Episode 184: Josh Penzell on Improving Training by Focusing on Outcomes

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast, I’m Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Josh Penzell from Zillow join us. Josh, I would love for you to introduce yourself and your background to our audience.

Josh Penzell: Hi everyone. First of all, thanks for having me, Shawnna. I’m Josh, I came into sales enablement by way of theater 15 years ago. I ended up working my way through the theater into corporate America and most recently have been running sales enablement for the Zillow rentals team for the last little over two and a half years. I’m actually going to be moving to another challenge pretty soon, so stay tuned on LinkedIn. Thanks for having me, Shawnna.

SS: Absolutely, we’re excited to have you with us. Now, you wrote an article on LinkedIn and it was titled “Training is not a Performance.” You started the article though by saying our approach to learning is broken. I would love to understand from you, what is broken about learning programs today and what are some strategies that could be implemented to improve learning?

JP: Yeah. Thanks for reading the articles that I spent hours writing, and I didn’t think anyone would ever read them. There are two things. One is that in general, when we think about learning and development within sales enablement, which is based on that, a lot of those theories, a lot of the stuff we think about when we think about adult learning and training is based on post-World War II product management pre-internet. In my mind and if we look at technologies that we install, everything’s really focused on content. Everything’s really focused on learning objectives, which was really important when we didn’t have the information at our fingertips. I think now though, we have people who are naturally learners, we have people who can get information they need, and we should be focusing on outcomes. By the way, this is why I think sales enablement has become such a larger recognized separate study, if you will, because it really focuses on increasing revenue.

I would just say, for instance, our approach to learning I think is broken in the sense that instead of saying how do we get this outcome we need, we focus on what training do I need to create? I’ll give you a really great example I use with my sales leaders, which is if we were to create an e-learning on some rollout, or any learning, there’s a cost to create it, there’s a cost to bring the people together. That could be a $50,000 training investment. Then my question becomes, would a $25,000 contest be more effective? That’s what I mean by our approach is wrong.

I also think, specific to that article, a lot of times people used to say to me earlier in my career when I was facilitating a lot more, oh wow, your theater background allows you to stand up in front of people and perform your voice work and all this. What I tell them is no, that’s not correct. I’m not performing for you. You are performing. You’re actually going to perform a role. Your role is your job role and I’m directing a performance. Really, you’re the performer. We call them performance reviews. My job isn’t to act in front of you or entertain you. The job of human engineers or learning and development professionals or whatever the current term you want to use for enablement professionals, is to get you as the employee or the learner to be able to do something effectively and honestly. That is, frankly, what acting and performance is all about.

What I meant by our approach is wrong is that we often think about the learning professionals as performers, but that’s not right. The performers are the employees, they are the ones who need to enter that stuff into Salesforce. We are simply trying to figure out how to get them to do it. I think the focus on content and on modalities rather than outcomes has caused issues and continues to.

SS: Absolutely. I think you also struck another really good point because you mentioned that you believe in passion transfer, not learning transfer. I hear the term learning transfer a lot in our space, so can you share what the difference is between the two, and why passion transfer is the better approach.

JP: Yeah. Now, first of all, these are all semantics. It’s all a way of metaphorically figuring out how to get someone to think differently, that’s why I use some of these terms. Learning transfer, to me, that implies somehow, I have a bucket, it’s your brain, and I’m going to transfer the learning in. I’m going to pour it in. Almost sounds like osmosis. Like you put the book down and it transfers in. If we focus on learning transfer, that really focuses on content. I need you to learn something. How will you ever know that we’ve accomplished that? I mean, this is classic instructional design theory, but learning is not the key. The key is doing something. It’s a behavioral thing.

I use the example of a ukulele now. I don’t know why I use the example of a ukulele, but let’s say Shawnna, you wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. There are two approaches. One is I could try to sign up for classes and I could try to find the right teacher and we do all this stuff, and you’d learn theory and blah, blah, blah. That is the old school approach. I would think a new school approach, and the one I really want, is Shawnna, you want to play ukulele? You go on Amazon, you buy it. You go on YouTube, you see what works, and you teach yourself. Then at some point you find a coach or someone to help you provide feedback, which is really what the learning is all about.

