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What are some essential elements of effective sales training?

The most effective sales training in the world doesn't simply rely on a sales model. According to Spencer Wixom, Senior Vice President at Challenger Inc, the ability to listen to training participants trumps both a trainer's sales experience and a training program's instructional design.
Spencer Wixom on sales training


That was the response when I asked Challenger’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, Spencer Wixom, what makes the difference between effective sales training and sales training that doesn’t lead to results.

There’s a lot to unpack in that answer, and it goes beyond sales training to any type of training facilitation.

Transcript of the Conversation with Spencer Wixom

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn with Endurance Learning and Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. So, it’s a little bit like instant pot for instructor-led training, where you throw in a few ingredients. You’ll put in number of participants you have, how long are your sessions going to be, is it going to be in-person? Is it going to be virtual? You’ll put in the learning objectives and then out pops a finished lesson plan for you. So it will have a sequence and flow of activities, you pop your content in there, and then you serve it on a platter. if you’d like to check that out more.

Today, we are talking about sales training and effective sales training. I’m joined by Spencer Wixom, who is the Senior Vice-President of Marketing and Business Development at Challenger. Spencer, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Spencer Wixom: My pleasure, Brian. Thanks for inviting me on. 

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: I am very excited for this because sales training is a subset of training that is pretty specific. A lot of organizations do it, and I’m not sure that a lot of organizations always do it well. So I think this will be a really good conversation. But before we get into that, we always like to have people introduce themselves using a six-word biography.

If I was to introduce myself and think of my own life in terms of sales, I would say: “I hate when someone says no”. How about you, Spencer? How would you introduce yourself in six words? 

Spencer Wixom: And I love this question, by the way. I think it’s a lot of fun and my six words are: “Help people care about their business”. And that’s such an important component in teaching sales training, or for sellers to understand.

Brian Washburn: It’s not about sales at the end of the day, it’s about helping people have a better business or achieve their goal in business. And sales is the means to the end, but it’s not the end. Right? 

Spencer Wixom: Absolutely. 

Brian Washburn: So when we think of sales training, what do you think makes the difference between effective sales training and sales training that doesn’t necessarily lead to results?

What is the Difference Between Effective and Ineffective Sales Training?

Spencer Wixom: You know, it’s an interesting question and I know a lot of people are grappling with it today because they have made investments in developing their people. They’ve tried different methodologies and such, and they tend to see very similar outcomes going forward to what they had before. And so they wonder, you know, what truly makes a difference?

And it’s interesting, one of the things we’re talking about here more recently is the difference between implementation of a sales concept or methodology and operation. And both of those need to be part of your training vision. Your training needs to include, okay, we’re implementing new principles, we’re teaching new ways of working and ideas to this salesforce, but we’re also helping them operationalize that going forward. 

Just a couple of quick ideas around that: number one, the principles need to be simple. They need to be delivered in a clear, concise, actionable way and you really need to look at your training and make sure it’s got that.

But the second, and I was thinking about this a little bit last night, it needs to be heuristic learning. And it’s interesting, heuristic as an adjective is different in definition than heuristic as the noun. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Spencer Wixom: Heuristic as an adjective is personalized, like somebody accepts personal responsibility for that learning. And in my experience, and I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations in sales training, and I’ve sat in the classroom with many of them, I can always tell it’s going to work when I see individuals in that classroom personally accepting what they’re being taught. Taking something and saying, “I have personal responsibility to go and apply this. I’m personally motivated to go and do this.” And that’s where it really makes the difference. 

Brian Washburn: Now when you observe participants making that individual choice, is there something that the trainer can do or the people who are designing training can do in order to help encourage participants to make that personal choice?

What Can Trainers Do to Encourage Participants to Be Personally Motivated?

Spencer Wixom: Yeah, and it’s interesting that you said early on, you were talking about —  I’m sorry, what– the title of this podcast is: Training By Listening, right? 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, Train Like You Listen. Yep.

Spencer Wixom: Train Like You Listen. And I think that’s one of the interesting things is: are we listening? Are we feeling the vibe of those individual participants to understand how well they understand it? Are we hearing their interpretation of what they’re learning and their excitement to deliver it? And I don’t know if that’s something that can be, kind of, hardwired into curriculum, as much as it can be just part of the practice of the facilitator in delivering the training. 

