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Training: The Sweet Sell of Success

HR Magazine, June 2002The Sweet Sell Success

Trainers who get involved early in the development of a anew product can influence its success

New products—either services or goods—are the bread and butter of any business. To remain vital, companies must continually create new products or introduce existing ones to new markets. The stakes involved in making a new product launch successful are high and involve every department of the company, in particular research and development (R&D), sales and marketing, and, increasingly, HR.

Sales is only one cog in the wheel of a new product launch, and the trainer preparing sales representatives for their role is barely a drop of oil on that cog. But with the sales department’s growing role in increasingly frequent launch efforts, that wee drop of oil, often squeezed from the HR department, ought to be precisely what the machine requires to roll smoothly.

Several trends are putting increasing pressure on sales trainers to find innovative means to support and rev up the sales force for new-product launches. First, larger retailers have increasing power in the marketplace, say experts, meaning one lost sale could result in a huge loss in market share.

Second, a slow but steady recognition that the sales department should be involved earlier in planning is expanding the role it—and sales trainers—can play. Third, with the deluge of new products, the increasingly costly margin for error and today’s unprecedented “curve benders” (super successful products), management is inclined to yank an unpromising product before sales can hit the pavement.

Unable to get psyched up for every product spilling into their department and immune to the phrase “a sure bet,” today’s sales force requires far more than a pep talk and product description to trigger an adrenaline surge to sell, sell, sell.

Higher Stakes

Today’s ultra-competitive sales environment mandates a more sophisticated approach to new product sales training. Trainers need to get involved early on in the process—long before the actual training for a product launch—to make a positive impact on the new product’s success.

Roughly 100,000 new products are unleashed annually in the United States, of which more than 80 percent fail, according to Chuck Mooney, publisher of Hot Product News, an online marketing company in Albuquerque, N.M., which tracks this data.

Many products are not truly “new,” but rather new extensions or market spins on existing products. Increasing competition, shorter product life cycles and rapid changes in technology and customers’ needs are forcing companies to shout “new” often. Never mind that 25 percent of products sell for less than a month before being relegated to oblivion, says Mooney, adding that the percentage changes depending on how you define “failure.” Today’s best sellers (a term that once defined products selling $500 million within one year but that now accommodates $1 billion-plus product superstars like Viagra) are moving three to five times faster to the market than a few years ago, making the launch game kind of like a lottery, says Christopher Bogan, CEO of Best Practices LLC, a research and consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What Sales Needs

Given this pressure to make a new product successful, salespeople need a variety of information from trainers—not just a simple dissemination of a product’s specs and development history. Experts also advise trainers to provide materials early and in a variety of formats—CD, company intranet, printouts. In particular, sales teams are looking for:

  • A rundown of a new product’s benefits, not features. (How does a new product save time, money or labor? Is it more compact, easier to install or more multipurpose than its competitors?)

  • Specific selling tips. Perspective on the scope of the new product’s function and full line.

  • Technical background on the product or service.

  • Proof that its warranties are up to snuff and installation staff is poised to sprint.

  • Assurance that distribution channels are primed.

  • Evidence that market testing has been well executed. Use psychographics, which are characteristics of consumers that, rather than being purely demographic, measure attitudes, interests, opinions and lifestyles.

  • Great testimonials.

Above all, salespeople want an opportunity to have a say in all these aspects without financial repercussions for being in meetings when they could be on the road selling.

Sue Winterfield, training coordinator for the after-market unit of The Trane Co., has come up with one way to combine all the above elements in an efficient manner. Trane, a leading manufacturer of indoor comfort systems, employs 350 salespeople at its La Crosse, Wis., headquarters, who deal with 300 points of distribution across the country. With new sales personnel needing information on old products, and old salespeople needing insight into new products, training sessions in half a dozen locations weren’t reaching everyone. So with a $6,000 investment in CD-making software and input from in-house engineers and vendors, Winterfield began producing interactive training CDs on everything from refrigeration components to taking apart and reassembling an electric motor. The fun text and graphics allow users to scroll back and forth before testing their knowledge at the end. Six CDs, which serve as an adjunct to traditional training sessions, walk sales staff through features, benefits, how the product stacks up against its competition, and how to overcome objections. Salespeople can even use portions of the CDs in presentations to clients.

“It’s an effective way of getting to a lot of people in a lot of different locations,” says Winterfield, who has saved $40,000 in training costs this year.

“The role of the sales organization is absolutely critical in making or breaking the product,” says Bogan, adding that the sales team has the largest impact of all the players and should step out from the shadow of R&D to “take its place at the head of the table.”

Once sold on a product, of course, salespeople are eager to maximize its potential and particularly appreciate sales role-play sessions. Linda Gorchels, an author and director of executive marketing programs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, advises introducing these in a non-threatening manner; involving a triad of salesperson, buyer and observer, choosing the first salesperson carefully (preferably the sales manager or someone universally respected); and characterizing the session as a learning experience rather than a test.