That’s what I mean by passion transfers. If I can get people passionate, I don’t have to “teach them anything,” I don’t have to transfer any knowledge. They’ll transfer it themselves through doing. That’s why I say passion transfer. It’s also because I’m a passionate person and maybe it just makes up for the fact that I “soapbox” a lot, so it could be that.

SS: I love that. No, I think that’s fantastic. I want to circle back to something you also said a moment ago, you talked about how you really try to propel learning by really focusing on the end results and that a lot of times that’s what gets missed in these enablement opportunities within organizations. You focus on trying to create value without having to always create new content. How do you manage content governance within your learning programs and how has this approach impacted the success of your learning programs?

JP: Yeah. One of the challenges with content is once you create it, it has to be updated. I see this as one of those chicken and the egg issues because we generally run into an issue on any sales team where you have a certain amount of tribal knowledge and you want those people to pass it on, and then you start trying to create content that captures it.

I don’t have a great answer for you. What I’ll say is the industry, I think as a whole, has decided to focus on the content aspect, which is important. I’m not saying it’s not for all the reasons you’re saying. We need some way to make sure it’s up to date, to have people be able to update it, to find the correct answer at any one time. We have to assess the risk upfront of what happens if it’s not checked, or something is said incorrectly on a call or whatever. If we start to make those decisions, we can start to say, well, maybe the content and the management of the content and making sure it is up-to-date and putting all that resources into it is important, but not as important as enacting the behaviors.

In a weird way, what starts to happen is you create a vessel for content to be stored, and then really you can empower the sales professionals themselves and the sales leaders to figure out what they need and how they’re going to find that content. Again, you’re reversing it. Instead of saying you’re going to go learn from content to begin with, or you’re going to present content to a client, it really becomes less about the content and more about the sales.

I think, Shawnna, one interesting thing is in sales enablement, I think all I’m doing is selling. I’m just selling the sales professionals on what solutions they need to accomplish what they need to do at the end. I’ve just personally found that a focus on content means a focus on money, investment, and spend. That is an easier place to spend money, but it also is in a harder place to determine the return on investment. I don’t know if I have the solution yet, because as we’ve talked about sales enablement is relatively new, measuring these things is relatively new, but what I do know is if I focus less on that and I focus more on what I’m hearing in Gong or I’m seeing in Salesforce, and I worry less about the content I’m putting out there, then I can start to calibrate exactly what I need and when.

What I’ve generally found is content is not as important as sales coaching or having your managers involved. I’ll give you an example. If we were starting a brand new, new hire program and you had content, generally speaking, when I go to the sales leaders they say, yeah, it’s not really good or I tell them to forget everything when they leave. My first question would be what happens if we put someone on a call day one and they haven’t learned it. At that point, we’ve probably learned where the risks are and then we can attack those risks however we want to, whether it’s content or some or a manager or whatever. Then we can have them sell or we can have them scrimmage or role-play and then we give them feedback on that.

It becomes less about the content, more about the behaviors. The content becomes important when we try mechanizing and we scale, but frankly, I haven’t seen any organization that’s ready for that anyway. Step one, then step two.

SS: I think that’s fantastic advice. Now, one problem that you identified in training today, which I think a lot of enablement practitioners can relate to, is a lack of data. Why does this problem exist? What are maybe some of your best practices for gathering meaningful data for your organization?

JP: I mean, there’s a lot of arguments here. The easiest one is simply that in learning and development, it is extremely difficult to prove out ROI, and so we might as well not even focus on it, is generally what I hear. I also hear stuff like it’s very hard to measure that, so let’s measure level one. Kirkpatrick, we have level one, two, three, four. We have reaction, knowledge, behavior, and then results. It’s easy to focus on reaction and attendance and these metrics over in the front end because I can show those to leaders and the leaders like those. I can say, oh, I gave you 500 hours of training, and I did it in less time than it took me to create last year. Those look like good metrics and our industry traditionally, I think, has just been stuck with that because there’s no really good way to measure the other stuff. That being said, I actually think that’s not because of technology, it’s just because we focus too much on the level ones and level twos.

