Sales training and ROI have always shared a complicated relationship. While sales leaders generally agree that training is valuable and necessary, it doesn’t always translate to desired results. A big reason for why training doesn’t stick is the way it’s traditionally been delivered, and whether or not it’s reinforced.
Notably, the widely used traditional, event-based “boot camp”-style training has had difficulty driving results. Sales teams that ditch it in favor of spaced learning can realize long-term performance improvement.
The Fire-Hose Approach
To understand why sales training has traditionally been mixed in its impacts, we must first examine the common delivery methods. Even today, instructors deliver most formal sales training efforts through real-time or virtual workshops. Many companies bring sales reps together into a classroom and deliver full-day or several-day workshops covering a wide range of material.
More recently, this training delivery method has shifted to video conference platforms. Despite how different video conferencing software is when compared to a classroom, many companies have done little to change the actual content or expectations.
This “fire-hose” approach of delivering a ton of content at once, or over a few days, is certainly one way to cover a lot of information, but most sales reps aren’t able to retain very much of it at all. Days, weeks, and even months later, only a few high-impact moments stick with the participants.
The Forgetting Curve and Sales Training
I’d be remiss to not mention Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. There is a reason this phenomenon is commonly cited. The human brain simply can’t retain a lot of new information, particularly if it’s provided all at once. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language by spending three 8-hour days in a classroom with an instructor. You’d potentially be able to repeat phrases back to the instructor in real-time, but a week later would remember only a few small nuggets of information.
Similarly, binge-watching several seasons of a television series over a weekend can be a good way to entertain yourself in the short term, but how much of the plot lines or character names remain in memory six months later?
The boot camp (or fire-hose) approach to sales training makes little sense when you realize other information delivered this same way is only retained in the short term. Why would we want to convey an important, performance-driving package of skill development and expertise in a way that is clearly not built for long-term retention?
The Case for Spaced Learning
Returning to the foreign language example, consider how the leading foreign language programs, and apps, actually teach new skills and knowledge. Generally, these programs cover a few key chunks at a time, and build on existing knowledge in the process. This is no accident; a bite-size, spaced approach allows learners to absorb and process the information.
How does this foreign language concept translate into sales training? Quite well. Sales training is generally designed to bring a new skill set or new area of expertise to the learner. Stacking too many concepts together – hours of product knowledge, skills, tactics, mindsets – is a formula for overload.
In contrast, consuming one area of content at a time, with appropriate time to digest, allows sales reps to absorb, process, practice, and – most importantly – apply the information.
Modern Sales Foundations provides over 25-30 hours of learning and application exercises and we generally recommend consuming the information at the pace of an hour per week. Many sales training boot camp events typically deliver this amount of training over three full days, only to have little impact six months later.
In contrast, focusing on training content one hour at a time enables a seller to truly develop new skills over the course of those same six months. Best of all, these new skills become long-term habits.
Leveraging a Hybrid, Flipped-Classroom Model
Properly pacing training content is a key piece of the puzzle, but ensuring the experience sets participants up to actually apply the information requires more. Using the Modern Sales Foundations program once again as an example, we deliver the core learning content through high-quality, cinematic video episodes, but also provide clients with an entire toolkit to facilitate follow-up discussions, application exercises, practice sessions, and ongoing coaching.
Employing a virtual version of the flipped classroom concept, we recommend that salespeople watch the core content on a topic on their own time before joining together as teams or cohorts to conduct a follow-up reinforcement meeting. These follow-up meetings are best led by the front-line sales manager, who then becomes a continuing resource for the team while also leading by example. In follow-up meetings like these, we recommend a variety of interactive activities to reinforce the self-paced learning which participants have already digested.
- General discussion: Confirm successful learning and discuss nuances and relevance to sellers’ everyday situations.
- Review of reference materials: Revisit the core models and concepts in the module to ensure understanding of its key elements.
- Application worksheet activity: Sellers complete a worksheet where they apply the module’s concepts and frameworks to real situations they have faced or are facing with buyers.
- Practice exercise: Set up role-play activities that allow each participant to practice the new skills or approaches.
- Feedback and coaching: Throughout the reinforcement session, it’s important that participants and facilitators provide constructive feedback to anyone who demonstrates the new information or skill.
Properly deploying training in this hybrid way not only minimizes the necessary commitment to the sales team (by not taking them out of the field for a full week) but also sets them up for long-term retention.
What Will Stick Six Months from Now?
For sales leadership, sales enablement and sales training professionals, it’s critical to know that effort and investment put into training pays back in key metrics. Revenue needs to grow. New business needs to ramp up. Customer retention needs to improve.
Whichever key measures you hope to effect when you decide to invest in a training program, be sure that the way you deploy and reinforce the program gives your team the best chance to be successful with it.
Many companies have done boot camp, or workshop-based training only to find that very little has changed in their reps’ everyday sales conversations. Sometimes they invest in another program just a short time later. Properly chunking, spacing and reinforcing the right training content is necessary to convert your investment into performance improvement and realize a significant ROI.