The Missing Ingredient to Successful Sales Training

By Yuchun Lee, CEO and Co-founder of Allego

Consider the last time you attended a company training session such as onboarding, a sales kickoff or another corporate event. Now, compare that to your high school or college learning experience. Chances are, the two are vastly different. Students don’t become subject matter experts from simply attending a lecture. When juxtaposed against traditional education, it’s easy to see what’s missing in the working world: Where is the follow up? The tests and quizzes on the material? The studying and homework? In most cases, this type of sales learning simply doesn’t exist and training programs suffer as a result.

The training challenge

U.S. companies spend an estimated USD20 billion on training annually. For sales organizations, much of this funding is spent on elaborate events where participants are flown in, force-fed a steady diet of PowerPoints and then sent off with little or no follow-up. Not surprisingly, the ROI simply isn’t there — in fact, studies indicate that participants in curriculum- and lecture-based training forget more than 80 percent of the information taught within 90 days.

Given the time and money invested in sales training, it’s not a question of insufficient effort or investment. Rather, the fundamental problem is the very structure of corporate training delivery: intense yet infrequent bursts, such as annual sales kickoffs, or lengthy, one-size-fits-all courses. Curriculum-based training and events are important, but they are foundational and should be treated as such, giving way to longer-term learning programs that reinforce and solidify knowledge.

When sales organizations rely on text-heavy, one-time events, they subject their reps to a well-studied phenomenon known as “The Forgetting Curve,” which says that knowledge retention steadily declines in the absence of continued exposure. In fact, as much as 50 to 80 percent of material can be lost as soon as the day after initial exposure and up to 98 percent within 30 days. Even if sales reps understand everything taught during a training session, chances are they will have forgotten most of the content when they go to apply it. This is because baseline training courses only put new information into the short-term memory. People easily remember the facts and concepts they focus on frequently, yet forget what they touch upon less often.

If the forgetting curve represents the function of a normal, healthy mind, what can sales trainers do to combat it?

Using repetition and reinforcement in sales training

Taking cues from higher education, sales organizations can create successful programs that help reps to learn and retain knowledge effectively. These programs should provide reps with ubiquitous access to materials, including supplemental resources that reinforce what’s already been taught. Additionally, these programs should deliver learning in bite-sized chunks that are repeated over time, helping to move knowledge into the long-term memory.

Available technologies such as mobile devices and video and audio recording capabilities can transform antiquated and episodic training techniques into modern, continuous learning experiences. Below are examples of the technologies and techniques organizations can use to improve knowledge retention:

  • Reinforce new learning — A technique involving the periodic reinforcement of new learning, called spaced repetition, prevents the forgetting curve by moving new knowledge into long-term memory. The brain determines which information is most important by registering how often it’s presented. Therefore, the more we revisit a concept, the more we strengthen the information pathways for future recall.
  • Organize information into bite-sized pieces — Presenting information in small chunks reduces cognitive load and gives learners a sense of empowerment. Known as microlearning, this type of content sharing describes any learning model that operates on the principle that people learn more effectively when content is broken into smaller units and delivered in short sessions. Since learners can review information on their own schedule, it’s much easier for them to engage throughout a busy week — even for just a few minutes between meetings or calls.
  • Reach reps when they want to learn — Sitting in a classroom far away from the time and place learning will be used is not conducive to knowledge retention. Instead, just-in-time learning gives sales reps continuous access to training materials and content they can access at the exact time of need — usually at deal time — when they’re most motivated to learn.
  • Engage multiple senses — Multimodal learning refers to techniques that use multiple representations of information such as text, audio and visuals to improve retention. Research shows using pictures along with words improves retention, and people learn even more effectively when audio is included in the mix. For example, when people hear information, they usually only recall about 10 percent three days later. However, adding visuals increases the retention rate to 65 percent.

Video can play a key role in sales training programs and is especially valuable to millennial workers, who now comprise the largest segment of the workforce. Millennials grew up watching “how-to” videos on YouTube and are bringing this preference for video learning to the enterprise. In fact, not only do millennials prefer video as a training tool, but studies have shown that that 87 percent would choose to work for a video-enabled organization over one that has not invested in it.

Once sales trainers understand the way the brain learns, organizations can implement practices and technology that take advantage of the strategies outlined above. Supplementing traditional classroom training with just-in-time and reinforcement learning makes training more convenient, engaging and effective, and ultimately results in greater sales training ROI.

YPO member Yuchun Lee is CEO and Co-founder of Allego, a software company focusing on transforming corporate learning and development. Lee is also the executive chairman of Clarabridge, a customer-experience management software company. Lee also co-founded Unica, which he guided through a successful IPO and sale to IBM for more than USD500 million. He is an executive in residence at General Catalyst Partners, a venture firm; he serves on the board of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), an S&P-500 pharmaceutical company, and as an executive advisor with Summit Partners, a global venture and private equity firm.

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