Sales enablement involves a lot of training and coaching sales reps on the right or best way to sell your company’s products and services. 

But one thing remains a constant struggle - proving sales reps actually took the training to heart, understood it, and are ready to apply the learnings when they’re on the phone to, or emailing prospective customers. 

While you can and should track improvements across the sales team’s metrics, that will require some lead time due to the length of the sales cycle. 

For example, if you trained sales reps on new negotiation skills, it’ll be at least a few months before you can tell if negotiation success rates have improved and that reps are actually using the techniques you taught them. 

That’s where sales rep certifications come in. 

If you can certify that a rep passed the training or coaching program through a test, exam, quiz or other means, it provides you with a short-term view of how effective your initiative has been. 

In this article, we’ll dive into:

  • What a sales rep certification program is
  • Why you might create a sales rep certification program
  • The potential downsides
  • Expert advice to know when building a sales rep certification program

Let’s get started. 👇

What is a sales rep certification program?

A sales rep certification program is a training, upskilling, or knowledge development program for your sales team which includes a pass or fail exam, quiz, or other form of test at the end. The sales rep only becomes successfully certified if they pass with a pre-determined score. 

You can certify sales reps on:

  • Product knowledge
  • Messaging
  • Specific sales skills
  • Key role competencies

Really, you can certify reps in anything that you feel is worthwhile. However, it’s important to consider how relevant the certification will be to the rep’s day-to-day role, as well as if it’s worth taking up the reps’ time with it. 

Time spent with prospects is extremely valuable, so you need to ensure your certification isn’t meaningless busywork that doesn’t relate to the reps, and is instead a valuable, upskilling exercise that improves their abilities and allows you to benchmark performance. 

In short, sales rep certification programs are training programs that require a rep to become “certified” in that skill through an exam of some sort, rather than simply attending a session. 

Why create a sales rep certification program?

Sales rep certification programs can be useful tools in an enablement team’s arsenal for several reasons. Firstly, they can provide a view of how engaged your sales teams are with your enablement initiatives. 

If you have very low completion rates, it could be an indicator that you need to change how you’re running training sessions - either to make them more engaging or to encourage participation.

Low pass rates might mean you need to look into increasing the actual knowledge retention from sessions. 

It also provides your enablement team with more immediate feedback on sales reps’ ability to perform new skills. 

Going back to our first example, if you trained sales reps on new negotiation skills, it’ll take some time before lagging indicators like win/close rates are affected by that training. 

A certification program in which sales reps have to pass an exam before attaining that certification can provide some level of confidence that your sellers have picked up the skill successfully and are ready to start applying it - even though nothing beats actually testing the new skill, product messaging, etc. on a real call. 

Another benefit of certifying sales reps is that, when done correctly, it can be done at scale. If you’re dealing with hundreds of sales reps, it can be a challenge to train them in the same way, especially if the sales managers conduct their own on-the-job training and put their own “spin” on how to teach reps to sell.

A certification will be the same no matter which rep takes it, and each rep will be assessed on the same set of questions in their exam - which provides your enablement team with a base layer of consistency which can be hard to achieve if your training is ad-hoc or administered in other ways. 

Potential downsides to a sales rep certification program?

While many sales enablement professionals use certification programs, not all do, as there are some potential downsides to consider before implementing an initiative like this. 

The first is to ensure that certification isn’t seen as a “check the box, you’re done” exercise. Enablement teams aim to continually empower sales teams, and encourage long-term knowledge learning and skills development within reps. 

This means that certifications can run against the overall culture of learning within your organization if you treat them as one-offs. 

Matt Doyon, Co-Founder and CEO at Triple Session, said that “we talk a lot in sales enablement and sales leadership about everboarding and coaching. Those two principles are essentially sending the message that we're never done, learning is continuous, and we always have to keep coming back.

“Certification is the opposite - certification says that you're done, you've learned it, congratulations, you've graduated, you never have to come back to this ever again. You know it, it's in your brain forever - and those are two conflicting ideas.”

If you are implementing certifications as part of your enablement strategy, it’s important that you don’t neglect that key element of continuous learning that’s at the heart of sales enablement. 

