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December 26, 2019

To Facilitate Peer-to-Peer Learning, Trainers Must Sometimes Step Aside

It’s time for all of us who no longer spend our day in “the arena” cold calling prospects and venturing out on sales calls to accept a reality: when it comes to sales readiness, no sales trainer or enablement professional can command the same level of engagement among an audience of salespeople as a rep can. It just won’t happen, even if the trainer is a former salesperson.

Case in point: at a recent company event, two speakers were featured. The first was an ex-salesperson who is now a product marketing leader with a heroic track record of knocking out competitors in important deals and consistently coming through for the sales team. The second was the company’s top-performing rep. Although the audience was attentive during the ex-rep’s presentation, they literally leaned forward in their chairs when the top-performer stepped onstage.

Day after day, I see this same sort of reaction. Salespeople instinctively assign more weight and credibility to fellow sales reps than to even the best trainers. What gives?

In-Group Bias

One likely explanation is in-group bias, a.k.a., in-group favoritism. This is the tendency among members of a particular group (a family, tribe, profession, etc.) to prefer members of their own group (the in-group) over members of other groups (out-groups).

Because we humans evolved over millions of years in small family and tribal groups, our minds have been wired to relate most to the people of our in-group. By contrast, outsiders are often viewed with indifference—and sometimes even suspicion.

This attitude may carry over to learning situations. A recent Michigan State University study found that students perform much better academically when the answer to the question “Why do I have to learn this?” is provided by their peers rather than teachers.

University students who were given a rationale for why learning is important from people similar to them wrote more effective essays and got a significantly better final grade than students who were given the same rationale from a course instructor.

“These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process,” said study co-author Cary Roseth. “In other words, as a student, I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization.”

Reps Rate Other Reps as the Best Learning Source

Likewise, a recent survey of sales reps found that salespeople prefer to learn from their peers. When asked to name the best source of sales training, most respondents said other reps and managers were the most influential source. And according to most of the reps and managers surveyed, the most effective training tool is best-practice sharing. And who’s better equipped to share best practices than other reps in the same organization?

This does not mean, of course, that salespeople are completely uninterested in what sales trainers and enablement professionals have to say, or will routinely dismiss the insights of ex-salespeople because those ex-reps are no longer down in the trenches with them.

However, it does suggest that sometimes the best thing an educator can do is to step aside and simply facilitate peer-to-peer learning activities.

Sometimes, sales training and enablement professionals, as well as product marketing and commercial strategy professionals, must play Yoda to a sales rep’s Luke Skywalker. By giving reps’ access to the wisdom of that Skywalker, the trainer becomes a facilitator of excellence.

Ironically, the trainer may acquire more respect from the sales force by occasionally stepping aside and allowing the reps to learn from one another.

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