Jeff Parker, professional services manager at Manpower Professionals in Albuquerque, N.M., who coaches salespeople at the company, advises trainers to be sensitive to the differences in how quickly people take in information.

Show and tell works best for many salespeople. Pedro Manrique, program manager at Infinity Systems, a Northridge, Calif.-based maker of loudspeaker systems, arranges guest appearances by an acoustic engineer and a chief engineer, then highlights a double-blind test of the product and its competitor that proves Infinity is best. “We show them what’s behind the curtain, like ‘The Price is Right,’” Manrique says.

Another effective tool is to pair up seasoned and less experienced salespeople during training and after for effective mentorship. New salespeople can get valuable insights from their more experienced counterparts. And, the veteran salespeople may benefit from the insight of someone viewing the product with a fresh set of eyes. Mentoring also can rekindle an experienced salesperson’s energy level.

Get salespeople to focus on the needs of the client or potential client and focus the training on how the product fills those needs. Encourage them to ask critical questions of key customers and train them to host brainstorming sessions with customers for new-product ideas and sales perspectives.

Working Together

Trainers should begin developing training materials a year before launch in large organizations and six to nine months before launch in smaller organizations, says Bogan. He also suggests structuring incentives such that salespeople will spend the time with the development team to help make the product a success.

Smart companies, say experts, are involving more departments at every stage of a new product launch, and better informing and empowering them. Depending on the company size and product, launch teams involve finance, manufacturing, R&D, engineering, information technology, sales, marketing, advertising and customer service—and increasingly, trainers.

Long before the launch, sales trainers should build strong relationships with launch-planning leaders, emphasize the critical resources they can provide and attend key meetings. “This is an opportunity for people who have built those bridges to do things that are not necessarily in their job description,” says Bogan.

It’s also true that if salespeople hate a marketing plan to which they haven’t contributed, the product is dead in the water. That’s why trainers should lobby for sales representation early on, says Abbie Griffin, an associate professor of marketing and operations management at the University of Chicago. As an example of what can go wrong, she points to one company that planned to launch a new obstetrical/gynecological drug. Its campaign included a knife given to potential buyers on which the brand name was inscribed. The sales force immediately recognized that this did not jibe with the sales message the company wanted to send.

Indeed, using a salesperson’s knowledge of the marketplace can help decide where to invest resources—another reason HR should help coordinate interaction between departments. “Allow salespeople to decide how much effort to put into selling a product,” says Ken Kahn, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. For example, he says, a doctor usually allows only enough time to hear pitches on three new drugs, which is why pharmaceutical salespeople need to be clear on the best bets.

HR Assets

Timelines have become both tighter and shorter, while budgets per product are smaller, and new launches are more frequent, says Robert Gavin Cooper, a marketing professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Companies “should do fewer projects and put more horsepower behind them.”

This is easy advice for sales.people to heed if they have a sixth sense for which new products will be winners—a confidence best evolved by interacting liberally with all members of a launch team. Sales trainers with an HR background have an edge here, says Parker.

“Human resources is so much about dealing with people, knowing how to motivate and coach them, thinking about big picture benefits to the company and being aware of layers of management.” On the down side, HR professionals are often overly cautious when trying to please every audience they serve, Parker says.

Bringing out the best in sales is a great way to earn HR new respect, says Carolynn Mueller, Manpower’s area manager for sales and marketing in San Diego. She makes liberal use of contests, gift certificates and recognition during training sessions, she says, because salespeople love competing. Good salespeople are creative and action-oriented, Mueller says. Trainers, on the other hand, need to balance the desire to loosen the reins and let salespeople gallop with the need to ensure they’re headed in the right direction with the right supplies in their saddlebags.

Mueller says trainers can win respect from salespeople with three approaches: By thoroughly understanding the business and organization, imparting knowledge rather than rules, and respecting salespeople for what they do, as opposed to telling them what to do—in other words, coaching rather than micromanaging them.

The best way for trainers to impress salespeople is “by not trying to prove themselves,” agrees Gorchels. The only way to excite experienced salespeople is to demonstrate that the systems are in place to overcome customer objections. “If you have a great launch program and the first customer they meet says this is a piece of junk, it doesn’t matter what you said to fire them up in a session,” she says.

If launches are only as strong as their sales force, and sales teams are only as strong as their trainers, it’s time HR moved to the front of the class. “You don’t need to do anything fancy,” muses Parker. “It’s a simple job: building relationships, transferring enthusiasm and giving people sales toolboxes and pathways to success. That’s just what HR professionals have always been good at.”

Pam Withers, co-author of values Shift: The New Work Ethic & What It Means for Business (Prentice Hall Canada 2000 and Fairwinds Press 2001), is a business writer who specializes in human resource issues.

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