Reinforcing Training to Maximize the Return on Investment
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In the not-so-distant past, “successful” sales training meant providing a thick binder of material for the sales rep to lug home from a kick-off meeting, never to open again. Simply providing this pre-packaged information meant reps were left to their own devices with little practical exercises, reinforcement, or meaningful conversation about the real-world obstacles they need to overcome in the sales cycle. Not to mention, curriculums like these are taught the same way over and over again, regardless of the changing competitive landscape.
According to Miranda Martin’s book, “The Ultimate Sales Training Success Guide,” it’s scientifically proven that the average retention rate for human beings is just 5% of what we hear and 10% of what we read. Thus, lectures and readings on their own are insufficient tools to ensure learning retention. To truly maximize retention in training programs, it’s important for reps to see examples of high performance through demonstration, deepen understanding of topics and nuances through discussion, practice skills with rigorous exercise, and refresh learning with digestible and accessible content.
Considering the significant time and money companies often invest in training, it is important for sales enablement to take proactive measures to maximize the return on that investment by ensuring training sticks. Here are four steps to take in training to drive retention of the knowledge and skills gained, and reinforce key learnings that will improve long-term performance.
Seeing clear examples of what good looks like can give reps clarity on how to apply knowledge and skills to behavior. To do this effectively, frontline managers can be crucial partners to engage in demonstration exercises.
For example, managers can demonstrate without disrupting their daily workflow by allowing reps to shadow them on sales calls. Such techniques also help managers grow by giving them leadership experience, reinforcing their knowledge, and increasing their confidence. Meanwhile, involving frontline managers in the training experience can help ensure they are aligned with enablement on objectives and will reinforce the correct behaviors with their teams to meet those objectives.
To help managers ensure shadowing sessions are productive, encourage them to consider the following questions before the session:
- Do they know the goal of the shadow?
- Has the content they are about to see been edified?
- Has there been solid instructions prior?
“The most important success factor in sales performance improvement is frontline sales manager involvement during and after a training event,” said Robert Koehler, director of sales effectiveness at Compass. “If you only have a one-time event, you don’t get that reinforcement from the frontline sales managers who were really a key lever in providing lasting behavior change in sales organizations.”
In incorporating demonstration into training sessions, Martin recommends interspersing demonstration after new concepts are learned to give reps an opportunity to digest and apply new skills while incrementally building on concepts over time.
Discussion with peers and experts while learning is necessary to break down the fundamentals and unlock deeper understanding of the real-world application of training content. Martin recommends avoiding closed-ended questions such as, “Do you have any questions?” or “Does that make sense?” and leveraging the following types of prompts instead:
- What was the difference between those two examples I just gave?
- Which one of those examples sounds better and why?
- Which part of what I just demonstrated gave you a lightbulb moment?
- How can what I just covered be used?
- Why is what I just explained important?
“One of the areas that I discovered watching a lot of high-level sales managers is that they struggled a lot of times between asking questions…and telling the answer,” said Cori Hartje, director of global sales enablement at Mitel. “What we started off with was: don’t assume that you know the answer, because the person doesn’t learn when you just tell them the answer. They’ll listen to that. But what you get when you ask them the question of self-discovery is that they can internalize what they should be doing.”
Enablement can encourage interactive sessions by opening up the discussion and allowing reps to share knowledge and brainstorm solutions together.
To turn new selling skills into behavioral norms for the sales team, there should be a consistent cadence to reinforcement exercises. Instead of taking reps at their word that they are successfully executing material, inspect their knowledge by encouraging them to road-test. Martin notes that doing practice exercises during training can bring retention rates up to 75%.
Role-playing pitches or sales calls can be a useful way to let reps practice and also receive constructive feedback from their peers. To maximize the benefits of these exercises, implement the following rules:
- Don’t help them when they get stuck; wait for them to recover.
- Don’t let them break out of their roles by feeding them answers.
- Ask follow-up questions until they find solutions themselves.
In practicing selling skills, it’s important that role-play exercises are not limited to single scenarios or stages in the sales process. Great sales teams excel in all interactions, so reps can benefit from practicing even seemingly obvious encounters. For example, spend time going over activities such as leaving powerful voicemails, sending follow-up emails, answering detailed questions, or negotiating contract terms. Even if it seems unnecessary to practice daily tasks, these exercises will improve rep confidence so that tasks can be completed faster and more efficiently.
In addition, practitioners should aim to make practice harder than a real scenario so reps are prepared for any conversation. When sales reps practice hard sales calls without the pressure of having a client on the line, they’re working to fight off an automatic negative response to tough questions. When that real sales call comes, new reps will be prepared to handle it without panicking.
“We need to get [reps] in front of the people that they’re already afraid to talk to,” said Hillary Anderson, sales enablement lead at Slack.
Digestible and Accessible Content
Giving reps content and learning materials they can access beyond training and digest on-the-go can significantly improve retention long-term. For example, informal, bite-sized, microlearning content that can be accessed on-demand, wherever and whenever it might be needed, can help ensure reps can refresh their memories and double-check their own knowledge as they apply training concepts in their day-to-day jobs.
“When it comes to our curriculum, we want our content to be yummy,” said Alyssa Clark, head of curriculum and instructional design at ServiceNow. “We want to be able to give people the opportunity to customize, tailor, curate, and own. They have that accountability to their learning experiences.”
Repurpose presentations in shorter, more digestible content formats and make them readily available for reps to use on desktop and mobile devices. Doing so not only makes learning more convenient and less of a burden, it also allows reps to retain information better by avoiding cognitive overload–improving lesson retention over the months following training.
“I create podcast episodes internally, so [reps] can listen to a podcast episode while they’re going for a run or working out,” said Murt Hussain, manager of SDR enablement at Amplitude. “We do it through games, we do it through guest presenters, through mentors. It helps these reps understand and hone in on the [training] topics in different channels.”
To maximize the return on investment of training programs and create curriculums that maximize the potential of long-term success, sales enablement can incorporate a consistent and rigorous reinforcement system. With methods built in to ensure reps see practical application of training concepts through demonstration, as well as opportunities to discuss those concepts in depth with peers, knowledge becomes solidified and easier for reps to recall in the moment of need.
Then, being able to practice leveraging that knowledge in action and having resources to aid in recalling the information as it’s needed will ensure reps are fully equipped to apply training materials to their day-to-day jobs. Ultimately, reinforcing training through demonstration, discussion, exercise, and digestible content will boost the return on investment of any training initiative.