Build your sales training playbook

Five experts on creating an effective sales training program

It’s a common refrain in the marine business that everybody had to get smarter to survive the bad years. Progressive dealers upgraded their customer relationship management software, brought industry trainers into their dealerships, attended educational seminars, joined 20 groups and focused on the nuances of selling to improve the customer experience at their stores.

With the recent proliferation of sales training opportunities, exposing your salespeople to quality training is easier than it ever has been. The best dealerships in the Top 100 demonstrate the key to making significant gains in profits and customer service is creating a training plan that your sales team can build upon in the coming years. Once a plan is in place, it’s easy to make changes on the fly to suit your current needs or to take advantage of pop-up opportunities.

To help your sales team get on track with quality training, we spoke with five sales training experts who advocate starting with the basics, harnessing the power of repetition, improving customer follow-up and avoiding complacency as the market rides a welcome wave of growth.

Learn from the best

Less than an hour north of Denver, Colorado Boat Center follows a meticulous training program derived from the philosophy that the store didn’t have to give customers the typical anxiety that comes to mind when most people think of dealerships.

DSCN0531-001The 2013 recipient of the Boating Industry Best Training Program award, Colorado Boat Center provides every one of its employees with an expansive training program that sets the multi-line dealership apart from its peers. Co-owner and vice president Nancy Smith said training has been a big part of the company’s focus since she and her husband, Tom, started the business in 1990.

“We just knew we wanted to do business differently,” she said. “Consumers relate their boat-buying experiences to their car-buying experiences and, as we all know, most people have had not-so-pleasant experiences with the car-buying side.”

Doing things differently has meant translating the Smiths’ personal philosophy into training coursework designed to put their customers at ease, foster a happy, knowledgeable staff and establish trust in the community.

Colorado Boat Center posts notes on what makes great customer experiences, keeps training files for every employee and has brought industry trainers like Sam Dantzler in to motivate and educate the team.

Colorado Boat Center posts notes on what makes great customer experiences, keeps training files for every employee and has brought industry trainers like Sam Dantzler in to motivate and educate the team.

Smith said that while training has always been a constant focus, it has become even more important in recent years as consumers have become savvier and more attuned to evaluating the sincerity of companies they patronize.

For its sales training program, Smith keeps a file for all employees, and creates charts that outline the store’s customer service priorities as well as situations that negatively impact the customer experience, like slow service, lack of acknowledgement and perceived rudeness.

“We have a specific training plan that’s consistent for every single person in our dealership,” she said. “Depending on what their position is, they all get training in customer service and then they each get individual training specific to their department and their positions.”

Colorado Boat Center’s program has included bringing in trainers like Sam Dantzler, bi-weekly staff meetings that always include training components, workshops from Spader Business Management, an in-house training DVD library and attending the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo every year with four to five staff members.

Smith recommends dealers looking to formalize their own sales training start with the basics of general customer service practices and then zero in on more specific topics with whatever opportunities are available.

The dealership has increased staff enthusiasm for implementing new practices with its Red Carpet Service program that awards employees gold coins for providing excellent service that can be redeemed for gift cards to stores of the employees’ choosing.

“We really try to bring that into an entire group atmosphere so that it’s not only good for the employee who’s getting it, but also the other employees who see, oh, there’s a benefit here,” she said. “We review all of the customer surveys in our staff meetings, so they get to really understand the importance of ... customer satisfaction.”

The long-term focus on sales training has resulted in CSI scores that consistently exceed 99.5 percent, as well as the satisfaction of seeing happy customers interacting with happy, well trained staff.

Smith added that the amount of training that’s now available in the marine market is amazing, and getting better every year.

“You can’t get everything in [during] a year, but just try to go and do as much as you can, whether it’s in-house or off-site. Our budget for [training] probably a lot more than most dealerships, in fact I know it is — we do spend a lot on education and training, but it has come back to us tenfold.”

Two-for-one training

Amanda Blackstone and Duncan Butler, a two-person consulting team from Atlanta-based The Butler Group, focus on what they call “front of the house” sales concerns that help dealers improve their sales game.

For dealerships looking to start a sales training program, Blackstone suggests management begins with a focus on the building blocks of customer service — prompt in-person greetings, answering the phone “with a smile” and aggressive customer follow-ups.

Duncan Butler and Amanda Blackstone

Duncan Butler and Amanda Blackstone

“Duncan and I travel all over the country and we walk into different dealerships, even dealerships that we don’t work with, and we’ll just go in for a drop-in visit,” said Blackstone. “Nine times out of ten, we’re not greeted, so it’s getting dealerships back to basics and back to what is their sales practice and what steps do they use to stay on top of their sales team.”

