At last! After many years of wishing and cajoling and looking hopefully under the Christmas tree, 2016 brought us what sales organizations have long needed: a shift in focus from training sales people to training sales managers. It’s a shift that has significant implications for the productivity and effectiveness of sales teams. But it’s a shift that has come slowly and with great resistance due to long-entrenched beliefs that training sales people is the path to improved sales. It’s not.

This isn’t just Vantage Point’s opinion. In a panel discussion at the Sales Management Association (SMA), Neil Rackham once stated that if he had $10 to spend on sales training, he would spend $9 on the sales manager and $1 on the sales rep. (Listen to Neil here.) This allocation is exactly the opposite of how organizations traditionally divide sales training dollars. But Rackham’s point makes sense: a well-trained sales rep can elevate his own performance, but a well-trained manager lifts the performance of an entire team. A joint research study by Vantage Point and the SMA found organizations that allocate more than half of their total sales training budget to sales managers outperform by 12% those who allocate less than half of their budgets. That’s a staggering finding—and one that is helping to drive a long-needed shift in training focus.

While training is at last moving in the right direction, we still have a long way to go. Many organizations continue to cling to the old belief that training sales people is the best route to improved performance. And just as problematic: those organizations that have shifted their focus to training sales managers, struggle with which topics to train. Unfortunately, the most popular sales manager training topics in 2016 were the ones with the lowest impact.

The VPP-SMA study asked organizations to rate how effectively they trained their sales managers on 17 separate topics. We then analyzed the difference in organizational performance across the topics to determine which ones, when trained effectively, resulted in the highest performance gains. What we found is an inverse relationship between topic popularity and impact on organizational performance. The topic taught most often (sales methodology) led to some of the lowest performance gains (3.9%), whereas the topics that were far less prevalent (assessing performance, pipeline management, analysis and planning) resulted in some of the highest performance gains (15.6%, 13.6% and 12.6%, respectively). This shows a dramatic disconnect between what sales leaders think they should train and what really makes a difference in organizational performance.

This disconnect, like the focus on sales not manager training, has historical roots. Fifteen years ago, investments in sales methodologies and associated sales processes yielded huge gains because most organizations did not have formalized sales processes in place. Investments in sales methodology training helped create a more formal, consistent approach to sales execution. Today, however, sales processes are prevalent, if not ubiquitous. Additional investments in sales methodology training at best duplicate prior efforts, and at worst cause major disruption. Once there is a formal sales process in place, additional efforts in that area lead to diminishing returns.

What should sales organizations train? It turns out that sales management training dollars are best spent teaching managers to do their most important job: getting reps to quota. It seems so simple, but that’s part of the problem. Because it seems simple, most organizations overlook it as critical management training curricula. But our research indicates that the majority of sales managers who are promoted from seller ranks, fail to get even half of their sellers to quota. In our most recent research on global sales management practices, we found that on average, the top 25% of sales managers got 65% of their reps to quota while the lower-performing 75% of managers had just under half their reps at quota. Imagine what could be gained if that bottom three-quarters of sales managers were equipped to help 15% more of their sellers achieve their numbers!

This past year saw sales organizations take an important step in that direction by shifting their focus from training sales people to training sales managers. Now we need to ensure managers are trained on the topics that will enable them to get their reps to quota. One of our clients once said, “The front-line sales manager is the one person in our organization who is least equipped to do the job they were hired to do.” Let’s make 2017 the year we equip sales managers to succeed.

This post is part 1 one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part 2: training on topics that get reps to quota.

About the Author

Michelle Vazzana is a founding partner at Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm. Vazzana is also co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. She is a sought-after speaker on the topic of sales management and leadership and has more than 28 years of successful sales and management experience. Sign up for Vantage Point’s newsletter to stay up to date with the latest sales manager research and best practices.