Expert advice to know when building a sales rep certification program

Now that you know what a sales rep certification program is and why you might want to create one, it’s time to look at what the experts think are the most important considerations when creating certifications. 

Onboarding certifications

Onboarding is one of enablement’s many major responsibilities, and certifying reps as they finish their initial onboarding can be a useful practice for your team. 

Kieran Smith, Senior Director of Enablement at TechnologyAdvice told us that: “If you’re talking about onboarding certifications, for me, the big thing is relevancy. You're going to cover so many things during onboarding, so the certification has to match what people are going to do straight away. 

If you're working with enterprise reps, there's no point in doing negotiation calls, because an enterprise sales cycle might be six to nine months, right?

“There's no point in working on that as a passing out of onboarding certification, if the rep isn’t going to use it for another nine months. 

“For SDRs, I’ll always have it on cold calls, because they’re going to do that straightaway. For AEs, it would be discovery calls, because even if it’s an inbound lead they’ll have to deal with those.”

Build up to the certification and make it achievable

Becoming certified in a skill can feel like a big leap for a rep, particularly if they’re not confident in that area of their role to begin with. 

Shawn Pillow, Director of Sales Enablement at Granicus said: “What I've seen is that a lot of certification programs are trying to certify a skill at a macro level - meaning they want to certify a big important skill, like delivering a new pitch deck. 

“But often there’s not an articulation or certification of how each of the items that are required to actually attain that certification get met along the way. 

“I think one of the things that gets overlooked in certification programmes is that there's that big, culminating event, but there's not a series of checkpoints along the way for a seller to demonstrate their adoption and integration of best practices before the final certification activity.

“Sometimes it feels like checking a box, or, even worse, it feels like it's something that's totally out of reach. It becomes scary, rather than something that they can be practicing for and building mastery in as part of their everyday expertise.”

Shifting from what reps need to know, to what reps need to do

While a level of product knowledge is important, Jonathan Mahan, Co-Founder at The Practice Lab thinks that the true purpose of certifications should be to identify not whether sales reps know, but instead whether they can do what they need to do to succeed in their roles. 

“The big shift that I think is important for people to make around certifications is that the question you should be asking yourself is not ‘do our reps know what they need to know to be successful?’. 

“Obviously, in some cases, that's appropriate - but generally speaking, for salespeople, we want to shift the certification focus to ‘can reps do what they need to do to be successful?’. 

Specifically, ‘can they do it on the pressure of a live call?’

“The first conclusion is that, when it comes to passing a certification, nothing else should be adequate, other than supplying a recording of them doing the thing on a live call with a real buyer. Nothing else will really tell you that they're ready! 

“The second conclusion is that while they are being trained and prepared to pass the certification, you should minimize the knowledge-based component, and emphasize more practice-based and activity-based components, where reps are actually doing something. 

“This could be demonstrating a video of themselves doing the right actions in the new tool that they're supposed to be certified to be able to use, it could be them doing role plays (if it's selling skills that you're certifying them on), it could be them using tools like Brainshark or Mindtickle to submit videos of themselves delivering elevator pitch, going through a new slide deck, etc. 

Whatever it is, there should be less focus on knowledge-based training, and more focus on activity-based, practice-based, and challenge-based training. 

“Again, the final step to pass the certification is to do a live call. The video they've submitted of themselves doing it in Brainshark, that's not quite enough. They’ve got to do it on a live call and then they're officially passed.”

Start with the end in mind

Regardless of what topic your sales rep certification program is going to cover, it’s important that you understand why you’re creating it and why it’s needed.

This means that the enablement team has to be on the same page as the sales managers and leaders who will ultimately benefit from this certification. 

Kieran added that: “The biggest thing is to start with the end in mind. What is the purpose of this certification? The reason I start there first is I need to know what my success criteria is. But also, I need to understand if it needs to be a certification. 

“Lots of certifications are self-paced, so does it need that? Is this a slight modification or update to something that's already happening - and then at that point, would it be more effective to do it in a different way?

You don't want to over-fatigue people by having a thousand certifications to go through. 

“From there, if I look at the end goal and the ideal outcome and determine that a certification is the best way to do it, I then look at: 

  • “Is this something entirely new? 
  • “Or is this a refresh? 

