Chapter 3

Sales Training Iteration

Using the scientific method to improve sales training performance.

In May 2017, Jean-Christophe Taunay-Bucalo joined the business-travel platform TravelPerk as its Chief Commercial Officer. He inherited a small sales org with just one direct report—a sales development representative who had plugged away for two years getting TravelPerk off the ground.

In just two years under Taunay-Bucalo’s leadership, the Barcelona-based startup’s sales team grew from just two employees to more than 160. Its revenue ballooned, as well, rising from $1 million a year to more than $200 million.

TravelPerk owes much of its success to Taunay-Bucalo’s analytical mindset. Where others rely on gut feel and intuitive, Taunay-Bucalo digs into the data, looking for hard facts and clear trends. During his time at TravelPerk, Taunay-Bucalo also applied that mindset to its sales training, turning an often inexact process into a rigorous science. And as the company scaled, it reaped the benefits.

Learning to Scale

Taunay-Bucalo arrived in the SaaS industry exceedingly early. In fact, he was the first person in France to write an article about SaaS, which, at the time, was still called Application Service Provider (ASP). “That was my moment of glory,” Taunay-Bucalo says with a laugh.

As a new and exciting industry, business executives were still trying to work out how to optimize their business models. Taunay-Bucalo helped them do so, working primarily with early-stage startups to grow their sales orgs and deliver rapid growth in revenue.

Take Vend, where Taunay-Bucalo worked between 2011 and 2016 as its Chief Revenue Officer. When Taunay-Bucalo joined the New Zealand-based startup, it was just another small retail point-of-sale SaaS business. “I was the fifth person to join the company and we grew the company from nothing,” Taunay-Bucalo says. In just five years, Taunay-Bucalo grew Vend’s sales org from five employees to more than 180. And when he left, Vend was worth more than $150 million—100X its valuation when he started.

Early experiences such as these were invaluable for Taunay-Bucalo, who quickly learned what did and what didn’t work when scaling a sales org. But perhaps more importantly, he learned how to tell the difference.

As he was growing one business after another, Taunay-Bucalo stopped seeing companies as big impenetrable entities. Instead, he started seeing them as machines. And machines, says Taunay-Bucalo, require a scientific touch.

When faced with a business decision—say whether to outsource outbound sales training—you could make the choice based on gut feel or intuition. But that’s a mistake, says Taunay-Bucalo. When you make a decision on something as malleable as intuition, it’s easy to massage the results or retcon your original predictions.

A quote from Jean-Christophe Taunay-Bucalo reading "You define your hypothesis beforehand so you can't lie to yourself afterwards."

Instead, Taunay-Bucalo says business decisions should be approached using the scientific method. “You define a hypothesis, conduct the experiment, and measure the outcome” Taunay-Bucalo. “You define your hypothesis beforehand so you can't lie to yourself afterwards.” That scientific mindset is what helped Vend establish itself as the global leader in SMB point-of-sale software. And it’s helping Taunay-Bucalo grow TravelPerk from plucky startup into market-leading business travel platform.

Culture, Sales, and Skills

After joining TravelPerk, Taunay-Bucalo implemented a simple three-part sales training program, covering company culture, sales fundamentals, and role skills. Although Taunay-Bucalo owns the program, it’s delivered day-to-day by TravelPerk’s sales trainer and, when required, subject matter experts.

In Part 1, Taunay-Bucalo helps new employees to understand the big picture—the company, the market, the product, and so on. “Everybody goes through the first part,” Taunay-Bucalo says. “We want people to understand who we are so we can develop a sense of belonging.” New employees spend four days on the bigger picture, after which they live and breathe TravelPerk.

With a strong industry and company foundation laid, the program pivots to Part 2—a one-week primer on sales fundamentals. “It’s foundational for every salesperson,” says Taunay-Bucalo “What's the value proposition? Who are we selling to? How do we sell it?”

