In a previous article, I discussed changing business development requirements and some implications. Yet, most companies approach sales training much as they did decades ago. Onboarding is usually a one-off session where reps are expected to absorb a lot of information; training is often limited to new-product introductions or annual meetings to set quotas; and there is an over-reliance on classroom training rather than the on-the-job behavioral practice required to develop sales skills.
Here are three areas that are fundamental to getting better return on investment (ROI) from training initiatives and suggestions about how engagement between sales and learning and development (L&D) professionals — complemented by smart use of new tech tools — can help.
The impact of peer learning is consistently reflected in sales studies. Almost three out of five (56%) reps say they go to “peers, my network” to improve their skills — a percentage much higher than any other source, including “my manager” (48%), “training resources” (43%) or published materials (30%).
For example, SAP now trains reps via on-the-job exercises where they record and share videos of themselves delivering product pitches, receive online feedback from experienced reps and view videos of those reps performing those tasks. As their L&D manager notes, “People are more open to learning from peers who have ‘been there, done that.’ It’s one of our most powerful learning tools [with] over 100,000 views and 10,000 videos created by 8,000 people in our sales force worldwide.”
Training When It Matters Most
The forgetting curve is a challenge for all learners, but especially for salespeople, who tend to pay attention to information when and where they need it — typically, while preparing for a client call or during the sales conversation — not weeks earlier or later in a formal training session. The value of information that arrives when it can’t be used is low, because time will be diverted from prospecting or other selling activities.
In our personal lives, we routinely use tools to get information at the time of need. Popular GPS apps, for example, provide real-time information from other drivers about current road conditions — in L&D terms, access to collaborative knowledge. Similarly, new tools, augmented by sound learning processes, make just-in-time learning increasingly viable in sales. New technology enables reps to receive materials on mobile devices when collateral or videos of colleagues making a pitch is most relevant. These tools also allow reps to send materials to prospects and observe how they engage (or don’t) with the content. Does the prospect look at the price list? Forward the proposal or documents to others in the buying unit? Which information or trial offers do and do not generate action?
These tools help salespeople to refine, not improvise, their sales conversations, and increase consistent messaging in the sales force. Conversely, for sales and L&D managers, the data gathered from these tools can help accelerate a continuous improvement dynamic in the organization. As one corporate training manager notes, these tools are “a real eye-opener about what actually happens in selling. [And] when reps can track customer interactions with content, they get better at prioritizing leads, understanding key stakeholders and allocating their time more productively.”
Technologies now provide customers with easy access to multiple groups of suppliers, increasing the cross-functional activities inherent in sales. Think about interactions between product, sales and service groups in software-as-a-service (SaaS) businesses. Meanwhile, outcomes are a lagging indicator. As sales tasks are more intertwined with other functions, there are fewer immediate sources of feedback about whether a rep is doing the right things as part of those interdependent activities.
In an omni-channel buying world, moreover, customer relationship management (CRM) data is unreliable for this purpose. These systems report the aggregate result of diverse buying journeys and multiple salespeople using different criteria in CRM reports. One rep may tally a request for a price quote as a qualified lead or active account in the system, while another identifies a known budget for lead qualification. Learning about actual buying behavior is impeded or even actively subverted.
Much of the relevant information is in the heads of reps, not the CRM, and only becomes visible during a good performance review. But reviews are possibly the most under-utilized lever for affecting behavior in most firms. Sandler Training finds that sales managers grossly overestimate the time they actually spend on coaching and reviews. When busy sales managers do cursory or “drive-by” reviews, they perpetuate a culture of under-performance and shut the flow of vital market information.
Doing a good review is a trainable skill, where new technologies and L&D support can help greatly. Web 3.0 tools, including augmented reality (AR) and immersive virtual displays, promote flexible, real-time, data-driven reviews with greater impact on behavioral change. Also, any sales force is composed of individuals with different strengths and developmental needs. With these tools, managers can deploy coaching advice tailored to the individual, often virtually, while incorporating peer learning.
Pacific Life faces a common challenge: how to coach a geographically dispersed sales force while minimizing time out of the field. Mobile video coaching allows its sales managers to do reviews without being in the same time zone. Other tools allow managers to provide reps with advice and behavioral examples about developmental needs and periodic reinforcements via microlearning lessons that are concise and focused on specific issues. Conversely, the tools provide managers with data that helps to develop an institutional relationship with customers and channel partners, while allowing L&D to identify and leverage the patterns for training of current and future sales managers.
Good sales training is not reducible to an online master class: Talking about selling is not the same as selling. Managers who can’t or won’t do reviews and coaching will be ineffective regardless of the technology they employ. But companies already spend a lot on sales training, and the skills that are or are not developed there affect all others in the firm: the customer requests; the order-fulfillment and cash flow dynamics handled by operations and finance; and the allocation of effort in executing strategy developed in the C-suite. In a changing economy, increasing the ROI from that expenditure is a joint responsibility of L&D and sales.