Once the essentials of good customer service are in place, they suggest formalizing a sales process that examines every aspect of the customer experience, starting with how customers flow through the dealerships, how units are shown off, ensuring a checklist is followed for every sale and making sure that somebody is in charge of managing leads that come in through the website, from the OEMs or through the store’s lead management system — an essential step as traffic picks up in an improving economy.

“From there, we figure out what behavior is being used in the dealership and from there we go in and train them … and measure where their successes are and where their opportunities are,” Blackstone said. “When we go in and have them truly start using a lead manager system the way it should be used, they will see their sales increase.”

Blackstone and Butler support all forms of training, from webinars to trade show seminars, but agreed that the fastest way to ramp up a store’s sales department is to bring in a third-party trainer who can evaluate the dealership’s performance with an unbiased perspective.

Beyond exposing sales staff to in-depth training, part of the training process is ensuring that established practices are followed going forward. One way to ensure that is incentivizing desired behavior so it’s in the salesperson’s financial interest to adhere to new policies.

“If you put a salesperson there with a salary, he makes the same whether he’s there four hours a day, six hours a day, whether he sells one boat [or] 10 boats,” Butler said. “You’ve got to keep your salesperson hungry to get that behavior going, to get that momentum going, to get those sales driving through the front door.”

Once policies are in place, repeating the message helps achieve consistency in practice and in terms of the customer experience.

“It doesn’t mean that [the salespeople] didn’t get it, but you’re still going over their log, how they spoke to that customer, how did they feel that they were successful, where did they feel they were weak,” Butler said. “As the manager you should be constantly coaching and training and leading them to become the best salesperson they can be.”

With store traffic generally increasing across the country, many dealers are reverting back to conditions seen in the past where everybody has started wearing more hats than before. In this environment, many dealers are scared to ramp their payrolls back to pre-recession levels, but Blackstone said dealers need to shed their fear of ramping their payrolls back up to allow “managers to be managers.”

Both contend that in-person training is the most effective way to make big strides in the shortest possible timeframe. One-on-one exercises like role-playing help sales staff slow down the actual sales process, increase their own confidence and ensure that basic procedures are being followed with every customer.

“The basics [means] having a sales process, knowing your inventory, making sure your sales staff is confident, putting that first step forward, knowing the products they carry and constantly, constantly training on the product that’s in the store,” Butler said.

Focusing on attitude

Anyone who attended last year’s MDCE keynote address knows that sales trainer Jeffrey Gitomer has a unique, enthusiastic approach to how customers should be treated in a dealership. Building upon his experience at MDCE, Gitomer has partnered with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas to create the MRAA Interactive Virtual Training System that’s available to its members.

The goal of the video-based Virtual Training System is to offer low-cost training that covers many different topics in small, 15-minute bites so salespeople can fit training into their workdays and to get the repetition he says is required for training to stick and be most effective.

“The way to train salespeople is to take a topic like attitude or a topic like questioning or a topic like engagement or … follow-up or … closing the sale and creating repetition for that salesperson so that, number one, they feel supported and, number two, they feel like they’re getting that education that they need, the answers that they need and, number three, by practice and becoming proficient at it until they ultimately become masters of it,” he said.

Jeffrey Gitomer

Jeffrey Gitomer

As the marine industry enters a healthier phase, Gitomer sees unique challenges arising from new generations of family members moving into leadership roles at dealerships across the country. Their success or failure, he said, would depend on how well they’ve studied the industry, how much training they’ve been exposed to and how involved they were in the business.

“The ones that realize that training’s available, they’ll do fine even if they don’t have all the training that they needed when they were growing up,” he said. “The ones that think they have it made are going to have an issue.”

In his eyes, the sales staff’s attitude is the most important element that can engage customers in a positive way. The goal, he said, is to create a positive belief system in each salesperson where they believe in the company, the products, and their own ability to show that customers are better off purchasing from their own dealership.

“My whole process is all about training them in attitude, training them in belief, training them in presentation skills, training them in how to engage somebody emotionally, completing that sale and then building the relationship,” he said.

During his career as a trainer, he has seen significant transformation in businesses — both in dollars and in attitude — that are possible if management commits to training on an every-day basis.

“Every single one of the Top 100 [dealers] is dying to increase their sales, and if I can give their salesperson one small leg up, that might be just the difference that it takes to go from a mediocre year to a great year,” he said. “It’s not one guy coming in for one day or two days or a week, it’s not going to help them the way 15 minutes a day will for an entire year.”

An improving economy will undoubtedly bring more “tire-kickers” into every dealership, but Gitomer cautions against “erroneously thinking you had something to do with it” rather than a rising market that is lifting all dealers.