Brian Washburn: That’s such an important concept and that goes beyond sales training. That’s for any training. I was just talking a few weeks ago with a woman named Jane Vella, who has this whole concept called Dialogue Education, and we learn through dialogue. And you can’t have dialogue if it’s one way, right? Even a presenter who’s expected to know things, needs to be able to listen in order to find out what are the needs, what motivates the people who I’m working with, what are some of their challenges? What is going on day-to-day? 

the challenger sale

And so, I think it’s fascinating that we’re not having this nerdy, geeky, adult learning conversation here. We’re talking about specific sales training and you’re making the point that a facilitator needs to listen if the participants are going to take personal responsibility, personal ownership over this. I love that.

And you also mentioned that any program needs to have, kind of, its concept or its model. Now the book, The Challenger Sale, you know, your organization’s sales model is based on research as to what makes for the most effective selling approach or strategy. Can you tell us a little bit about what was surprising when it comes to what you found that works with your model, with this idea of Challenger selling.

Using Tension In Sales

Spencer Wixom: Yeah, let me give you a couple of the revolutionary ideas or innovative ideas that came out of Challenger. And quite honestly, they’re not necessarily new. They’re just new in the sense that applying them to sales is something that’s a bit counterintuitive based on the way we’ve always sold. 

Number one is you’ve got to focus your messaging and the experience that you provide to customers on those customers. You need to lead with teaching them something new about their business and lead to your solution, as opposed to lead with your solution. And so many organizations have been and continue to be geared, talking about themselves, and that’s what they train sellers to do, right? We’re training you on deep product knowledge, so you can go out and you can present our product, our solution to customers and get their attention and excitement around it. And what we’re finding is that’s not a very effective mode of selling, and this was what our original Challenger research uncovered. That having a deep curiosity in the customer’s business and connecting with them about their situation, as opposed to what you have to sell them, is a more powerful way of going about it.

And what’s interesting is when you connect with somebody around their world and you expose new things in their world to them, you create tension. And we call that “constructive tension” because it’s a way to motivate action and steps forward in their buying journey, but it’s also something that people are sometimes uncomfortable with. “Wait, you mean, I thought as a salesperson I would suppose to develop friendly relationships with people and reduce tension so that they trust me and we can move it forward.” 

Tension is an inherent part of forward motion, and we need to understand how to use it and cultivate it to make that happen. So that’s another kind of innovative thing around the Challenger Approach that we talked a lot about.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and would you mind just taking maybe 30 seconds to really describe this idea of a Challenger Approach? Because I think it’s very different from what we typically consider as– and this’ll go into my next question as well, but being in a role of an order taker is very different from being in the role of being able to excel at sales. Can you talk, just a little bit about this notion of Challenger selling?

The Unique Approach of Challenger Sales

Spencer Wixom: Sure, The Challenger kind of has a foundation of behaviors. It’s a framework of behaviors that high performers more often use. And that’s kind of the basis of our research. And we found that these high performers do a few things distinctly different than other sellers. The first one is that they teach and this is a lot of what I’ve been talking about so far. They go in with that unique perspective, that insight. They deliver that to the customer about that customer’s business and that resonates with the customer of, “oh boy, I haven’t thought about it that way. That’s something I need to address in my business I haven’t thought about before or considered.” 

Next, they tailor that message to various stakeholders in the situation or circumstance of those stakeholders. And the reason that’s important is because in complex B2B selling today you have a buying group that is large and quite diverse – various functions coming together to make a decision on a cross-functional solution. And you need to make sure that the message you’re bringing to these customers is tailored to the needs and the interests of each of those stakeholders, so you can weave a common thread among them. 

Now, the other thing you have to recognize is that the buying journey today is quite complex and there are going to be objections, and there’s going to be, kind of, various road marks in that buying journey that can either keep it moving forward or derail it. And so, what we teach in Challenger is how to understand and validate forward movement of that buying group through those various stage gates and, kind of, coach or support them in that decision making journey. And we call that collectively “taking control”.

