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people learning
May 13, 2021

6 Key Questions to Guarantee Sales Learning Success

people learning

We’re all reasonably well educated, yet when our kids need help with some specific aspect of their homework, we typically have trouble recalling things we learned years ago.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders, however, we can access Google or reference a YouTube video on the topic in question, and it comes back to us—so we can help our kids. This method of learning and recall works for millions of people who need instant answers to questions all the time.

In fact, research shows that as much as 90% of learning takes place like this: informally and experientially, while people are out doing things rather than in a classroom or taking an eLearning course. Informal learning is intuitive and natural. It’s what people do every day when they access Google, YouTube, Yelp, and TripAdvisor.

Yet most sales onboarding and training programs still focus on traditional formal learning approaches. As a result, 90% of sales learning is formal—the reverse of how people learn in their daily lives.

Instead of supporting the salesperson’s entire lifecycle, formal learning approaches focus on lengthy, concentrated training episodes that are impossible to remember and don’t transfer to the field. As a result, salespeople often fail at their jobs, threatening revenue and increasing turnover.

To help you understand the difference between formal and informal learning—and how to get the right balance in your organization’s training programs—we unpack six vital questions for sales learning success.

1. Why doesn’t formal learning work on its own?

Anyone who’s spent time in sales knows how training takes place. When salespeople are hired, there’s an onboarding boot camp that can last from a few days to several weeks, after which salespeople are typically released to their territories. Typically, they don’t see any further systematic training until the next national sales meeting (NSM), which may occur in six months or a year.

In fact, formal learning comprises most of the typical corporate training approach, with scant time dedicated to the way professionals actually learn: through experience and accessing learning resources as needs arise.

Most formal learning programs share common disadvantages:

  • There’s too much information delivered in too short a period of time. Research shows that retention goes down as the volume of information goes up. Information at onboarding boot camps and NSMs is shot through a fire hose, and it’s just too much for salespeople to remember.
  • People forget what they’ve learned if it’s not used within a short period of time. Hermann Ebbinghaus’s famous forgetting curve tells us that 80% of learning is forgotten within 30 days if learning is not reinforced. When formal training is given only at the beginning of employment or only periodically, salespeople simply forget what they’ve learned by the time they need to use it, rendering the time and resources of this training a lost investment.
  • They’re one-size-fits-all, which works about as well for training as it does for pants. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but most formal learning programs do not account for individual competencies. Say, for example, that two salespeople both start their sales training at the same time. One is a product expert who was recently moved into sales, while another is a senior sales contributor from the competition. Clearly they have different needs, but many training programs simply don’t account for them.
  • Time and distance barriers make salespeople feel like they’re on their own once their formal learning is done. Hybrid and virtual workplaces mean that today’s sales forces are rarely located in one place, and even when they are, scheduling limitations make it tough for salespeople to communicate with each other, and even their bosses.
  • They’re the opposite of the way people learn effectively. Research shows that professionals learn best when they receive 90% of their learning informally and experientially, and only 10% from classroom training or eLearning—the exact opposite of the ratio that most companies offer. This last point most clearly exposes the need for organizations to rethink their training approaches.

2. What are the characteristics of a successful approach to sales learning?

Organizations that take a modern sales learning approach have vastly better results, because modern learning programs reflect the needs of today’s knowledge workers.

Modern learning is different from traditional formal learning in the following ways:

  • Content is continuously produced and updated in bite-sized chunks, giving your salespeople consistently up-to-date information that is easy to consume.
  • Modern learning incorporates a comprehensive approach to reinforce initial learning. Regardless of how good or compelling training may be, it’s a fact that 80% of it will be forgotten within 30 days if it’s not reinforced or used. Reinforcement is critical to a modern learning approach; otherwise, your learning investment is destined to be a waste of time and money.
  • It incorporates informal learning—the way people learn today. A training program without a comprehensive approach to informal learning poses a great risk of failure.
  • Learning is personalized to the needs of each learner. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses that simply aren’t covered by one-size-fits-all training. A new salesperson, for example, who used to be a technical product expert doesn’t need extensive product training, but instead needs help with selling skills. In contrast, a top performer who just came from a competitor doesn’t need to learn how to cold-call but may need product training.
  • Finally, content is easy to create, access, and consume on desktop and mobile devices, wherever you are and whenever you need it—even if you don’t have Internet access. Examples of this kind of easy-to-create content are video, podcasts, voice over powerpoint, screen captures, and more

When you put it all together, modern sales learning is really the opposite of those long, boring compliance videos and other eLearning content that salespeople are forced to watch every year; it’s the dynamic content and delivery mechanisms that reflect the way people learn today.