The sales fundamentals module is rigorous and comprehensive because when an employee graduates the program, Taunay-Bucalo expects them to hit the phones immediately. While TravelPerk doesn’t evaluate its sales employees during their training right now, Taunay-Bucalo hints that that may change in the future. “We evaluate employees in customer care and we should do it in sales,” he says.

Once new sales employees understand the company culture and the basic sales proposition, the training splinters into role-specific streams for Part 3, which lasts about a week. “It’s specialized based on your role,” says Taunay-Bucalo. SDRs, for example, will focus on objection handling, account management, and industry knowledge. To reinforce the skills, TravelPerk’s sales trainer will often run mock calls or roleplays.

Each of TravelPerk’s three modules are delivered face-to-face by an in-house sales trainer. Although in-person training is simple to set up and administer, Taunay-Bucalo admits it has its challenges. For instance, if an employee misses one day of the program, without the trainer repeating the course content specifically for them, there’s no way for the employee to catch up on their own.

To mitigate this drawback, Taunay-Bucalo asked his sales trainer to create a complementary knowledge library. Now, all the training materials—for example, market analyses for Part 1, sales playbooks for Part 2, and pre-scripted objection responses for Part 3—are available online in TravelPerk’s knowledge library. If a new employee wants to brush up on TravelPerk’s recommended account management process, they can log on, find the training materials, and refresh the knowledge themselves.

After three weeks, TravelPerk’s sales professionals are on the phones, calling prospects and drumming up new business. While it sounds simple, the basic structure belies the careful analysis and improvement that goes on under the surface.

Illustration of 3 parts TravelPerk sales onboarding

Selecting a Yardstick

Management consultant Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” It’s an idea that underpins TravelPerk’s sales training. Before introducing a new piece of training content or experimenting with a new methodology, Taunay-Bucalo always stops to consider how he can measure its effect.

Often, it’s easy to pick a metric to track. For example, Taunay-Bucalo recently made a small tweak toTravelPerk’s outbound training program—tweaking how SDRs used LinkedIn Sales Navigator to get past the gatekeeper. After implementing the change, Taunay-Bucalo tracked the number of customers TravelPerk’s sales staff contacted. When the number went up, he knew his training tweak had worked.

Other times, selecting a metric to track can seem more difficult. Consider the first module in TravelPerk’s onboarding—com pany culture. How do you measure the effectiveness of cultural training? Do you interview people and ask how much they love the company? On the surface, more abstract training courses like these are difficult to measure—but Taunay-Bucalo says it often just needs some lateral thinking.

If a company is doing well and its employees are paid above the market rate, there’s little reason for employees to leave. While some staff attrition is normal, spikes are normally driven by a lack of a sense of belonging. “People leave when they don’t understand the why,” says Taunay-Bucalo. So when he’s evaluating the effectiveness of any tweaks to the first company culture training module, Taunay-Bucalo watches for fluctuations in TravelPerk’s staff attrition rate.

Selecting a yardstick is perhaps the most important step in training analysis. Without a way to gauge results, it’s impossible to know what’s working and what isn’t. But when you find an effective metric—number of contacts qualified, percentage of demos booked, sales ramp up time, or achievement of quota, for instance—you can start inching your training towards perfection, making one small change after another until your whole training program is as good as it can possibly be.

Illustration of a dashboard used to track sales training onboarding KPIs

Increase Your Sample Size

When your business decisions are driven by data, you need to make sure that the data is sound. And with sales training, that can be tricky. Say you bring on three SDRs in January. By March, one SDR is excelling and two are falling behind. With just three data points, it’s difficult to draw any solid conclusions. Are the two subpar SDRs falling behind because your sales training was inadequate or are they just not natural sellers?

To smooth out the statistical anomalies, Taunay-Bucalo implemented a new batched hiring system. At TravelPerk, new sales recruits join in large cohorts of 20 or more employees.

Taunay-Bucalo admits this feels counterintuitive, especially for startups and rapidly growing businesses. High-growth organizations almost always lag behind the recruitment curve so it can feel counterproductive to delay hiring even further—but Taunay-Bucalo promises the benefits are worth it.