“And depending on where it falls on that scale, will determine how much depth and detail that the certification needs to go into. 

“If it's an entirely new skill, it probably needs to be slightly longer, with a bigger practical element. So with certifications such as for certain sales skills, it may involve a 30 second self-recorded clip. With a brand new pitch deck, we might ask them to pitch the entire thing.”

On our upcoming Sales Enablement Innovation podcast episode, Alan McIntosh, Senior Manager, International Channel & Strategic Programs Enablement at RingCentral shared his insights into creating scalable certification programs and echoed Kieran’s sentiment about understanding the program’s purpose. 

Alan said: “The why starts with knowing why we're trying to do the certification, but then it's about going out and understanding from our sales leadership on what actually matters.

“We, in enablement, shouldn't be the decision makers of what we're going to train on often, because we can be seen as a factory generating content - but is it really what sellers need? Often we do know what they need, but getting that tacit buy-in from sales managers is critical. 

“40 to 50 of our leadership responded to a dense survey that we did, which allowed us to look at - from a data perspective - what the key skills, what the key competencies, what the key activities are that will be critical in 2024. 

“That allowed us to prioritize and therefore, we knew all six to eight modules in our sales certification were based on what most managers are saying is critical.” 

Metrics and measuring the success of certification programs

It’s all well and good to create a certification program, but you need to have some way to measure the success of the program and determine whether it works or needs some tweaking. 

Some ways you might choose to measure your certification program include:

  • Module completion percentage
  • Certification pass rates
  • Leading and/or lagging indicator changes
  • Tracking behavior change through call recording tools

Lindsay Hoyle, Senior Sales Enablement Manager at Smartsheet told us: “One of the measurements I often use is the percentage of reps who pass the certification. If I have access to a conversation intelligence tool such as Gong, I'll also implement scorecards before the certification, and measure any changes to overall performance. 

“If it makes sense for the situation, I'll also create a tracker on the topic. For example, if it's new messaging that the team was certified on, I'll create a tracker to measure how often the messaging is being used in actual conversations”. 

Matt added: “First you immediately test the rep, to make sure they weren't on Facebook or doing their taxes, make sure that they actually got the core principles from the training. 

“Even if you do it in a light way, they should just be able to get 100% essentially as a knowledge check - this isn't a gotcha, it’s checking were they actually paying attention to what we just did. 

After that, using conversation intelligence. We're recording everything now, we should be able to see that the rep is using what we train them on. 

“Whether it's a general skill like building rapport effectively, asking great discovery questions, setting an agenda at the beginning of a demo, or something company-specific like product messaging. 

“We should be able to now measure and score everything from calls, and those are the two levers that I recommend pulling to say ‘okay, you get the theoretical premise of what you trained on and now you're actually using it when you're supposed to”.

Building a certification takes time - be prepared for that

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither will a certification program, as there’s a level of depth involved that naturally requires time to build. 

On the podcast, Alan stressed this, saying: “the thing I would highlight is that this is not a quick job. This is something that takes time, from getting everybody on board and taking them on the learning journey. 

“It’s about resources - do I have the resources to be able to deliver this grand plan? In my case it was about wanting all our sales organization, at the same time, on a consistent level of enablement - with the list of key topics. 

“What you have to do then is decide if you have resources to help you build the journey in the LMS, manage the journey, and have resources to help build the content. 

“But also do you have the resources to go out and advocate for this and to drive adoption? To message it, to try and troubleshoot it. 

Above all, do you have reporting resources, because it's great doing these certification programs, but if you can't see what's happening, and you can’t actually communicate back to leadership, issues will arise.

Wrapping up

In short, sales rep certification programs are training, upskilling, or knowledge development programs for your sales team which includes a pass or fail exam, quiz, or other form of test at the end. The sales rep only becomes successfully certified if they pass with a pre-determined score.

And there you have it - the expert view on sales rep certification programs, whether they’re worthwhile, and best practices to keep in mind when building one. 

If you have questions about certification that haven’t been answered in this article, be sure to listen to our podcast with Alan McIntosh, and join our free Slack community where you can ask 9,000+ of your peers as many questions as you want!