As a sales coach, you are ultimately responsible for the performance of the sales team. Part of your mission is to improve their sales performance year after year. To achieve that goal, you carefully analyze and manage territories, hire and fire, set minimum standards, set goals, create incentive programs and provide on‑going sales training and coaching.
But is that enough? It is if you want average results. If you want astounding results, you must do more. When you put on your trainer’s hat, you must concern yourself not only with what you will teach, but also with how it will be learned by the salespeople. After all, the best sales training in the world will be wasted if salespeople cannot retain and apply it.
How Do Salespeople Learn?
Psychologists have been studying learning theory for years, both in and out of the laboratory. Several principles borrowed from basic psychology can have a profound effect on the degree to which sales training is absorbed and effective. Salespeople must first be brought to a state of awareness, or knowledge. This usually takes place when they are exposed to new or different ideas or ways of doing things during a training program. Next, they must move to the practice phase, which can be initially done during the training session (e.g., roll-playing) but ultimately must be done in real life in the field. People need to feel the exhilaration of small successes interspersed with the inevitable mistakes they must make while acquiring new concepts and skills. This concept is analogous to sports.
Visualize someone who is trying to improve her game in golf (or any other sport). When a golf pro (coach) evaluates the performance of a student, the pro will invariably make changes in the style of the student. Whether it be in how the student grips the club, or the swing, or the stance, these changes when implemented will cause the student some difficulty. This is partially due to the awkwardness of the behavior that is being modified, as well as having to think about the steps to alter the behavior. Because of this, the student initially will find that she is regressing rather than improving. However, through practice, the student will eventually realize a marked improvement in her game. The problem lies with the inherent behavior of students taking the path of least resistance. That is, when a behavior that is being modified creates discomfort for the student, she tends to revert back to her old way of doing things. The same is true in sales.
When salespeople are taught new techniques such as open approach vs. closed approach to questioning or benefit selling vs. feature selling or conducting a collaborative presentation vs. a sales pitch, these techniques, at first, will feel uncomfortable and initially production might drop. This is where the danger lies. Because like the golfer, the salesperson will revert back to his most comfortable selling style. Here is where coaching plays a crucial role by helping the salesperson work through his discomfort zone, thereby achieving higher production. Finally, with enough exposure to the concepts (repetition) and practice backed by good coaching, it results in assimilation, or habit.
So, how do salespeople learn best? Take them from a state of ignorance to awareness through practice to new habit patterns. That’s foolproof sales training.
“The longest journey on earth begins with a single step.” (Anonymous)
Motivation is the fuel that fires every human endeavor and learning is the perfect example. Imagine yourself in this situation: You are just starting a new job in sales and you know very little about selling. Nevertheless, you are excited about your new career. You are very motivated to learn as much as possible to overcome your feeling of ineptness and to make a good impression. Being that so much is at stake, you would absorb your lessons quickly and retain them until they were second nature, right? Wrong!
When people are given too much information in too short a time period, panic sets in. Human beings experience stress when they implement new behaviors, especially when they perform them imperfectly. Just like the golf pro, you as sales coach can play a crucial role by helping your salespeople over the rough spots. It’s all right for them to make mistakes. In fact, it’s necessary so they can improve their competence through practice, practice and more practice. Your job is to assist them by following up their new knowledge with concrete skill development. Encourage them over these hurdles and you and they will reap the harvest of perseverance. Competence breeds confidence which, in turn, leads to inner motivation.
Bite Size Pieces
Another factor that influences learning is the nature of the subject. It comes as no surprise that simple material is easier to master than complex material, which is why music students start with scales and work their way up to performance level pieces. At any level of proficiency, the key to making a subject easier to learn is to break it down into small, simple increments. The same can be said for sales training. Often, managers overwhelm their salespeople with massive amounts of information in a short period of time. The outcome is “information overload” and confusion. An analogy is the sponge. It will absorb only so much at which time it reaches a saturation point where it will absorb no more. When this happens to salespeople, they learn only what is necessary to get by or just those subjects that come easily to them. The rest doesn’t get soaked up and falls by the wayside. The solution is to break down sales training into bite size pieces that can be readily digested, absorbed and put to work in the field.
