How to Design a Sales Certification Program

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Published on: October 2017

Written by: Andrew Dornon

by Andrew Dornon, Analyst
Why You Want Certified Sellers

The majority of sales organizations and leaders want their reps to have 3 key attributes: to have adequate product or industry knowledge, to know when to engage the proper internal resources, and—often the highest priority—to be able to execute “the way we sell here.” And they want this done in a consistent and scalable way.

What is a Sales Certification Process?

Certification paths are standardized sets of learning and practice in conjunction with regular checks for requisite knowledge and skills. They are often take the form of a Sales 101 curriculum and can be embedded within an LMS or sales enablement platform.

How to Design a Sales Certification Process
  1. Knowledge can be evaluated by quizzes or tests, but sales behaviors can’t. So certifying the sales approach should be threefold: measuring performance in simulated environments (such as recording a value proposition message and getting feedback from peers), performance under observation (this translates to structured manager ride-a-longs), and real world results (the number of new solutions sold to existing customers).
  2. The best certification programs we’ve seen cover three key areas: identifying critical actions during the sales process (such as inspiring confidence and curiosity in the first conversation, industry acumen and/or customer understanding), delivering insights into retail trends, and conveying product/solution information in language customers care about (for a manufacturer this could mean, messaging how your solution drives throughput rather than detailing the dimensions of the valve).
  3. Previous real world success, like selling a new product to three customers, should certify reps immediately, and previous outperformance, like selling the new product to 10 customers, should be studied for replication.
  4. If at all possible, certification should be implemented at the beginning of onboarding and positioned as mandatory. Conversely, gamification can backfire and undermine the importance of the certification process. However, we’ve seen the peer pressure of team scores drive higher engagement.
  5. Certification for each topic should be predominately self-paced, and relatively quick to move through – if the rep has the requisite knowledge and skills. Simulations shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes, manager observations are harder to control, but shouldn’t extend beyond one customer interaction, and real world results should be achievable within one sales cycle.
A Note on Orgs That Certifications Aren’t Right For

No one can argue with the goal of creating capable salespeople. However, the culture of your organization determines whether or not creating a certification process is the best way to accomplish this goal. At most organizations with high independence/low compliance cultures, if the certification (possibly with the accompanying gamification, badges, etc) holds little sway with leaders, then even average performers are quickly exempted as long as they hit their quota. The certification becomes seen as administrivia when success is so easily measured in relation to sales targets. If you’re at an organization unlikely to adopt certifications, focus enablement efforts on making it easier for reps to sell, rather than—in the sales force’s eyes—setting up hurdles that take them away from customers.