While teaching at a recent Floor To Ceiling education session at their headquarters in Burnsville, Minn., I was surprised to see the owner of one of their top store owners in attendance. Very rarely do owners bother to attend, even though Floor To Ceiling has one of the best training facilities in the industry. But there is good reason for an owner to be in attendance. When I owned a flooring store, it was beyond the pale for me to send my people to any class if I was unfamiliar with the content.

Another twist in how most retailers view sales education is their belief that only new salespeople need it. In fact it’s just as critical to send the veteran salespeople. It’s the veterans who influence your new salespeople. When the “newbies” return from an effective sales education session, the vets often will challenge their new knowledge. “Experienced” salespeople not only need basic sales training, many also need to be deprogrammed.

My 13-week in-store sales education program asks 14 philosophical questions of each salesperson in the first session. Our guarantee is that even the most seasoned salespeople will look back at their answers after completing the course and wonder, “How could I have ever believed this about selling?”

I have said it before: at least 95% of salespeople at the retail, mill or distributor level can’t sell. Want proof? Here’s a challenge (I’ll even open it to executives): e-mail me your answers to these three basic questions. If you get them right I will send you a book of your choice from this month’s ad. All I ask is that you first identify yourself as a wholesaler or retailer (it makes a difference in your answer). Secondly, please give only one brief answer to each. Also, please respect that the decision of the judges (that’s me) is final:

The Questions:

1. Who is your customer?

2. What business are you in?

3. What is the most important value of your products?

Selling is the art of being liked, no more and no less. Customer surveys and focus groups tell us that most people don’t buy from someone else because of lower price or broader selection. They buy because they like the other salesperson better. The most critical factor in business success is the skill level of our salespeople. The biggest challenge faced by those of us in the sales and service training field is convincing owners to educate their salespeople. As a retailer for 27 years, I understand why. Year after year I’d send my people to classes sponsored by suppliers and industry associations, yet I would not see a discernable improvement in volume or gross margin. If this is the experience of most owners, it’s easy to see why getting retailers to respond is like pulling teeth.

What’s worse: even if the efficacy of the sales training can be proven, your average business owners still won’t make the investment. It’s always the same 10-20% of owners who send their people and it’s always the most successful who train their people. My company, Motivation Plus, has a proven track record including hundreds of testimonials from salespeople who increased volume and margins. A sizeable number said they doubled or even tripled sales their first year. Is my company the only effective source of sales education? Of course not. There are a number of terrific educators out there. (Chase Kepner, Sam Allman and John Umbaugh spring to mind.)

Becoming a sales educator came through a circuitous route. In my own stores I’d observe customers who were hard-nosed, pushy and even rude. They’d harangue my salespeople for a better price-and often they’d get it. And how did we reward the friendly, engaging and trusting customer who laid her heart in our hands? We charged her the highest listed price.

This didn’t seem ethical or fair. The only fair course was to charge everyone the same price. Many like-minded retailers have tried this approach but failed. That’s because salespeople who lack selling skills can only sell on price. I recognized that the only sure way to run a one-price operation was to provide the selling skills. This would enable my people to make our customers feel comfortable enough to make a purchasing decision the first time in.

Great salespeople know that the most important decision a customer makes is not what to buy, it’s who to buy it from. This is why merchandising programs and incentives are a weak substitute for trained sales specialists. Still, smaller retailers reject sales training while suppliers and larger retailers rely on marketing and merchandising skills. Why? Because they have little faith in the skills of individual salespeople.

My search for effective training led me to attend dozens of sales education classes. This made me realize that the training available in our industry was not enough to help me or my people increase sales efficiency. One class was like another. One unique course in those days was the Xerox FAB training. It was beloved by manufacturers, but worthless in the real world. Sadly, some of the training offered today by fiber and flooring suppliers rivals FAB for ineffectiveness.

I’ve witnessed as industry trainers attempt to guide retail salespeople with subjective anecdotal training based on individual prejudices. My method was to study and observe the professional salespeople who could sell. I’d research the great salespeople who were selfless enough to share their success through their books, seminars and CDs. From this information I cobbled together a program for my people. The final form serves as a base for our current programs. The information that Motivation Plus dispenses today is not my information. It’s information gleaned from successful people who have done it.

Does it work? Initially I used this education to run a successful chain of one-price stores for 13 years. The success of those trained through our programs reflects the efficacy of our sales education programs. For instance, we had a teenager who moved from the warehouse to the sales floor. After one day of training he wrote over $15,000 in sales his first week. There was also a journeyman saleswoman for a Carpet One store in Honolulu who was writing $45,000 a month. After three days of training she started writing sales at the rate of $90,000 a month. I am proud to say our programs have produced dozens of million-dollar salespeople.

If you group salespeople by common characteristics (which I have), you’ll find that all the salespeople who can’t sell do all the same things wrong. Similarly, you’ll find that the million-dollar-plus salespeople do all the same things right. Most important, they create their own sales success instead of waiting around for it to come through the door. These sales pros also put the price issue to rest once and for all. The highest volume salespeople overwhelmingly sell at the highest gross margins, while the non- producers sell at the lowest gross margin. If price was really important, then this wouldn’t be the case.

If I were a flooring retailer today and wanted to train my people to be real pros, I’d first take a hard look at what is being taught. Then I would ask the teacher some simple questions:

1. Can you explain how to sell the first time in?

2. What will you teach my people about closing the sales if the customer says “I have to ask my husband” or “I want to think about it” or “I want to shop around”?

3. Can you explain a simple technique that will initiate a continuing conversation with a customer who just wants to look around without help?

If the person teaching the class stumbles and stutters or is unaware of techniques to do this, find someone else. If you hear clear concise answers to these questions then maybe you have found someone who can turn your salespeople around.