demonstrate real value from any investment in this area.

Rachel Massey, Director of Marketing at sales and negotiation specialists, Huthwaite International, talks about the big mistakes companies make that cause them to waste their training budgets and how to ensure sales training actually works.

Trying to fix the wrong problem

Frequently, we see organisations embark on a sales training initiative without a clear definition as to the problem they expect the sales training to solve. Sales training is a great tool to help improve selling skills, but it can’t fix organisational issues, misaligned compensation strategies or ineffective hiring practices. Training should be undertaken only if there is a clear definition of why it is needed and what the expected outcomes to define success are.

The training team (internal or external) should work with key stakeholders to identify current gaps and challenges in the organisation that training can work to address, and use this as a way of prioritising the training programme – working to align this with the desired outcomes. Looking 6-12 months ahead following the training, the team should work with stakeholders to define what they expect to be different after the training and how they will measure success.

Over-involving stakeholders

We often see training programmes initiated in SME’s because someone identified a budget and it seems like a positive thing to do, but there is a lack of clear sponsorship or connection to key stakeholders once the training programme is initiated. For training to be successful, the stakeholders need to be part of the initiative before, during and after the training so they can communicate enthusiasm and expectations throughout. Many times, we see training programmes that seem to have become an end in themselves, as opposed to a means to solve a problem the key stakeholders have identified.

Ensuring sales leadership is involved in sponsoring the programme and it is visible throughout, will result in a sale team that is invested in the training from the get go.

Failing to define desired outcomes

As discussed above, identifying the problem is the first step, but it is crucial to define the desired outcomes that are expected as a result of the training. How will the sponsors know if the programme has been successful? How will they measure results? The key factors are:

  • Did the participants enjoy the training?
  • Did they understand the material?
  • Are they able to apply it and create that crucial behaviour change?
  • Will they receive extra post training support to ensure the new method is implemented?
  • Will it produce business results?

Including outcome measures in the programme charter and defining them before the training is underway will ensure the participants receive the most out of the sessions. Utilising surveys, coaching and benchmarking to isolate and measure the desired outcomes after the training will prove if it has been properly implemented.

Without a real implementation method, training can be delivered in a classroom environment and then forgotten as soon as the session is over.

The training isn’t tailored to SME’s

While some companies will benefit from an off the shelf delivery package and there are fundamental selling skills and approaches that work across industries and company sizes, to maximise the return on investment from the programme, a more flexible and customised approach can work best for many SME’s. Unless the programme is flexible and can be aligned with the business in some areas of programme content and in its delivery, we find sales professionals resist the programme, feel it’s too generic or has a difficult time figuring out how to apply the concepts to their specific situation.

As an SME, the needs of your training will differ from those of a huge, well-known, global company or a start-up, so ensuring your training will be effective for your business at its current stage and specific to your issues will make sure the training is as productive as possible.

Whilst methodologies and techniques remain consistent, the means by which they are deployed are designed to flex around the specific needs of each client. For smaller organisations who want to develop their sales and negotiation skills, but find it hard to commit the resources needed, flexible delivery is invaluable. It enables them to develop world class skills at a time and through channels that are appropriate for them.

Working with key stakeholders and a representative sample of the participants (managers and sales professionals), the organisation should identify specific exercises and role plays that can be customised for the business. The programme doesn’t need to be built from the group up, but skill application, case studies, role-plays and terminology need to resonate. Identifying common challenge areas and then building in scenarios, which provide for skill application with live accounts, helps participants feel like they’re getting real work done. It also helps prepare them to apply the concepts when they get back into the field following training.

Neglecting to reinforce the programme

Finally, one of the biggest challenges is making sure sales managers provide ongoing coaching and reinforcement. Regardless of how good the training is, it won’t be as effective if the managers aren’t reinforcing the skills in the field or don’t know what the trainees need to feel confident to use them. The key to positively changing revenue, profit, margin, attitude, culture etc. is to positively change the behaviours of your people. In smaller companies training tends to be informal and often there isn’t a follow up process to ensure the training is being used. As well as this, the trainees may not be asked to feedback on the productivity of the session, the effectiveness of what they have learnt and their confidence in their ability to use it.

Ensure that a comprehensive reinforcement plan is part of any sales training programme and that managers have the coaching skills and tools to support their teams. Involve the managers before, during and after the full process to help ensure success. Hold recurring reinforcement sessions that focus on skill application to maintain the skills learnt and keep them at the forefront of the full team’s mind. Perhaps hold a feedback session or survey the team so that you know what worked, what didn’t and what they would prefer for the next session. It can be handy to do this immediately after the training when the session is clear in their mind, but also six weeks down the line so they can feedback appropriately on how they’ve been able to use the skills they learnt – this should be an additional aspect of measuring success and help to tailor reinforcing the programme to each individual.

These are some of the common challenges we have experienced after working with hundreds of SME sales teams over our 40-year history, as well as larger corporates, including 30% of the FTSE 100. Identifying these challenges and taking steps to mitigate them in advance can go a long way to setting your programme up for success.

If you want to hear more about how Huthwaite International can help your sales team increase business revenue through sustainable behaviour change, contact [email protected] or visit us at

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