By Julie Thomas, President and CEO, ValueVision Associates, LLC
The key point in this paper is that training theories and practices that are successfully leveraged in the classroom setting are also required in the field application phase of the training initiative. If they are not continued after the classroom experience, learning is likely to be heavily diluted, or lost completely.
Unfortunately, this subject presents a large complex problem set, while this white paper is designed for reading in less than 10 minutes. With that in mind, a simplification of the problem set will be presented. Readers who would like to understand more are urged to review commonly available resources on the subject of adult learning for more information.
Becoming successful at cold calling requires you to switch from the old ‘If I make enough calls, I’ll sell something’ to ‘If I speak with the person who has the authority and need to buy and if I have the right solution to fit their needs, then they will buy’ approach. This approach emphasizes finding the decision-maker(s), using exploratory questions and active listening to gather the information needed to understand who has the authority to buy, if there is a need to buy, and if so, what you should be presenting so the prospect will buy.
Why does Sales Training Go in One Ear and Out the Other?
There are two major contributors that answer the question: “Why does sales training go in one ear and out the other?”
ONE: Failure to leverage the learner’s long-term motivation to learn and apply something new.
TWO: Failure to supply the learner with a long-term growth and development environment in order to continually reinforce the original training experience.
Sales training initiatives fail because there is no plan to extend the classroom situation into the daily job for months or years, on all the subjects that are important to the initiative.
Adult Learning Behavior Theory
In order to illustrate this, we will visit the modern corporate training environment and explore why learning works in the classroom, but not in the field. The four traditionally accepted adult learning theories include behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, and social. Many modern training programs leverage all four learning theories to deliver high impact training. However, a problem manifests itself because the classroom experience is only one element of the training.
All the training theories and practices that are successfully leveraged in the classroom setting are also required in the field application phase of the training initiative.
The second element, the field application phase, is where the opportunity lies for ensuring that the training sticks and business impact is achieved. As you can anticipate, most training programs fail to design the field application phase with the four learning theories in mind.
In behaviorism, the learner is rewarded for changing his/her behavior, as in the case of Pavlov’s dog. The net result is a high likelihood that popular training programs reward positive learning behavior in the classroom setting. Unfortunately, if rewards are not extended to the job environment, learning achieved in the classroom can be short-lived, resulting in no long-term behavioral change.
In a cognitive setting, the environment, exercises, and other learning applications are designed to help the learner relate to the new information based on what they have already learned and experienced. In this case, as soon as the learner leaves the classroom, his/her previous environment will override the new learning experience. Once again, the field application phase is not leveraged as an extension of the classroom setting.
The humanistic learning environment depends on the learner’s desire for personal growth and development. Maslow’s classical hierarchy of needs is a significant foundation for humanistic learning. While the instructor may do a reasonable job of providing a curriculum that uncovers the learner’s personal motivation to learn, the field application phase can easily drop the focus, and the learner falls back to other more clearly present motivators, some of which can undermine the new behavior.
Consider the situation where a learner who comes out of the classroom is highly motivated to call at the executive level. This requires a significant investment in time and research, but the learner comes back to his/her job saddled with a tactical call activity report due the next day.
The requirement to perform many calls to meet a previous objective undermines the investment required to execute an executive call. In this common case, the field application phase of training failed to continue leveraging the learner’s motivation to learn and apply.
Finally, the social learning environment is highly dependent upon the instructor’s ability to model the learning and interaction between people in the business social context. You may look to role-plays, simulations and the trainer’s war stories as examples of social learning.
When the learner returns to his/her daily job, or field application phase of training, the classroom role model is gone, and the replacement role model, otherwise known as the sales manager, has not been required to pick up the responsibility.
To ensure that an investment in sales training does not fade away after a few short weeks and that it will yield business impact, you need to extend the four components of adult learning classroom success into the second phase of the training class – the field application phase of the training initiative. Anything short of integrating the four adult learning theories during the field application will result in a diluted internalization of the concepts delivered in the classroom.
Four Major Contributors to Success
In our studies of companies where sales process introductions have succeeded, we identified four common components. They are:
- A clear connection to the business objective
- A distinct initiative for applying the new behavior toward the business objective
- Empowered sales management
- Long-term curriculum reinforcement
As these components are examined, they do address the four adult learning environment requirements for success.
Clear Connection to the Business Objective
Successful sales training implementation programs provide the sales person with the connection between their training and the business objectives of the company. This needs to be communicated at the highest level.
The communication should originate from the office of the CEO or other high-level CXO and it needs to be reiterated by the key management ranks that connect the sales person with the CEO. In many cases the communication needs to describe the unresolved business challenges that were making revenue or profit growth difficult.
Additionally, the communication should describe the sales person’s role in overcoming the challenge and how the training would invest and build new skills to facilitate the business results. The communication can also describe how the learner’s contribution would be rewarded.
This clear communication and linkage to the business objective sets the foundation for the humanistic component because the contributors can understand their role and contribution to a critical cause. Without this communication, it is left up to the individual to make the connection himself/herself, most likely overlooking a chance to motivate his/her own self with a contribution to the overall organization. This connection will rarely be made by sales people on their own.
