Taking Your Sales Training From Theory to Application

Ralph Grimse

Many senior leaders don’t fully appreciate the complexity of creating a truly effective sales training program.  Repurpose this blog post, pull some creative ideas out of a best-selling book, put it all together in a pretty slide deck and you’re done, right?  How hard can that be?

If that sounds a lot like your current training program, you’re missing the mark.  Relying on the traditional model of “death by Powerpoint” style learning is no longer effective – and, truthfully, it probably never was.  We just didn’t know any better at the time…

 

Modern sales training programs must balance the need to communicate information about product portfolios, administrative procedures, and selling methodologies with the need to actually build proficiency in applying that knowledge through deliberate practice.  Behavior change doesn’t come from listening to lectures, it comes from practicing key concepts in real-world selling situations and receiving constructive feedback on your efforts.

 

More “stuff” = less learning

 

It would be unfair to blame a sales manager or sales trainer for the prioritization of teaching over practice.  They are frequently working within the restraints of a single live training event that usually has a limited time/budget allocation and often coincides with other corporate gatherings.  As a result, they feel an overwhelming need to jam as much content into the given training block as possible.

 

This “topic-based” view of curriculum design results in sales reps drinking from the proverbial firehouse for several days straight.  By the end of the week, they are swimming in a sea of concepts, frameworks, and best practices.  That’s why statistics tell us that as much as 80% of training content is forgotten in the days or weeks immediately following the live session.

 

This begs the philosophical question:  If your sales reps aren’t able to go back to their home office and apply the concepts they “learned” in training, did the training ever really happen?

 

Yes, learners that receive this type of training are able to recall basic facts.  They might even be able to describe the relationship between a fact presented on Day 1 and a fact presented on Day 3.  However, sales teams involved in this type of training will almost always have difficulty applying the ideas in real-world selling scenarios.  If you learn a new mathematical concept, you can surely apply it to a problem during class.  But, if you don’t practice applying that concept to additional problems over the next two weeks, what are your odds of getting the related question right on the exam?

 

To offer an additional example, consider young school children who can recite the alphabet from memory and identify specific letters presented to them on flash cards, but can’t sit down and read a book independently.  They understand the concepts, but lack the ability to apply those concepts in context.  If your training is primarily an information dump, your salespeople will end up in the same situation.

 

The application-based view of training

 

If we shift the focus of training from “learning” to “application,” we find that we actually improve on two fronts:  greater knowledge retention and better execution of selling skills.  In this model, concepts are mapped to three learning stages: knowledge, understanding, and application.

 

The sequencing of this approach is intuitive.  First, we start by teaching them the “what” – the skills and concepts we want them to learn.  Then, we conduct some sort of check on learning to make sure that they understand these concepts and the situations in which they work best.  Finally, we discuss and practice the “how” of integrating these concepts into situations that reps will likely face when they go home.

 

In the application stage, reps may be presented with a difficult customer objection to handle.  Alternatively, they may be asked to respond to a customer’s preference for a popular competitor or deliver an “on message” pitch for a new or complimentary product line.  Most traditional sales training never gets to this stage, which results in two outcomes, both of which are detrimental to sales outcomes:

 

  1. Reps are left to experiment with applying these concepts on their own and with real customers sitting across the table. If they fail or fall short of ideal, there is a chance that actual revenue gets up and walks out the door.                                                                                                                               
  2. In the more likely scenario, reps don’t feel confident in their ability to apply training concepts when there is money on the line, so they just don’t apply them at all. If there is no system of intentional follow-up and reinforcement, reps fall back into their old habits and all of the information they “learned” in training is quickly forgotten.

 

The most important component that is missing from the majority of sales training programs is an adequate amount of practice to develop proficiency in applying foundational selling skills in real-world selling scenarios.

 

Let’s look at an example to see how this three-stage training structure facilitates both knowledge retention and practical application…

 

 

Effective training should seek to move the sales rep through each level in a structured manner.  The key to mastery comes in the application phase, which must include repetition and practice.  The best training programs also filter out “best in class” examples from the Application stage and use them to model behaviors for the next training session during the Understand stage.

 

Leveraging technology to support behavior change

 

This model lays the foundation for effective adult learning.  Elite sales trainers have always structured their programs this way, but financial and logistical constraints can force well-meaning trainers to cut corners in order to get the job done.  Every organization must weigh the benefit of their live training session with the cost of taking their salesforce out of the field and putting them in the classroom for a week.

 

Here’s some good news.  Companies no longer have to implement less-than-optimal training programs to stay within budget.  New video practice technology is changing the game in this area by providing a new, more effective alternative to annual training meetings.

 

Video-based training and coaching platforms enable modern sales organizations to supplement their live training events with critical reinforcement and application exercises for very little additional expense.  Imagine that instead of going home and “winging it,” your reps were enrolled in a sequence of conceptual refresher videos, application exercises, and roleplays that facilitated deliberate practice of key selling concepts.

 

The highest-performing firms have gone from annual training touchpoints to monthly or weekly practice sessions.  They are building extensive libraries of best practice examples that allow new reps to ramp up to productivity faster than ever before.  Proficiency is determined through personal practice video recordings, which managers can review and use to provide coaching at the time that suits their schedule.

Imagine a world that looks something like this:

 

  • You can no longer count the number of annual training touchpoints with just your fingers                        
  • New reps receive plenty of practice and supprot rather than receiving an orientation binder and being thrown to the wolves                                                                                                                                                
  • Managers have 1:1 coaching time with each rep, every single month                                                             
  • Reps practice each training concept, on average, about 7.5 times before submitting their roleplay for review                                                                                                                                                                          
  • Reps practice selling skills in a safe, private environment, giving them the confidence they need to expertly deliver the message when a real customer is sitting across the table                                             
  • The strategies used by your highest performing reps are brought to the surface and shared across the organization, increasing the overall performance of your salesforce

 

These are just a handful of benefits that companies are reaping by implementing a video-based practice tool.  Many are supplementing their annual training meeting with regular exercises, leading to greater knowledge retention, higher levels of proficiency in applying training concepts, and stronger performance outcomes across the organization.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Even the most dedicated sales enablement professional can be force to overemphasize basic knowledge transfer while putting practice and application in the back seat.  Thanks to this new technology, following the Knowledge, Understanding, Application framework has never been easier or more autonomous.  If you want to drive lasting behavior change while also maximizing the impact of valuable training resources, consider video-based practice tools like PointForward to address the complete spectrum of adult learning.

 

 

 

Ralph Grimse

Ralph Grimse

Ralph is a partner with The Brevet Group, and for 20 years he has led sales performance teams in the United States and Asia. Recently he also served as a sales leader in both the media and technology industries. Ralph’s work has focused on a unique blend of management consulting and sales enablement to help companies execute their sales strategies. Prior to this role, Ralph was the APAC sales effectiveness leader at Mercer.