3. How does informal learning fit into a modern sales learning approach?

Informal learning is the learning that your salespeople look for every day to do their jobs. If your organization implements an informal learning plan, you enable salespeople to access the right information at the time of need, from the sources that are best suited to help them. It’s a simple, intuitive way to access the knowledge and feedback that will improve salespeople’s performance and results.

Here are a few examples of informal sales learning in action for salespeople:

  • Peer collaboration: Ask experienced salespeople to provide wisdom about an account in an unfamiliar industry, the best way to approach a specific persona, the most successful approaches for a particular product, etc. Or bounce ideas–even practice pitches–off of peers to see their reaction and receive input.
  • Insights and best practices: Share experiences in the field to help others learn from your successes and mistakes.
  • Just-in-time learning: Get easy access to resources when and where they’re needed to help prepare for specific sales interactions and activities. Capture the best moments from national sales meetings or other events for everyday access rather than losing those nuggets of wisdom shortly after they occur.
  • Ad hoc coaching: Interact with managers and subject-matter experts at the time of need to hone a pitch or other buyer-facing activity, getting timely feedback about the best approaches and improvements.

4. If informal learning is so valuable, is formal learning still necessary?

If people learn best in the field doing things, finding what they need when they need it, and communicating with others, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there’s a place at all for formal learning. The answer is that formal learning is absolutely necessary, but it must evolve to meet today’s needs.

Formal learning is often focused on regulatory compliance, company policies and procedures, etc. Sales training also typically incorporates a form of formal training: one-size-fits-all, concentrated sessions often held during sales onboarding or national sales meetings.

Certifications are usually awarded based on rote knowledge rather than the application of knowledge. This in particular can be a challenge for salespeople, as their success is not based on memorization and repetition, but rather the application of knowledge in dynamic sales interactions. The knowledge that salespeople attain through formal sales training also tends to be fleeting, as there is substantial evidence that knowledge is lost quickly without a programmatic approach to reinforcement.

Formal sales training must evolve so that it’s personalized to meet the needs of individual sellers, incorporates reinforcement to ensure knowledge retention, and includes the application of knowledge in real-world selling activities rather than short-term memorization.

5. How are modern and traditional sales learning approaches different?

If you implement a modern learning approach that incorporates a 90/10 ratio of informal/formal learning, sales learning at your company looks vastly different from the traditional formal learning approaches that most companies use today.

With a modern approach, learning is easier and more convenient. When salespeople first start, they take courses to provide them with the baseline learning they need to do their jobs—customized for their specific role within the company and offered as short-form video content—instead of lengthy webinars or classroom sessions.

During the onboarding process, they’re tested not just for knowledge, as they would be in traditional formal learning approaches, but also presentation delivery, dynamic objection response, elevator pitch mastery, and more—all certified using custom criteria.

Once they prepare to move into the field, learning is not forgotten as it typically is in traditional formal approaches. Instead, salespeople are assigned reinforcement learning using spaced repetition, a scientifically proven method to ensure that learning is applied and internalized. This learning, pushed to them in bite-sized chunks, enables them to engage in fun, short learning exercises that transfers knowledge into long-term memory.

6. How does informal learning help salespeople in the field?

With a modern sales learning approach, learning doesn’t stop when salespeople are in the field selling. Spaced repetition of reinforcement continues until salespeople demonstrate subject mastery. Their sales leaders can see how they’re progressing, which helps them personalize the way that individual salespeople are coached.

And instead of being left alone to succeed or fail—as they would be with traditional formal learning—salespeople now have access to informal learning resources that are tailored to their needs to help them in their everyday selling activities.

For example, salespeople can:

  • Review presentation videos from subject-matter experts (SMEs) to help them improve product knowledge, and interact with them to dig into specific areas.
  • Look at curated content from more experienced salespeople that demonstrate best practices in key aspects of the selling process.
  • Try out a sales approach and collect feedback from their peers on how it looks.
  • Record and share insights from sales calls even as they drive away, or view similar content from others, adding comments and interacting to explore new approaches and ideas.
  • Engage in ad hoc coaching exercises with their managers to hone skills or prep for upcoming sales interactions.

This kind of collaboration with peers and sales leaders enables both new and existing salespeople to develop a sense of community, helping the whole team improve their skills to drive better results.

This approach is ideal for hybrid teams because it’s not limited by traditional barriers, as peers can communicate across time and distance, using their mobile devices to access and record content anytime and anywhere.

Even when they’re in the field, however, the need for formal learning continues, with new materials that require additional certifications, as well as informal learning content to support ad hoc needs as they arise.

New product launches, regulatory updates, changed sales messaging, and more happen all the time, and salespeople are kept informed and prepared in the field—rather than having to wait months for a trip to HQ and the next national sales meeting.

Learn More

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