A lot of sales training misunderstands how salespeople learn. Most learning in sales occurs through peer learning in specific contexts. The effects are cumulative, because modeled behavior is an important way salespeople develop.

In other words, reps improve by seeing how their peers perform key tasks. They pick up lessons about how to pitch, answer objections, use marketing collateral and other aspects of selling for their product in their market, while gaining confidence in their abilities. This approach is different from the experience in most training seminars, especially if the instructor lacks the credibility of a rep’s successful peers.

Some companies are augmenting their current training practices with this type of learning. As a result, they are improving hiring, onboarding, best practice dissemination and performance management as well as selling skills.

Blended Learning

Sharon Ruddock, global vice president of digital commerce at SAP, has moved to an approach that includes both virtual support and classroom style exercises. “We use interactive video, face-to-face meetings and experiential learning as part of a larger learning arc,” Ruddock says. “Instead of a single face-to-face, where reps dive in for days and are done, having a digital component allows for reinforcement and peer mentoring. With these methods, the lines between formal and informal learning are blurring.”

For example, comparing reps’ performance on digital learning assignments with their deal history helps to indicate why and how a rep would benefit from coaching on objection handling or conducting executive-level conversations. Managers can then coach on specific topics and skill sets and reinforce learning with relevant peer-created resources from the field.

Ruddock notes that reps want information when and where they need it. “When a rep is heading to a meeting and trying to hone in on a customer’s industry — and role-specific pain points — we want to make sure they can quickly access that information via video on their mobile device,” she says.

There is a more general point at stake here: What’s the value of relevant information that arrives too late to be used? The answer is less than zero because of the cost of the resources used to find and deliver that information. Ruddock notes that just-in-time content has to be short (two to five minutes per video), tailored to a specific question and tagged correctly using keywords so learners can locate targeted answers.

A next step is to use these materials to onboard reps. SAP Academy, the company’s program for recent college graduates, introduces reps to core sales concepts and uses continuous learning and reinforcement through classes, digital learning and on-the-job exercises. As part of the program, reps record and share videos of themselves delivering product pitches. SAP reps and academy students then have access to a growing library of peer-generated video content, which contains examples of how reps handle specific situations.

As Ruddock notes, “We’ve found people are more open to learning from peers who have ‘been there, done that.’ It’s one of our most powerful learning tools. We’ve had over 100,000 views and 10,000 videos created by our more than 8,000 salespeople worldwide.”

Sales training at SAP reflects what research tells us about adult learning: Focus on behaviors as well as concepts; incorporate periodic reinforcements; and use microlearning lessons that are easy to revisit through flash drills, best practice videos and coaching exercises.

Faster and Personalized Learning

Citizens Bank has cut its training time in half. The retail division’s “Monday Morning Mission” meetings and Friday wrap-up calls are now accompanied by short videos that communicate a behavior or best practice and weekly action items with branch managers.

Kimberly Dee, executive vice president and customer transformation director, notes, “Our meetings have gone from about 45 to 20 minutes, and we’re getting more information across. Video is more engaging than the email recaps previously shared post-meeting, and opens lines of communication: Managers respond within the video platform with questions or clarifications easier and sooner.”

Not everyone learns the same way, and reps have different starting points depending on their experience and customers. The path of least resistance for most training departments is a standardized approach aimed at the lowest common denominator. Some people prefer to learn with visuals, some respond to audio narrative and others like to see the information in writing.

Dee says, “By augmenting our content with video, we’re able to connect the dots for many people in a way we couldn’t before. Fifty-two percent of our employees are millennials. Multi-day training classes are disappearing, because it’s inefficient and it’s not the way those people learn.”

Access to Collaborative Knowledge

There are broader lessons in these companies’ practices. Relevant videos from peers turn advice into a narrative that sticks and is easily refreshed when outdated. Further, the benefits go beyond sales. Once established, these processes help to unlock knowledge that, in most firms, is trapped in inboxes or tedious PowerPoint presentations.

Secondly, SAP and Citizens operate in selling environments where consistent messaging is required — but so is adaptation to diverse customers and contexts. These cross-cutting demands for adaptation with consistency are now common, and they reflect a growing need to better connect decision-makers with the people seeking a decision. They help to improve sales training and organizational agility. Customers now have easy access to online comparisons of products and prices and expect companies present them with a coherent face. As a result, it’s important to start using tools that make your organization easier to navigate and your people better and more willing navigators.