Rounding Third and Heading for Home: Training a Winning Sales Team

Focus - Summer 2003

Focus - Summer 2003

Although I never met the man, I imagine Lou Boudreau would have made one heck of a field sales trainer. In 1942 the 24-year old Cleveland Indians shortstop was promoted to player/manager of his team, and for the next eight years Boudreau did what we, as trainers, are called upon to do every day: demonstrate success, inspire success and cultivate success. Think of it as the triple play of sales training.


A seven-time All-Star shortstop, Boudreau was only the second manager to take the Indians to a World Series Championship, and no one has done so since. Clearly, he was a man who demonstrated success. As field sales trainers we must similarly make success a habit. Given that we are the advertisement for our training program, demonstrating success is the way we establish credibility with reps; it's the "walk" of our "talk". A field contact with a trainer may be the first "in situ" opportunity a new rep has to test their impressions of the company, and possibly the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. Is what we say consistent with the corporate sales direction? Is what we do consistent with what we say? Most importantly, are we successful at gaining physician commitment and moving the sales process forward?

New sales reps watch us closely for cues on attitude, performance standards and day-to-day work practices. They also ask a lot of questions. Inexperienced reps may need guidance on effective territory management and specific techniques for gaining access to prescribers. In addition to seeking direction they are also forming opinions about us. As trainers we should ask ourselves: "Do we willingly invest our time to help new reps develop their skills?" "Do we encourage a mutual exchange of ideas?" Both the content and style of our interactions influence a rep's perceptions of us as leaders and mentors, and establish the tone of our ongoing training relationship.

Experienced reps are more familiar with the demands of the position, so their concerns are usually more territory-specific. Their willingness to accept us as role models may depend on how well we demonstrate successful resolution of field challenges: "The key thought leader in my area is on the speaker's bureau for Competitor X. How can I compete with that?" "Most of my target doctors won't see reps. What can I do to impact their decision making process?" Established reps need to know that we have successfully overcome similar challenges and can give them strategies to do the same.

Demonstrating success is also vital because as field sales trainers we hold a uniquely dual role in the sales organization. In addition to the time we spend training and coaching sales reps, most of us are responsible for increasing sales and growing market share in our assigned territories. Our ability to manage our time and territory productively is vital in order to reach our own performance goals.


Selling is fun when sales are good, but experienced reps know that's not always the case. Without any warning you run smack into a competitor's newly expanded sales force. Your blockbuster drug launches with a challenging formulary position. You spent your weekend studying a new clinical reprint, but every doctor you see wants to talk about last night's exposé on the cost of prescription drugs.

Inspiration is our second wind. It keeps us focused on the big picture when our progress temporarily stalls. It's a safe bet that all sales reps want to succeed… a good trainer will inspire them to succeed. The wanting gives us aim, but it is the inspiration that makes us reach. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller understood the power of inspiration to drive performance: "I remember in 1948... I was having a rough season, and instead of replacing me Lou (Boudreau) said 'We're going to sink or swim with Feller'. After he said that I won 10 of my last 12 games. He instilled a confidence in his players they never forgot."

In the final analysis inspiration is unique to the individual, so figuring out how to inspire our sales reps may be the most challenging aspect of being a trainer. I have found that it can also be the most rewarding.

One way to inspire success is to celebrate its many forms. Baseball fans illustrate this perfectly. Do they wait soundlessly for the final out in the bottom of the ninth? Of course not! They cheer every solid crack of the bat… every difficult catch… every stolen base, because they recognize that each of these small successes brings them closer to their ultimate goal. The more skillful the play the more fervent the cheer, which motivates the athletes to stretch their abilities to achieve even more.

How can you inspire your sales reps? Encourage them to elect themselves MVP of the week and to share why they deserve it. Recognize them for little things: earning three minutes with a hard-to-see physician, mastering a complex clinical reprint, or getting through a difficult day. I think the single most inspiring thing you can do is to pay attention to your reps. Don't wait until the bottom of the ninth to commend their progress. Make a point to notice their incremental gains and celebrate their success!


When I first started in pharmaceutical sales I thought I should be just like Gregg, the most successful member of my team. I stifled my own personality and conducted my sales presentations as if I were Gregg, copying his voice inflections, the rhythm of his speech, and even some of his jokes. It wasn't long before I began to suspect that his achievement was more a matter of luck than skill, because clearly, this selling approach was a failure!

In truth, the failure was mine. By rejecting my personal style I had violated one of the fundamental principles in cultivating success: respect individuality. Gregg's approach worked for him because it was his. When I rediscovered my style and trusted my own instinct, that's when I developed success. When Boudreau was promoted to player/manager his team was made up of more than just shortstops. He led his team to victory by relying on each player's unique strengths to overcome the challenges of their position. Whether we are working with new or veteran reps, we must respect that their individual traits and talents have gotten them this far. Our job is to expect more.

How can we help our reps progress from expecting more to achieving more? By encouraging risk taking and new behaviors. Too conservative a team culture makes it difficult to raise the bar; few are willing to reach higher, for fear of falling short. As trainers we should be first at bat, risking innovative approaches and new ideas. Boudreau wasn't afraid to think differently. He recognized that teammate Bob Lemon was misplaced as an infielder, so he reassigned him to pitcher, liberating Lemon from mediocrity and helping him achieve MVP/All Star status.

When we move out of our comfort zone we encourage our reps to stretch as well. And when they do (and they will) we must cheer them "loud and proud" for elevating the whole team to a higher level. This higher level becomes our new jumping off point in our pursuit of even greater accomplishments and goals.

Batter Up!

Just as a coach can't swing the bat for the player at the plate, we can't be with our teams every play of the game. We must share our best techniques for sales success, so that when split-second adjustments need to be made, they have the instinct to make the right ones.

"I can't be with you every day" has become something of a team slogan; a reminder that ultimately we each bear responsibility for creating our own success. As trainers our mission is to teach the art of unflinching self-assessment. Perhaps the most important thing we can give our reps is the ability to evaluate themselves honestly and specifically. Once they master that skill set they will be rounding third and heading for home!

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Focus magazine. Copyright ©2003 by Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.

Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning freelance writer and sales trainer. She has published articles on a variety of topics, including sales training and motivation, pharmaceutical sales and emerging technologies. Read her latest articles on her freelance writer website.