The first thing I say is let’s focus on the level four, and I ask my leaders, what are we going to need to see to know that this was successful? We can hypothesize on a behavior that we think will drive the result. I would much rather see if the behavior is occurring rather than the learning, the knowledge. I don’t care if someone know how to use a specific method to overcome an objection theory. What I care about is, can they overcome the objection on the phone and then are they doing it effectively? Then we can dig into that.

The reason I think it’s hard is because people don’t want to do it. I also think once you start doing that, it opens up a big can of worms of why we have invested so much in content developers and instructional designers and people who are creating content, which again is a spend rather than all the other stuff — consulting, looking at the end result, which is savings.

How do I do that successfully? I run sales with my leaders. They’ll say we need a training on X, and I do my discovery. Great, we can do a training. Before we get there, tell me what’s going on? What’s the issue? That way I can give you a solution that’ll help. As we start talking through things, usually the issue is not training. It’s something different. As we start listening through that, then I go through, and I isolate my objections just like any salesperson would. I’d say great, so I’m hearing that they’re having trouble, let’s use this objection handling one. They’re having trouble handling this very specific objection. If they could do that at the end of this training or this learning or this enablement or whatever we want to call it, and we haven’t done that yet, but if we could, what else is going to fix this problem? What else is going to have you say yeah, the problem is solved.

Generally, when we start doing that, we discover that there are other core issues that have nothing to do with training. There are systems issues, there are belief issues, there are motivation issues, there are comp issues. When you start running through that and you run your learning and development or your sales enablement or the likely business that has to provide a return on investment, you almost have no choice but to prove that out because at the end of the year, your leaders are going to say, how much did you get me? What money did you get? For me, it’s really from leadership at the top, they need to be saying, how much money did you save me? How much money did you earn? When a learning or development or sales enablement person says that’s very difficult to do or I can’t do it, that’s where we have to push back and say, I think you can do it, we just haven’t done it in the past.

New hire, a lot of people don’t want to risk throwing new hire out the window for some reason, but it’s like three weeks or two weeks or whatever. That’s a lot of money upfront. You’ve got to get leadership to say let’s throw that out the window and let’s try without that for one week and let’s see what the results are. Then you make an iteration, and you measure those results as well. We were able to see stuff where we did something with our new hire classes and between the first group that went through it and the second group, we did see a huge increase and we changed things we did. We saw an increase in whether they were hitting their ramp and their quota. Now, I don’t know if that is seasonal or because of other things, but statistically speaking and if I just look at significance, it’s higher. Even if we set out $300,000, $100,000 of that was due to training or $50,000 of that, that’s still money I can report on. That’s a headcount, that’s a person, that’s not a spend.

This is a big topic, and it gets me into trouble sometimes, but I truly think we should not be taking any learning and development, sales enablement task unless you can measure its efficacy, which any business would require.

SS: No, absolutely. When creating training, because I think you’ve talked a little bit about this notion of return on investment, how can starting with ROI and utilizing those measurable metrics help companies avoid a lot of what you talked about, like wasted time and money and morale, on training?

JP: Well, I think first of all, we need to all acknowledge that most corporate training is terrible. This comes from a training person. Maybe I’m wrong, so someone listen to the podcast message me and tell me I’m wrong, but if 75% of the e-learning you’re required to take in your org is entertaining and you love it and you can’t wait to learn and it’s effective, please let me know because I would love to do that. Same with universities, by the way. All we are doing is learning how to learn in a very specific way. I think traditionally, most corporate learning is broken, and everyone knows it. A, we can all start with that general approach. We all can acknowledge that getting reaction scores and knowing whether they learn something in an hour training, we should just all be able to acknowledge that that’s not worth anything, that just spend. There’s the first thing. We have to get leaders on board with saying that.

I mean, there’s two types of knowledge. Everyone knows this, not everyone, but implicitly. There’s this procedural knowledge, doing knowledge, and there’s the knowing knowledge. I cannot think of just about anything in sales, especially in sales enablement, where I’m hiring someone who doesn’t have some basic understanding of how to sell. Even if they’re just a human being. You’re a parent too, Shawnna, our kids are naturally selling us all the time. They’re manipulating us. They know it’s natural. All we’re trying to do is give them form and trying to help them mechanize and apply process so they can do it consistently.