First and foremost, using cohorts creates outstanding performance data. Because TravelPerk brings on 20 or 30 new employees at once, they can compensate for the outliers. The performance of extremely or bad employees is ironed out by people in the middle of the bell curve—and that improves the quality of the performance data.

If a single SDR is struggling, that doesn’t tell Taunay-Bucalo anything about the quality of his training. But if an entire cohort underperforms, it’s clear that there’s something wrong. “We always analyze [sales training] this way,” Taunay-Bucalo says. “If we observe patterns, then we go back and see what’s wrong. That's how we keep improving.”

But cohorts offer other benefits beyond delivering improved data for sales training. Having a large group of employees start at once helps people integrate into the company. Taunay-Bucalo compares it to years in high school or college. People naturally bunch together, creating a sense of belonging and community. If TravelPerk hired one person at a time, they would feel like the new kid at school, says Taunay-Bucalo.

There’s also a significant economy of scale. If TravelPerk hired four new SDRs and staggered their start date, Taunay-Bucalo would have to run four separate onboarding programs. Gathering new hires into cohorts means Taunay-Bucalo can shrink the up-front demands of training as much as possible. “Whether you deliver [training] to one or 100, it's the same demand on us,” Taunay-Bucalo says.

The Plural of Opinion is Trend

Even the most rigorous experimental methodology and watertight data will only tell you so much. Eventually, you need to push past the numbers and talk to the people who are sitting in the classroom. At TravelPerk, Taunay-Bucalo implemented a two-step feedback system in order to catch the subjective opinions his data misses.

At the end of every onboarding session and on-going training course, Taunay-Bucalo issues a feedback survey to participants. It’s an opportunity for a hot take while the training is still fresh in their minds. “We ask people to rank what they like and don't like,” Taunay-Bucalo says. “It’s pretty basic but it needs to be done.” While this survey does return some valuable insights, Taunay-Bucalo knows it’s difficult for employees to gauge the effectiveness of training before they’ve put it into action. That’s where the second feedback mechanism comes in.

Every six months, Taunay-Bucalo issues another, more wide-ranging performance feedback survey, asking for feedback on everything from company culture to sales training. It’s in-depth and qualitative but Taunay-Bucalo says he reads every last response.

After collecting feedback from two separate streams, Taunay-Bucalo looks for trends among the opinions. “We will never take one opinion,” says Taunay-Bucalo. Say, one SDR said they struggled with writing cold outreach emails. That opinion isn’t necessarily indicative of an actual training failure. It might just mean that one employee needs extra support, guidance, or coaching. But when an opinion pops up time and time again, that indicates a trend. “If you have multiple people who all tell you the exact same thing, that's a bit more than an opinion,” Taunay-Bucalo says. “That's called data.”

Taunay-Bucalo uses trend data to guide the evolution of TravelPerk’s sales training program. If employees say they want to learn about consultative selling or intentional pursuit strategy or sales territory management, he bumps those courses to the front of the queue.

Analysis in Action

When a business leader builds a team from scratch, they have to balance the enormous day-to-day demands of management with the equally large demands of strategic thinking. Usually, that means processes and systems are designed whenever someone has the time and energy. Often, that produces processes that are confused, complicated, and inefficient.

But that didn’t happen at TravelPerk.

The basic sales training program that Taunay-Bucalo created was just the beginning. As performance data comes in, he pours it back into the program in an effort to constantly improve it. Each tweak is a scientific experiment conducted with exacting rigor. When the results says a tweak worked, Taunay-Bucalo implements it. When the data says one didn’t, he tosses it away. That last part is incredibly important. Taunay-Bucalo says organizations must have a culture of acceptance, where they are prepared to be wrong. Without it, sales leaders will cling onto inefficient ideas simply because they like them or feel protective of them—and that will hurt their team’s performance.

By discarding the experiments that don’t work, Taunay-Bucalo is able to focus on what does, accelerating TravelPerk’s growth and establishing TravelPerk as the world’s leading business travel platform.