The sales academy

Tim Royds explores the concept of the sales academy as a strategic tool 

‘Sales Academy’ is a term which marketers would likely to refer to as ‘sexy’! For participating salespeople, it’s better to be moving through an academy than attending training courses and the job title academy director is certainly more attractive than training manager. 


Mentioning that you have a sales academy can help when you’re aiming to attract top quality salespeople to the organisation too. And here-in lies the problem. All the potential benefits and attractions can cloud the sound thinking that’s required before embarking on this approach and steamroll over the robust decisions and planning that are required in order to make this strategic tool successful. And this is why too many sales academies fail to achieve what they set out to.

That’s not to suggest that this is not an effective approach to drive professional sales excellence and a learning culture within the business. Far from it.  It does mean though that this approach needs to be understood fully, implemented effectively and become part of the DNA of the business.

What is a sales academy?

A sales academy provides a structured development pathway for professional salespeople and sales managers. It consists of a framework which describes the competencies required to achieve the job purpose and objectives for a given role; in simple terms, what the sales professional needs to know and be able to do in order to achieve success. It can even provide an objective means of differentiating between different levels of expertise in a given sales role. For example the difference between ‘fundamental’, ‘professional’, ‘senior professional’ and ‘master’. An individual embarking on their career would need to acquire the fundamental skills and know-how of the role. A highly experienced and successful sales professional may wish to grow themselves to become a ‘master’. The academy framework provides clarity about what makes the difference between these levels.

Once this framework is in place, meaningful discussions can take place between the salesperson and their manager regarding the skills and knowledge they already have and what they need to acquire next in order to further develop their abilities and so their capability to produce sales. The academy offers the development opportunities which provide these competencies and these can be internet-based resources, books, mentors within the organisation, bespoke workshops, standard courses or indeed anything else. The key issue is that selection of development activity is driven by an understanding of what competencies need to be acquired – not by which course sounds
most interesting.

It also means that individuals can be recognised by demonstrating application of learning in the workplace. Even better, if this application is linked to positive change in key performance indicators (KPI’s).  For example:

Learning – the sales manager acquires
coaching skills

Application – increased time allocation to coaching the team and enhanced quality of
this activity

KPI change – increased average order value, change in conversion ratios.

Learning – the salesperson learns how to better communicate competitive advantage

Application – observed by the sales manager when conducting field based coaching

KPI change – increased win rate of
opportunities pursued.


This approach can provide a means of measuring objectively return on investment (ROI).

Benefits to the organisation

Development of a learning/growth culture

As individuals see themselves and their colleagues achieving more and accelerating their career progression through the academy, then the enthusiasm to participate will increase further. Sales managers embracing the process will achieve more via their teams and as a consequence will want more. 


Organisation is branded as employer of choice

The most talented sales professionals can choose where they work. Being the organisation that provides a high quality sales academy that helps the very best retain market leading expertise is a brand with a lot of pulling power. This is equally relevant to those in the early days of their sales career, who have a hunger to grow and are accordingly selective about where they are
first employed.

The most talented L&D professionals want to provide meaningful value aligned to the needs of the business – not just provide a list of courses. Developing, implementing and then evolving a sales academy is the environment that will attract these top people. The same is true of course for external partners.


An objective means of recognition

Senior individuals don’t necessarily need to attend training; demonstrating specific competencies, the ability to apply them practically, and the achievement of specific levels of performance (either KPIs or achievement of stretch objectives) will show them (objectively) as ‘Senior’. This is a lot more meaningful and potent compared to being given the title ‘Senior’ for just being around for a long while.


Development of skills in advance of a new job

This is partly about advancing within the role (as described above) and partly about preparing employees for future roles – a move from a basic account management role to managing strategic accounts, for example. If there is clarity about the extra/different competencies required, then to a greater or lesser degree they can be acquired in advance. It’s a lot better to hit the ground running than to learn from scratch.


Movement between group companies

For large organisations, a common set of core skills and a common language can support the movement of some sales roles (particularly sales managers) between different companies within the group. This can prevent the loss of good quality people from the group when they exhaust opportunities for progression within their part of the business.


A positive impact on motivation
and engagement

Without moving into the specifics of the various models of motivation and engagement, an effective academy will impact significantly on many of the recognised drivers – which in turn will impact positively on staff retention, productivity, and
sales achievement.


Accelerated achievement of sales objectives

Whether it’s new product launches, business retention, managing strategic accounts profitably or anything else, this is what the sales academy is designed to achieve.

What makes a successful sales academy?

A sales academy is a strategic tool, designed to drive professional sales excellence, develops learning and growth culture within the business, and an environment that recognises, rewards, and supports personal development. [pullquote]Because it is a strategic tool, successful design and implementation requires a lot more than simply an enthusiastic training team[/pullquote].There needs first of all to be an absolute understanding of why this strategy is being implemented, which in turn means understanding its longer term aim or vision. This needs to support the vision and mission of the organisation as a whole. Specific objectives need to be set too. This could include increase in new customers, reduction in staff turnover, reduction in customer churn or any of a number of positive impacts on the business, as well as top line growth. Unless objectives are set, how will it be possible to measure success of the academy and so justify the investment of time and resource the strategy will require?

And the investment will be significant, particularly when initially starting the programme. If a learning management system (LMS) is not already in place then either it needs to be possible to access and utilise one (hosted by an external partner) or one needs to be purchased. This tool will retain records of development activities, act as a portal to reference items (reading, videos, etc.), automate distribution of communications (e.g. pre-learning event information) plus a lot more. 