In contrast to the successes, the case studies that failed revealed a critical missing piece – a simply defined initiative targeted at impacting the business objective through the application of the new learning.
The concept is to bite off a subset of the new learning with a defined initiative that has a direct link to the business objective. For example, one of our customers ended the initial training session with a simple but effective initiative. They chartered every sales person with calling on three executives in their customer base they had never met before. For the meeting, they were asked to simply communicate about their new service offerings and describe how they were intended to help that executive with his or her key objectives.
The results were phenomenal. On average, only one of three targeted executive meetings developed any follow-on activity. Of those, the sales team identified and closed almost $100 million in new opportunities. The by-product was a sales team that now had a great deal more confidence in calling high, and found success in the new behavior requests.
This same company went on to identify several new initiatives using additional incremental behavior change requests. They rolled them out one by one, careful not to overload the sales organization with activity, but conscious of finding a measurable return.
You might think of this in terms of physically developing the human body. A sales organization is like the human body; many of its muscles are well developed for the job, while some have atrophied or have never been developed. The application of the new behaviors is akin to isolating one muscle group and implementing an exercise regimen to develop only that muscle group. This focus develops the atrophied muscle faster with noticeable results.
The learning theory contribution identified is a cognitive basis for adding to what was already in practice rather than having to rewrite the entire customer engagement process. This provides a foundation of continued comfort while minimizing the discomfort on the subset of changes.
Empowered Sales Management
Successful implementations have also demonstrated a condition of empowered sales management. This means that a sales management team that is chartered with transforming the sales organization based on the business objective and the associated training, is measured on it, as well as rewarded or disciplined for the results.
Within this subject, we observed several management practices that facilitated the transition of the organization:
Lead by Example:
The best transitions occurred in teams where the first- and second-level sales managers were able to lead by example on a consistent and long-term basis. This means that the sales managers would personally apply the learning in selling situations to model the expected behavior for the sales people.
Inspect What You Expect:
They also applied this age-old management technique to speed up the transition. In most cases the sales manager would inspect a representative example of each sales person’s pipeline, confirmation letters and evaluation criteria for examples of the learning (or absence thereof). Positive examples were rewarded and lack of evidence generated appropriate feedback.
This behavior is best described as developing people by asking them good questions that uncover the risks to a sale, not by advising. The questions are aimed at reinforcing the learned material, and are open-ended in nature.
Here’s a coaching example:
- Start with: “What is the value to the customer?”
- Follow by: “What’s the impact to your opportunity if the customer does not recognize the value?”
- And then followed with: “So what are you planning to do about it?”
This is in sharp contrast to the traditional advisor role of the sales manager that says: “Here’s what you should do next…” This robs the learner of the opportunity to develop the connection of the training to their challenges in everyday activities.
Objectively measuring and reporting on the progressive improvement of key measurements tied to the business objective as a result of the training initiative was also observed. These were typically subset metrics to the overall objective. For example, in the case of revenue improvement as a critical objective, subset measurements included metrics such as average deal size, average discount level, pipeline numbers and close ratio, among others.
Incentives and Consequences:
Typically, there were examples of incentives and consequences for exhibiting or not exhibiting the new behaviors. These ranged from acknowledgment at meetings, prizes, and increased compensation plans for preferred behavior, written notification; ‘up or out’ plans, and reduced compensation on the lack of new behavior.
Careful to Avoid Demanding Too Much:
It was also noted that some of the best implementations were very careful not to burden the sales people with undue reporting requirements. Even though the level of inspection was increased, the written reporting requirement was minimized. In several of the case study examples, the management team consciously decided to minimize paperwork to avoid having the new behavior come across as a penalty.
In summary, the management’s long-term contributions in modeling the correct behavior and dishing out rewards and consequences were critical to the social and behavioral learning requirements.
Long-term Curriculum Reinforcement
All of the successful case studies engineered a long-term curriculum design so that the learner was continually exposed to the material in regular intervals. Training is not an event, rather a process to develop the behaviors and processes that the organization deemed critical to success. The long-term curriculum reinforcement was typically designed around bite-sized reviews of previously covered material, or new complementary skills with deeper application opportunities. This follow-on approach supports the humanistic learning theory when the learner attends voluntarily.
Can You Succeed with Just One of the Contributors?
As mentioned earlier, any reduction in the application of the four learning theories into the field application phase will result in a dilution of the classroom success. Keep in mind, though, that a dilution doesn’t mean failure. In fact, in most of the case studies, not all of the best practices field applications were present. In most cases, a subset was noted, but even the subset made a significant difference in the long-term return on investment for the training objective.
The successful roll out of a new sales process must be accompanied by a thoughtful, well-designed implementation plan that leverages the four adult learning theories. Since every organization has different strengths, weaknesses, resources, and operational expertise, each plan should be customized for that organization.
For the best chances of a measurable return, all four learning theories should be implemented; however, a subset can also lead to a positive return. For planning purposes, we advise our customers to set aside half of the cost of the initial training for designing and implementing a successful implementation plan and ongoing reinforcement.