We know that learning decreases over time when there is no reinforcement. But why? And what and when is ideal reinforcement
For decades there has been a narrow concept of how learning happens. In that narrow definition, the classroom is the nerve center of learning. Things like pre-work and reinforcement are nice to have, but rarely implemented. Several to five day, or longer immersion training events, are the norm. The focus for sales training is the sales force – usually to the exclusion of sales managers.
Time to Redefine Sales Training
In the narrow definition of “training”, salespeople are sent to training. With the speed of change and the demand for expertise, the old thinking about training must give way to a broader view based on what we now know about how people actually learn, and what it takes to change behavior. Classroom training remains important, but no longer is it paramount.
Brain research has opened our minds to how people learn and what is required for the learning to take hold and make a difference. Research shows that one of the keys to meaningful learning is something brain scientists call spacing. Spacing refers to repetition over time. Spacing has long been thought to improve retention, but now we truly understand why.
It is the spaced repetition that signals to the brain that something is of significant value and worth remembering. In his new book, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens”, Benedict Carey proves the value of interval/spaced reinforcement. He likens spacing to watering a lawn—watering a lawn for 30 minutes three times a week will keep the lawn greener than 90 minutes one time a week. He shows that most of the time, in a long training session, the brain is working to maintain concentration vs. actually learning.
It was not a stretch at all to make the connection from the studies in Carey’s book to “training”, pre-work, and reinforcement. The data underscored the need to build sales training on a foundation of spacing. Today, spacing can be facilitated with technology and executed with coaching.
In the new training model, the classroom remains invaluable. It provides a common language, focuses the group on what is important to learn (if it is customized, relevant, timely), builds relationships among participants, and shows corporate commitment. Pre-work and reinforcement must be integral to the design and execution. This falls partly on the shoulders of instructional designers, trainers and consultants, but the onus is on sales leaders to champion and measure.
Surely there is a justification for multiple day immersion in training—but with technology and what we know about learning, that can no longer be the standard.
The focus of training must expand from salespeople to sale managers. Probably the most common sentence I have heard over the years is “Our sales people need sales training.” Rarely do sales leaders ask for sales training for their sales managers, and even fewer lead the conversation with the need for sales coaching training – although in the past few years this is starting to change. The fact is, as long as reinforcement is thought of as something apart from the training and not integral to it, learning will fade fast. Additionally, while sales leaders track salespeople’s activities and number of proposals etc., they go quiet when asked about the activities of sales managers.
Whether it is recruiting, developing, planning or evaluating, the sales manager is central. Yet most sales organizations expend few development dollars on this critical role. There is no more important way to provide “spaced” repetition to a sales force than through coaching. It tells the brain that what has been learned in training, or what was covered in a past coaching session, is important. Moreover, it tells salespeople they are important. And tools and apps, such as tests and games as pre-work and reinforcement, cement the learning.
The first challenge to make training “work” is to design training to maximize learning, remembering, and applying it to achieve results. The new model should look like this.
- Preparatory Training (reasonable required pre-work)
- Instructional Training (classroom, on-line)
- Field Training (manager and peer coaching, sales tool)
Each is as important as the other, and real learning and theory moves to action.
It is the spacing with pre-work and field application that embeds the learning and tells the brain to retain and use the learning. A training event or training in which there are large gaps between inoculations doesn’t work when the objective is to affect a major behavior change or learn complex material. Salespeople and sales leaders are smart. They can learn in a training session, but they also forget. As soon as a learning event is over, forgetting begins. It is pre-work and coaching that makes the learning stick and turn it into action.
The Sales Coaching Challenge
As if the first challenge of changing how most organizations think about training weren’t enough, the second challenge is to help sales managers, most often chosen for their selling prowess, to become sales coaches – something often foreign to how they think, or to their skills set. Sales coaching must be trained for, tracked, and rewarded when results are achieved. Sales leaders need to be aware of the coaching that is going on and what impact it is having. Few organizations have this knowledge, and while CRMs can keep track of the amount of coaching, few capture the quality or impact.
Effective coaching does not come intuitively to most sales managers. Most are open to coaching, but don’t get the opportunity to learn how to coach. Coaching is a learned skill. The best experience I had with coaching was with a major technology company that put their sales managers through a one-day program. They then availed their 400 sales managers with three one-on-one phone-coaching sessions with their trainer coach over a three-month period. They also gave the managers the option for additional phone coaching sessions. The results spoke for themselves in increased sales and job satisfaction across the board. This company redefined training and turned learning into action that produced results.
I have always felt that no salesperson in a territory was better that a bad salesperson in a territory. In the same way I feel that no coaching is better than bad coaching.
On the train last week, I sat next to a disheartened salesperson. She was on her way to a customer meeting and had just completed a coaching session with her “boss”. When she saw I was editing a sales book she opened up. This was a case in point.
Once a month, this salesperson meets with her manager for a “coaching” session and a review of the previous and upcoming month. Here’s the salesperson’s depiction of the start of her coaching session.
Salesperson: So I feel good. This month seven new customers. That’s up from four in October and I think next month the number will go up. The prospects look good. The leads are really better quality.
Sales Manager: That’s OK but October was four. I think the leads are better and that should mean more sales. I think the numbers will continue to go up.
I often talk about coaching by telling or coaching by asking. This salesperson came up with a new term: coaching by pinging. If you are a salesperson, you felt the ping (the but) which according to her was just one of a series. Not surprising the session went downhill from that. It didn’t matter what happened next. She shut down. She said her team members all joked and told “ping” stories. This one was minor, but the impact major.
What made the sales manager respond the way he did? It is my experience that most sales managers truly want to do a good job. Many are not comfortable with coaching. Many never got coached themselves. And most have not been prepared with coaching training. Surely this sales manager was under pressure to make the quarter. It is very likely he thought he was doing his job, likely thinking he was helpful and motivating.
What might he have said to make the session productive, connect with the salesperson, and move her toward better performance? If you’re a sales person, what would you have wanted to hear? If you’re a sales manager what would you have said?
Common sense, one might think, would dictate not starting the conversation with a crushing comment. This was a perfect opportunity to coach—to learn, teach, and encourage, to reinforce and tell the brain what is important.
Sales Manager – Learn: This month was great. Right on target. It’s good to hear the prospects look good and the leads are better. What do you think contributed to your success this month? …. How was that different from October? … What did you learn from that? What obstacles did you run into that we can work on now? That’s a tough one. How did you handle that? I have found it helpful to … as a way to… How do you think that would work?
Sales Manager – Teach: Looking forward, let’s think about the prospects for this coming month you mentioned? Which are the priorities? What are their business problems? How are you addressing that?… What ideas…? What are their time frames?…. What obstacles might come up?… I have found that … What do you think of trying that? …
Sales Manager – Encourage: I am confident the numbers will keep going up.
A sales training curriculum or program will not change behavior long term across the board if training is handled as an event. Of course, there are salespeople who hear something once and run with it – but that is the 10% in my experience. As great as a training session may be, and as competent as the trainer may be, a single dousing (regardless of the number of days) tells the brain it is just not that important, and the learning starts to diminish as soon as the training ends.
One of the finest trainers I had the privilege to work with for more than a decade said over and over again to me, “What we do shouldn’t be called training. It is more than that. Can’t we think of another word?” So far, we have not… So let’s redefine how we think about training and make it one powerful spaced experience with pre-work, instruction, and reinforcement. And steel it with coaching!