For many sales organizations, training their salespeople is one of the largest investments they make in performance improvement. From the onboarding of new hires to annual training events for the rank and file, billions of dollars are spent each year in the U.S. alone to improve the skills of our salespeople.
Unfortunately, sales training is also one of the most perishable investments a company can make. Estimates vary, but it's generally accepted between 60 to 90 percent of the skills imparted to a salesperson during a training event are lost within 30 days if the learning isn't immediately and consistently reinforced.
Given that grim forecast, you would think companies would make certain quality reinforcement is taking place. Unfortunately, there are at least two factors conspiring against the stickiness of most sales training.
Too Much, Too Soon
First, the sheer volume of content included in many training programs is overwhelming to salespeople. It's expensive to take a sales force out of the field, so sales leaders are motivated to jam all of the year's learning into a single, large event.
In order to "make the most" of the investment, it's not uncommon to see three, four, or even five-day sales conferences where training is the primary activity. With such a vast amount of information being poured onto the salespeople, it would be literally impossible for sales managers to reinforce all of this content when they return to the field.
A sales manager could spend much of their time reinforcing a single new behavior, such as call planning or questioning techniques, so it would take a team of full-time coaches to address the content of a five-day training event. As the training agenda deepens, the chances of it sticking quickly diminishes.
Second, training is typically done when it is convenient for the calendar, not necessarily when it's the best time to learn. If the annual sales meeting is held in September, then the annual training will probably be in September, too—even if you are teaching your salespeople to complete account plans they won't need to do until their territories are realigned four months later.
Unfortunately, if a new skill isn't immediately reinforced, whether through coaching or by actually putting the skill into practice, it begins to erode with frightening speed.
Ideally, the training would be held in close proximity to the need for the skill, not just when it is can be squeezed into the calendar. When a vast amount of information is given to a salesperson who does not immediately use it, the knowledge literally goes into hiding…perhaps never to return.
A Just-in-Time Approach
In our study of world-class sales forces, we discovered their approach to training was dramatically different than what we described above. These companies had adopted what could be considered an innovative "just-in-time" approach to sales training.
Rather than holding comprehensive training events where a year's worth of content is dumped onto the sales force, they opted for smaller, more focused sessions where very specific skills were taught. This allowed the salespeople to concentrate on mastering one or two skills before moving on to others.
Also, the training took place in close proximity to when the salespeople would need to use the skills. By providing the learning experience immediately before sales force was expected to demonstrate the skills, these organizations improved the likelihood the learning would stick. Train today, use tomorrow—allowing no time to forget.
One of the company's executives explained how they used this approach to redesign their new-hire onboarding program: "A key element of designing the new curriculum was to reconsider the timing of when salespeople received the training. If we firehosed them all in the first part of the program, the chances they were going to retain everything they learned and start applying it was probably very small.
"So we designed the timing of when they received the training to correlate with when they would actually need to start using these skills and knowledge. For example, you are not going to train a new rep on selling very advanced systems, because the chances they will get into that situation in the first few months of their employment are very small.
"The same with reporting. They have not yet generated any revenue, so there is nothing to report. So we strategically placed that training later in the curriculum so the timing made more sense."
Lose the Firehose
Training should be a large investment for every sales force, but the investment must be protected. A clever approach to avoiding post-training atrophy is to rethink how the training itself is delivered. Specifically, avoid at all costs a firehose training event that takes place whenever the calendar happens to allow for a good dousing.
Instead, deliver bite-sized training to your sales force when the skills are actually needed. If relevant and timely training is provided in easily digestible chunks, salespeople are more able to focus on the new skills and reinforce them through immediate usage.
Usage leads to adoption, and adoption leads to improved capabilities. And that leads to a wiser training investment with better sales results.
Note: This column is based on research collaboration with HR Chally into the management practices of sales forces identified by their customers as world-class. An overview of the published report can be downloaded here.
Jason Jordan is a vice president of Vantage Point Performance, as well as the director of research for the University Sales Education Foundation.