There is likely to be an initial investment in the development of a number of key courses/events. These might be developed by, and subsequently run by, the internal training team. However, the whole point in having a sales academy is to drive professional excellence, so it makes good sense to source leading external expertise, which requires cash resource. It also means that time needs to be invested to define the ‘perfect’ partner and
then source them.

The academy needs an internal sponsor; someone with sufficient power to acquire budget and make decisions about headcount and someone who is able to influence at an overall organisational level – since this is about the organisation’s strategic direction not just the bundling together of some training courses. A board level sponsor is ideal – arguably a necessity. Strategic means long-term, so this needs to be someone who has an unwavering passion to take the academy to its vision.

At a tactical level, there needs to be a sales management team in place who have the capability to coach effectively and understand the critical role this has in embedding and gaining the maximum ROI from learning.  It’s not just first line sales managers who are critical here but also their managers, so they can ensure the appropriate quality and quantity of coaching is happening. If not in place, then arming the sales management team with these skills, know-how and the passion should be the first building block.

There also needs to be a recognised leader of the academy. This figurehead needs to have the authority to make decisions and be a talented networker, influencer and internal marketer. They will need to gain the buy-in of the sales management team to their pivotal role in maximising ROI and their support in managing some of the challenges that will inevitably arise. It’s important that all in the business understand that the academy is a structured development pathway, which might involve face-to-face events but is principally about the acquisition of specific pieces of skills and knowledge – and their application in the business. This could be achieved using other learning opportunities such as mentoring, on-line resources or an external seminar. This is an internal marketing role – the message also needs to be communicated by the leader, perhaps through the influential sponsor, that attending events is not done for a day or two instead of the job but that it is part of the job.

Set realistic expectations

A salesperson may have great enthusiasm to make the most of every possible learning experience in as short a time frame as possible – to help them excel in their role and then to underpin their career development. This simply can’t be done; even the biggest of budgets couldn’t cope with this, and there won’t be enough days in the year to implement enough of the face-to-face elements either. The message needs to be communicated that learning will be both focused and paced – and this will provide time for embedding of acquired skills and know-how too.

It also needs to be understood that progression through the academy structure does not automatically mean promotion to a different role. As and when opportunities arise it will be the most appropriate person who’s selected for that role. Of course, acquiring relevant skills will help – but the critical message to send is that promotion is not automatic (apart from if different ‘grades’ of salesperson are based on demonstrated capability + achievement of specific results).

And most definitely, it needs to be understood that the most successful salesperson does not automatically go on to become a sales manager!  They are very different roles and someone who excels in one will not necessarily excel in the other.  [pullquote]Sales management should be considered to be one of a number of career opportunities, not the
career opportunity[/pullquote].

Clear expectations regarding responsibilities are important too. The sales manager’s responsibility to coach and maximise ROI has already been mentioned.  Each individual participant has a responsibility here too, as they should be accountable for implementation of what they learn. If there are challenges or difficulties implementing what’s learnt then yes – the manager and other colleagues are there to help. But there is only one person who’s responsible for personal development and that’s the individual.

Which brings up the interesting issue of how to manage the situation where an individual has completed a piece of learning (attended an event, read an e-book, etc.) and subsequently failed to implement the action plan they developed as a consequence. Think of the situation like this… You give £10,000 of your hard earned cash to two financial advisors. A year later one comes back with £50,000. The other comes back with nothing.  You have another £10,000 to invest – who do you invest this with? Individuals have to understand that participating in the academy is a privilege and one that should be earned and not abused. Send a clear message to the whole organisation that [pullquote]this strategic approach is about driving business success – it’s not about just sending people on courses[/pullquote].

Other opportunities

For organisations that wish to develop sales competency frameworks and don’t want to start from a blank sheet of paper, National Occupational Standards (NOS) in Sales are already available and can be downloaded (free) from These are quite complex, and work is currently underway to produce a simplified version of them. Specific NOS are also available for most industry sectors to make the job of including industry specific competencies easier too.

Sales academies can also be accredited by a professional sales institute and can be linked to the attainment of formal sales qualifications. Both these options provide a means to bolster recognition, both internally and externally (i.e. brand the sales team to customers as ‘formally qualified professionals’). Accreditation and sales qualifications are big subjects in their own rights, so will only be mentioned here.

A mentor programme can be linked into framework as a means of providing know-how and access to the more experienced role-models within the sales team; great for the sharing of expertise and a tool that can be used to recognise the back-bone of the sales team too.

There is a significant opportunity to link into other parts of the business. HR for example, who can provide input on areas such as recruitment and selection. Even the most talented leader, coach, and motivator needs to have high quality material to work with in the first place. So knowing how to manage the process of finding the right people for the team in the first place is both fundamental and critical. Finance can help the sales team understand how to generate a healthy cash flow, so that the right parameters are focused on during negotiations – a useful add-on to any negotiation skills training that’s provided. While marketing can provide an understanding of what ‘positioning’ means and how this can be used to bolster key messages.


A sales academy is a strategic tool which drives professional sales excellence, growth and learning culture within an organisation and, like any tool, it’s how it’s used that’s important. 

Successful implementation requires high level endorsement and support, good design, internal marketing, the right partners (both internal and external) and a strong leader and team who understand all the opportunities that can make this strategic approach successful and effective. 

Implemented effectively, the benefits to the sales team, the organisation and indeed customers are significant. Attracting and retaining high quality salespeople, bolstering levels of engagement, the building of a growth and learning culture, and a means of objectively recognising the application of the competencies which drive success, all lead to the attainment of professional sales excellence. Good news for customers, as the salespeople this produces are consummate professionals. And good news for the organisation – this is what drives high performance in sales! 

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