In our book for NAW, Sales and Marketing Optimization: Developing Competitive Value Propositions in Distribution, we provide comprehensive, research-based best practices and tactics for improving sales and marketing at your distribution company. One key tactic we explore is the “I7 Training Framework.” With this framework, distribution leaders get a strategic approach to sales force training that considers individuals’ experience levels and capabilities.

Here, we’re applying one of our central philosophies, which we also apply to customers and suppliers: You can’t use one blanket approach if you want to maximize results. In terms of sales training, this means using varying program levels to address different experience levels.

The structure and style of your training program will be unique to your organization. Many dynamics are at play that vary from one distributor to another, including your company’s size and sales objectives. However, the core training framework we propose can be used to support any training style. It can even be used in other areas of your business.

The I7 Training Framework involves seven critical actions that direct distributors to closely examine their sales force so they can design and conduct effective, individualized training programs. Read on to discover each step of the process and how to implement it.

1. Identify

To start, determine categories that are suitable for the varied skill sets of your salespeople. You might perform this with our sales force stratification model, with qualitative assessments, and with your sales teams’ input. You should factor for the sales force types, such as inside or outside sales, when assessing team dynamics and developing categories. You’ll likely use a different combination of metrics for each type.

The four types of salespeople differ in performance. Understanding and developing a comprehensive sales force stratification model will help distributors invest wisely in resources (training, incentives, productivity tools, and so on) and achieve the right balance. The firm can track whether a salesperson is moving from one of the three types to a “defender” category. Subjectivity should be taken out of the stratification as much as possible. Data should drive the process to move sales force development forward in an unbiased way.

Sales force stratification classifies customers based on two dimensions: sales force effectiveness and sales force efficiency. The process measures whether the sales force is doing things the right way — immediate/short-term goals (efficiency), and whether they are doing the right things — long-term goals and a big picture for the company (effectiveness). Each of these dimensions has a bearing on the sales force’s performance and management. The model assigns the sales force into one of the four different types: rainmakers, hunters, farmers and defenders. See the stratification model below.

Rainmakers: The top right quadrant, Rainmakers, score well on both efficiency and effectiveness. They work well with existing customers while at the same time generating new accounts at a faster rate.

Hunters: The bottom right quadrant is the group that does well with effectiveness. Hunters are good at generating new accounts — often to the exclusion of profitability.

Farmers: The top left quadrant does well with efficiency. They are good at working with existing customers and identifying growth opportunities with the best accounts. The key objective is increasing revenue with existing customers.

Defenders: The bottom left quadrant is low on both efficiency and effectiveness. This group needs better training and/or more effective tools.

2. Intent

Next, create individualized plans and objectives for each of the categories you assigned, mapping the strategy for each category to the characteristics and capabilities of the salespeople in it.

Keep in mind that there isn’t a set percentage goal for each category. How your sales force divides up will depend on the dynamics within your company and within those sales groups. However, it’s best to have the least number of salespeople in your defender category. If your defender category is large, consider how you might help those team members adjust to perform better in another category.

3. Innovate

Once you’ve determined the goals and strategies for each category type, you can design training programs that align with those objectives, purposefully focusing on tactics and skills that will help salespeople be successful in their individual tracks.

For example, if the objective is to attain new customers, training can focus on growth strategies and optimizing market share. Providing tools that apply customer stratification best practices can help grow your market share with existing customers. If the aim is to improve gross margins, training can focus on pricing optimization using key pricing variables.

For this step, you’ll also set the budget for your training. This will ensure you’re not overspending and overreaching, instead of focusing on the most valuable offerings for your sales force.

4. Instruct

For the instruct portion of your planning, you’ll design the specifics of each training program, including topics and content, training levels and methods, educator selection, and length and frequency of trainings.

Educators play significant roles in sales force acceptance and the efficacy of training. We suggest starting off with primarily external instructors who have deep professional experience in your industry, as they’ll gain the most acceptance to start. Then, integrate internal instructors.

Training levels are also important for acceptance. To engage your salespeople and help them grow from where they stand, create levels that account for beginner, intermediate and advanced capabilities. This will be more effective than starting everyone at the beginning or leaving beginners behind with more advanced trainings.

5. Inspire

Inspiring your sales force to see the purpose of these trainings and adopt new strategies is an important step, though distributors often skip past it, expecting their teams to simply accept. If you neglect to draw the connection between these trainings and your salespeople’s individual and team objectives, you’re less likely to gain buy-in and your efforts will be less fruitful.

6. Implement

Once the details are in order and your sales force is ready to adopt, it’s time to put your training program into motion. During the implementation stage, you must provide a high level of support, answering questions from your sales force to ensure they’re ready to apply their training. You must also supply them with the proper tools to implement their training, such as a clear pricing strategy if pricing optimization is the objective.

7. Improve

Finally, with every best practice we propose, we encourage continual evaluation and improvement. No strategy is set in stone because the industry and your company dynamics are both in a constant state of evolution. And you can’t be sure from the start that the strategies you choose are right for your teams. Assess the efficacy of the training using metrics appropriate to the assigned objectives and adjust your approach using these metrics and relevant feedback.