And then all of this, all of the teaching you do, the tailoring of the message to the various stakeholders, the “taking control” of that buying journey is all propelled or driven by this idea of constructive tension that we, you know, create that sort of emotional sense of urgency in the customer. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and now what I found most interesting about this idea is that sometimes the customer can come to you and say, “Look, this is what I want”. And the most effective salespeople don’t always say, “Okay, we’ll get it for you”. They ask some questions; are you sure? you know, how do you know? and push back.  And sometimes, and we found this in our organization too, sometimes we’ll say: “I hear what you’re saying, and I would love to sell it to you and if you want to spend money, I’ll take it, but that’s not going to solve your problem.  In fact, I think that this or this might be a better way to go, or you don’t need me, actually. Call me when you do, because I’d be happy to help you, but you don’t need me”. And I find that so surprising that sometimes it’s more effective to say “no”, or “wait a second”, as opposed to just saying, “alright, go ahead, I’ll take your money”.

And so, there are so many similarities between the world of sales and the world of learning and development. I think that people in learning and development need to constantly be selling the value that they provide. And I’ve talked a lot in the past about how we can’t, in the world of learning development just be order takers, you know? When somebody asks for a training to be developed, sometimes we need to push back and say, “you know, are we sure that that’s the right solution?” So when it comes to challenging a potential client in a sales situation, what are some things that you need to keep in mind in order to not scare them away or anger them in some way to lose the sale? I think this is what concerns people in general is if you don’t just say yes, right away, you might lose that sale. What should people be doing so they can challenge without angering or scaring people off?

How Can You Challenge a Client Without Losing a Sale?

Spencer Wixom: Yeah, it’s interesting because I’ve used the word “tension” a couple of times in our conversation and people sometimes have a strong emotional response to that, right? Well, I don’t know if I want tension part of this, in both sales and learning and development. Like you say, when you’re trying to convince somebody of something. But what’s interesting about tension is it’s a broader, sort of, emotion then I think people give it credit for, and this goes back to the work of Jaak Panksepp, the neurologist who basically identified seven emotional systems in the brain, right? He’s got rage, fear, panic, lust, play, care. 

But one of those seven I think is very interesting is what’s called seeking. And there– so there’s tension associated with all of those emotional systems, but it’s not all the same, right? There’s the fear that you’ll feel like watching a horror movie, right? And the person’s about to open the door and, you know, monsters are going to jump out of it. But that’s very different than the tension you feel seeking, which is, “I know I’m about to learn something I don’t yet know”. “There’s something I’m about to experience or uncover.” I mean, I think about the movie You’ve Got Mail, right? There’s tension in the end of that movie of like, how does Tom Hanks character and Meg Ryan’s character get together? Like, how does this resolve itself? And so, that’s the kind of tension we’re talking about. So it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or angry or even inappropriate in any way to create tension. What you do is the nuance of your presentation, of your argument, can basically create that motivation in your audience that you’re about to demonstrate or display something for me that I don’t yet understand, I don’t yet know, and I’m excited to see it uncovered. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Spencer Wixom: And see, that’s the problem that we often take. Like you said, we’re order takers, so we react to what people bring to us. In the case of learning and development, you know, we want X and learning and development says, “Okay, you know, we serve you. Yeah, we’ll give you X”. Or we lead with the punchline and we say, “Everybody, this is what we’re going to do”. And then we’re surprised when people have a negative reaction to it.

It goes back to Aristotle, right? In his modes of persuasion, we have to take people along a narrative or a story to get them to appreciate what we’re presenting to them. 

Brian Washburn: And so, speaking of this idea of presenting, a lot of times sales trainers are people who are really good at selling and so they’ve been asked to train other people so that they can be good at selling too. What advice do you have for anyone who’s training other people on how to be more effective salespeople? 

Advice for Sales Trainers

Spencer Wixom: Yeah, that’s a good– and a lot of organizations have to make this decision, right? They have to– they want sales trainers in the organization and I’ve certified a number of these individuals to deliver training. I’ve seen individuals who just naturally have that gift for it and individuals who, you know, I have to quite frankly say, “you know what? You should probably stay in the field. You’re a good salesperson, but being an effective sales trainer and being a good salesperson are two very different things.” Now, you know, it’s very helpful to have been a very effective salesperson to be an effective sales trainer, but it’s not sufficient. And I think there’s a few things I would say that layer on top of it that are very important. 