Highly effective programs break down the training into several lessons consisting of the salespeople viewing a video lesson or watching a lecture and then up to an hour of content discussion, individual and/or group exercises, role-playing and completion of an action plan. This is repeated weekly or bi‑weekly until all the lessons are covered.
This type of presentation is excellent because it affords the salesperson the opportunity to perfect one area and incorporate that information into his or her own selling style before moving on to the next lesson. The beauty of this method is that it begins a “spiral of success”: salespeople learn something new, try it in the field, experience some success with it, and this in turn gets them charged up about learning more.
Another factor that affects learning is repetition. The more you are exposed to something, the faster you will learn it. As sales coaches, it is imperative that you instill in salespeople a desire to strive and progress to a level of “habitual performance.” This is the level where the salespeople can do something well without having to think about the steps. The new behaviors come “naturally” because they’ve been so well practiced and rehearsed that they’ve become habitual. When you build involuntary reflexes through perfect practice, you have reached a point of unconscious competence. At this highest level of competence, you accomplish your goals confidently. You achieve things you never dreamed of and unleash and discover a “power” you never knew you had.
Styles Of Learning
In addition to motivation, complexity of the subject and repetition, the astute sales coach must realize that everyone learns differently. Some people can only learn from experience. If you were to give them a book to read, it might lay unopened and collect dust.
Some people like to see, hear or read about what they are going to do before actually getting their feet wet. They can watch a video, listen to an mp3 program or read a book and then go into the field and apply what they’ve learned. It is wise, therefore, for sales coaches to train in ways that will be compatible with everyone’s mode of learning. For this reason, the multi‑media approach is ideal by encompassing the use of videos, mp3 audios, books, workbooks, role-playing and, of course, experience in the field. This multi‑media approach has several other advantages. It is entertaining‑‑and we all know that salespeople want to be entertained; it is repetitive–which is necessary for effective learning; and it is flexible‑‑for ease of implementation.
Flexibility‑‑A Valuable Training Asset
Let’s change the focus for a moment from the dynamics of learning to the logistics of training. Flexibility is an asset that busy coaches appreciate because it allows them to present new material in whatever setting is appropriate‑‑at weekly or bi-weekly sales meetings, on a one‑on‑one basis, or in a self‑paced program for new or experienced salespeople. Flexibility can also mean the training sessions do not require supervision‑‑salespeople can watch videos in the office, listen to audios in their cars or read a book at home. Free time can be turned into productive time. Any training program should allow you various options of teaching the program‑‑from doing all training in a group setting at weekly meetings to having the salespeople complete a self‑paced program at their own speed with you simply providing ongoing checking, counseling and coaching.
Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” (Chinese Proverb)
The last consideration that should be given to how salespeople learn is the speed with which they apply new knowledge. No matter what kind of sales training you provide for your salespeople, it should change their ways gradually, not radically. Trying to adopt a lot of new sales techniques in one fell swoop creates more havoc than growth.
Let change evolve. Salespeople should be encouraged to see sales training as a continuous long‑term process that will affect their careers permanently‑‑not as quick fixes learned today, forgotten tomorrow. By experiencing success and encouragement, change can be exciting instead of intimidating. Remind them that they have to learn the scales before playing Mozart and by practicing, as all great musicians do, they come to a point of competence. But even when they come to a point of great competence, they’ve got to keep learning and practicing. True professionals are in a constant learning and practicing posture. Once you’ve completed a sales training program, it doesn’t mean you’ve “arrived.” Sales training must become an all the time thing.
By paying close attention to how salespeople learn, sales coaches and trainers will get the most mileage out of the training programs they design or purchase. Proper training will also give you the greatest return from your salespeople in terms of productivity, morale, loyalty‑‑and profits.