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Sales Training Can't Come from a Firehose

Timing and a tempered approach increase effectiveness

For many sales organizations, training salespeople is one of the largest investments made 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 to improve the skills of employees. In fact, U.S. businesses spent more than $62 billion on training in 2012.

However, sales training is also one of the most perishable investments a company can make if the learning is not immediately and consistently reinforced. At least two factors conspire against the stickiness of most sales training – the amount of content delivered and the timing of the content being delivered.  

Too Much, Too Soon
The sheer volume of content that is included in many training programs is overwhelming to salespeople. It is expensive to take a sales force out of the field, so sales leaders are motivated to jam a year’s worth of learning into a single event. In order to make the most of the investment, it is 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. Realistically, a sales manager should spend much of his 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 chance of it sticking diminishes quickly.

When the Calendar Allows
Training is typically done when it is convenient for the calendar, not necessarily when it is the best time to learn. If the annual sales meeting is in September, then the annual training will probably be in September, too – even if you are teaching your salespeople to complete account plans that they will not need to do until their territories are realigned four months later.

Unfortunately, if a new skill is not immediately reinforced, whether through coaching or by actually putting the skill into practice, it begins to erode with frightening speed. Ideally, training is 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 that 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 the sales force was expected to demonstrate the skills, these organizations improved the likelihood that the learning would stick. Train today, use tomorrow, allowing no time to forget.

Lose the Fire Hose
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 fire-hose training event that takes place when 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.

Jason Jordan is a partner of Vantage Point Performance the leading sales management training and development firm, and co-author of "Cracking the Sales Management Code" (McGraw-Hill, 2012).