For me, it really has to do with just letting people do their thing and throwing them into the fire originally. A new hire program, for instance, with me would be let’s just have them sell every day and listen to where they’re getting it wrong. Now, how do you mechanize that and move that up, that’s the real question. We need to focus on the behavior, the outcome. Those are things we can measure in here, especially in sales. Saying we’re going to learn some objection handling method, or I’m going to learn SPIN settling, or Challenger sales, that’s great, but is that actually what you want, or do you just want them to close more sales?

By the way, this gets to post-sales enablement, pre-sales enablement too. Our customers aren’t getting past the pilot phase, for instance. We need training for customer service. All right, let’s dig into that. Why? Well, some people love it, but they don’t need the training and the people who need the training, don’t take it. Oh, interesting. That sounds like a passion transfer problem. Why is that happening? As we dig into this, it really has nothing to do with training. It has to do with motivation, has to do with your sales professionals understanding the objections.

I don’t know if I answered your question specifically there, but I think we just really need to stop thinking about things as information. It’s just natural. No one learned how to ride a bike through a PowerPoint in a book. You got up on a bike and you started peddling and you fell down.

SS: I love that. No, I think that’s a fantastic analogy, Josh. Now, last question for you. Your team has achieved some really impressive results and one of those you highlighted on LinkedIn is the revenue impact, what we’ve been talking about up until this point. What are your best practices for correlating your efforts back to the organization’s revenue?

JP: Well, make really, really, really good friends with whoever your data and Salesforce people are, first of all. They’re going to be able to get the data, but you need to figure out a way to access that Salesforce data in some regard. Also, I mean, this is the thing with data, but just like taxes or data or money, numbers can tell a story. I don’t want to say flub the numbers, but you can omit and add things that you need. I don’t say that to say do that to your leaders, but what I say is everyone uses data, and everyone is trying to tell us the story they want. Its which data is going to be the most compelling.

What I would focus on to begin with is simply look at Salesforce. Is revenue going up or down? Are there are trends that we can see? Once we start with the data as opposed to the feelings, it’s really easy to go to the leadership and say, let’s try this or let’s do that. Of course, that requires technology and iteration, but I think the end result is focused on those things. What are you trying to accomplish? I really think the end result, the best approach, and this sounds crazy, but I would throw out all the training and make your managers, who should be their coaches, who by the way have a quota aligned with their quota, make them in charge of making sure these people are going to be successful. Once we get everyone operating in a certain way, then we can go in, we can mechanize it, we can figure out what everyone’s doing, we can look at trends.

Generally, what I’ve found in a sales org is you have different managers operating differently. Different teams are operating differently. Really the key to everything we’re talking about is up leveling your coaches and your managers to enable them to do the coaching and the training. Really what it comes down to is stop focusing on the content for the IC’s, focus on enabling the managers and the coaches to deliver and to continue to coach and support their people. By the way, then you create a bench and you’re doing all sorts of stuff and you’re able to identify the people who are strong. But that’s the number one thing.

The other thing is whoever the VP of Sales is or your CRO or whatever, you need to be at that table. Personally, the shared services model of being up to HR and then supporting a sales organization, I don’t think it’s impossible, but structurally it’s problematic because you’re dealing with different objectives. The CHRO has different metrics that they’re reporting on then the CRO or the Chief Sales Officer. You need to figure out which ones you’re aligning to, and I’ve generally found unless you’re aligning with the business metrics, everything becomes that old style stuff. I think that’s part of it.

The other thing is you’ve got to measure, and you’ve got to be willing to take chances. You have to be willing to throw out your new hire training and start from something different. You have to be willing to put one group through something and put another group through something else so you can see which one was effective. That doesn’t mean you have to build it out perfectly. Again, if you stop worrying about content and you stop worrying about beauty and all of this stuff, and you just start thinking about TikTok and YouTube and the fact that you have people with knowledge, you can actually really start to get people together. Then your job as a learning professional or sales enablement professional really becomes more about curation and coaching, which is what it should be.

SS: I’ve gotten some fantastic advice from you today, Josh. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us.

JP: Thank you for having me

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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