Number one, you have to really have a deep appreciation for principles, as opposed to just an appreciation for a love of success and outcomes. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Spencer Wixom: Because you’re going to need people in your audience to likewise, appreciate and want to internalize those principles.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, so the idea of what may have worked for you because you’re really successful may not work for everybody, but if you have some principles it’s less about personality and more about, kind of, the principles you take. I guess is what you’re saying.

Spencer Wixom: Exactly. Yeah, you have to appreciate those principles and have a love of those principles so that you can present them in that way to your audience and not just a, “you know, here’s what I do, it works for me. You guys should follow, you know, what I do.”

I think it’s also important there’s a stamina associated with it, right? Conducting an hour long sales meeting is very different than being in front of and engaging an audience for hours, if not days at a time. And you really need to make sure individuals have the timing and the stamina to present in that way.

Brian Washburn: Yup. 

Spender Wixom: And then number three, they have to be very agile in the moment. So, like we talked about listening, listening to that audience, right? That audience is going to be putting spin on the ball that they throw at you. They’re going to be asking you questions you didn’t anticipate. They’re going to be presenting their role-playing or the way, you know, maybe their messages, something– some output from the training they’re going to present to you as the facilitator. And you need to be able to take that information, take that feedback, kind of play with it and spin it back to them in the moment. It can’t all be predesigned or scripted. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Spencer Wixom: And you have to have the, kind of, mental agility to be able to do that. And organizations should be testing for that in individuals that they want to kind of certify as sales trainers, not just that they can take, you know, two days worth of scripting or something like that and the person delivers it. But they can actually react to and engage with an audience real-time.

Get To Know Spencer Wixom

Brian Washburn: I love those suggestions, those ideas. Before we leave, I have a few speed round questions. Are you ready for it? 

Spencer Wixom: I am ready for it. Yes.

Brian Washburn: Alright. So the first question I have is what’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

Spencer Wixom: You know what? I received some really interesting advice the other night, reading a book. And it was about social media, but I think it applies to learning and development in sales training. And you’ve already kind of given away the punchline from it, Brian, because it’s in the title of this podcast.

Basically this advice was people go on social media, not to listen, but to be heard. And oftentimes, and I think this applies to learning and development as well, a lot of people are sitting in a classroom, not necessarily to listen, but to feel heard and appreciated and a facilitator who can do that with them. And this applies to so many things, it applies to sales, it applies to social media, it applies to learning and development. Try to listen, try to recognize that people want to be heard. 

Brain Washburn: Yeah, I think that’s a perfect way to put it. Who is your hero or someone you look up to?


Spencer Wixom: You know, I’m a huge fan and I don’t know, I was just thinking there’s a lot of people I look up to and appreciate. I think in the realm of sales, in developing salespeople, Bill McDermott, who was the CEO of SAP, who wrote a wonderful book called Winner’s Dream. And if you’re interested in really building a world-class sales culture and development people culture, reading that book and following things that Bill McDermott has done is crucial. 

Brian Washburn? Speaking of reading, do you have any other thoughts in terms of what people who are listening today should be reading or listening to?

Spencer Wixom: Shameless plug! The Challenger Sale Book, Challenger Customer, our new research. You can find all of that on

Those are great. Well, there’s a lot of really incredible books out there right now on sales and in marketing topics. It’s hard for me to kind of get one off the top of my head. But here’s a kind of fun, creative one. If you’re interested in this, David Mamet wrote a book called Three Uses of the Knife, a number of years ago. And I talk about this narrative for selling aligned to, kind of, Aristotelian modes of persuasion. He articulates that so incredibly well in that short little 80 page book, I highly recommend it to anybody.

Brian Washburn: Nice. I love it. And, you know, going back to The Challenger Sale and the shameless plug, obviously it’s from your organization, so that’s a little bit of a shameless plug. But I’ve read it and I think that there’s a lot in there that people can take away both from the world of sales/sales training and learning and development itself.

Spencer, thank you so much for joining us today. I think this has been a really cool conversation about a very specific subset of training in the world of sales training.

Thank you, everyone else, for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a weekly podcast that can be found on Spotify, on Apple, iHeart radio, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. Don’t forget to subscribe so you can hear us every week and until next time, everyone, happy training.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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