Sophisticated, successful dealers need to remain proactive, and focus on differentiating themselves from competitors that have undoubtedly become more homogenized with the proliferation of industry training increasing the business savvy of most dealerships.

“Here’s the deal, once you get people excited about getting new information and potentially having new connections and having new leads that cost them virtually nothing, then that puts you in a very solid position to do it long-term,” he said.

Selling the details

With more than 35 years of experience in the marine industry, David Parker of Parker Business Planning focuses on the nitty-gritty details of refocusing dealership sales teams on proven techniques. He’s a training advocate by design, and his experience has shown the massive transformations at stores that have worked hard to improve their sales techniques.

David Parker

David Parker

As an example, he cited his Cobalt 20 group whose members averaged $5 million in boat sales with a 16-percent profit margin back in 1999. One year later, that same group sold an average of $6.5 million on a 21-percent margin. Today, the group has maintained its 21-percent profit margin, but increased average sales volume to $20 million. That kind of success supports his idea that higher margins don’t necessarily translate into lower sales, contrary to some OEM sales reps he has encountered.

“If you’re selling for less in order to sell more boats, that’s win-lose,” Parker said.

He refocuses sales teams on the essential components of selling — emotional engagement, selling yourself, the dealership, the lifestyle and the product, and establishing a consistent pricing policy that helps prevent salespeople from focusing on pricing until the end of the selling process.

“What many dealers do is they start the price at the number that they want to get for the boat,” he said. “The problem is, in practically every circumstance, you’re going to end up 3 to 7 percent less than whatever number you start at.”

Aside from moving away from a value-building presentation, focusing on price too quickly pits the sales staff against management trying to maintain overall store margins.

“When the customer makes an offer on the boat deal, almost regardless of what the offer is, they stop selling the customer on paying more money and start selling the owner on taking the shorter deal, and that process actually encourages lower margins,” Parker said.

He added that the individual temperaments of your sales team are critical, and something management should be aware of. Personality information can help management make decisions on what type of training can help individual salespeople improve their performance.

“That’s why we recommend profiling all our salespeople,” Parker said. “Some salespeople are very friendly and outgoing, and you would think they would be fantastic at selling, because you just love to be around them.”

In some cases, however, the reality with some widely likeable personality types translates into a reluctance to ask for the order — as many times as it takes — in order to avoid a fear of rejection from the customer.

With the many forms of training on the market today, he also advises in-person training as the fastest way to turn around a sales team and work one-on-one with individual salespeople. Joining a 20 group is second on Parker’s list, as such meetings will regularly address the entire gamut of issues related to improving sales tactics, store layout, customer service and presentation.

Sales Training Resources

Don Cooper
Providing education and resources for sales managers and individual salespeople, Don Cooper is a prominent trainer in the marine market. His content includes selling techniques, avoiding common mistakes, lowering prospects’ defenses and making your sales staff more persuasive.

Jeffrey Gitomer
In-person and group training, classroom sessions, online video courses and webinars, basic sales skills, books including the popular “Little Red Book of Selling,” the Ace of Sales certification course and customized programs for larger clients.

Spader Business Management
Customized leadership and employee training, financial planning, hiring workshops, budget training, software, industry trends reporting and more.

Sam’s Powersports Garage
A membership-based training provider that includes consulting services, in-person training, pay plan guidance and department-specific courses, Sam Dantzler is a popular industry speaker and sales expert who, in 2012, was the highest-rated speaker in MDCE history.

Parker Business Planning
Parker Business Planning provides on-site consulting, monthly management reports for multi-store dealers, online budgeting services, open and branded 20 Groups, as well as dealership design and layout consultation.

The Butler Group Atlanta
Experienced advice on increasing sales, selling F&I, creating traffic logs, improving customer follow-up, raising CSI scores, creating annual budgets, using mobile apps, planning consumer events and more.

The Glenn Roller Institute
Glenn Roller Institute’s Continuing Educational Program provides continuous sales education from basic understanding up to advanced training. Topics include why deception is unhelpful, qualifying a customer’s intent, customer presentations, closing sales, increasing confidence, understanding body language and building referral business.

MRAA Interactive Virtual Training System
Short video courses with Jeffrey Gitomer on getting motivated, generating prospects, following up with customers, asking the right questions, differentiating yourself from competitors, overcoming barriers, getting away from price, closing sales and customer retention.


One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this article. I created a training program dedicated to boat sales professionals. It is called The 30 Secrets to Boat Sales. We already have over 1000 brokers who signed up to our bi-weekly newsletter and you can view the online training at

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