The selection of a sales training program or provider is not a decision to be taken lightly, since any sales training initiative is a significant investment of time and resources. Understandably, there is a great deal of attention paid to the specific program curriculum and format, as well as the reputation and track record of the training program and provider. One key consideration that is often overlooked when assessing sales training programs is the provision for the reinforcement of the learning.
The importance of training reinforcement cannot be overstated. Over 100 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus plotted data to create a “forgetting curve,” finding that, on average, learners forget 50 percent of information within one hour, 70 percent within 24 hours and 90 percent of information within a week. Cognitive scientist Art Kohn observes, “What you do after a training is more important than what you do during. The brain has a ‘use it or lose it’ approach, so the number of times we make use of information in the days or hours after training is most important.” What can we do to bolster information retention? Reinforcement is the most potent remedy.
It’s important to make a couple of notes: First, the forgetting curve doesn’t account for a training curriculum that includes a variety of proven learning strategies, including lectures, group exercises and discussions, audio and video role-plays, and structured experiences, which are specifically designed to engage and motivate training participants. Experiential learning significantly improves information retention.
Additionally, the forgetting curve doesn’t address the relevance of training content, which directly and dramatically impacts learners’ interest level and information retention. When sales professionals see the application and benefits to their daily sales lives from the sales training program, they are more likely to engage with and retain the information. Similarly, when a sales training program is customized with terminology, references and case studies specific to the industry and company of sales professionals participating, it is of much greater relevance and interest to those participants.
Acknowledging that high-quality, customized content and an engaging, experiential learning format will greatly improve the forgetting curve, reinforcement is still the great unmined resource to ensure sustained performance improvement and ROI for your sales training investment. In a recent article in Training Industry Magazine, “The Manager’s Role in Reinforcing Learning,” authors Julie Kirsch, CPTM, and Shannon Wzientek articulated the critical nature of reinforcement, writing, “Development doesn’t end when the program concludes; it’s only just begun. Having regular opportunities to practice skills on the job promotes retention.” Your company must have materials and processes in place to create a viable environment for complete implementation and adaptation of the new skills learned in training.
Let’s first consider the environment that will foster skill adaptation. Often, sales managers are left without a leadership role in driving the performance improvement (sales training) initiative, creating a disconnect between their existing coaching roles and touch points and the essential reinforcement of the new selling skills. Kirsch and Wzientek assert, “It’s critical to incorporate the learners’ direct managers throughout the process. These individuals are the catalyst for retention and true behavior change … Discussing results and providing feedback is motivating, demonstrates that the manager is watching and supporting their efforts, builds accountability, and helps sustain the energy required for behavior change.”
Your sales training program should include a comprehensive, prescriptive reinforcement system with turnkey activities and materials that time-strapped managers can deliver with maximum flexibility and minimal prep time. Specific components of the reinforcement system will vary but should include an online learning and reinforcement tool, webinars, observations, role-play exercises, a reference library, and hands-on group review and discussion exercises. As with the initial training event, it is optimal to have variety and engagement in your reinforcement activities, while minimizing the prep time for the managers who will deploy them. Ideally, you should incorporate the materials into a customized calendar of reinforcement activities to fit your sales organization’s existing process and schedule. Most importantly, a robust, turnkey reinforcement plan provides a roadmap and toolkit for managers to lead the performance improvement initiative while keeping the new selling skills and practices fully incorporated into your team’s daily sales life.
Deploying a sales training initiative without a provision for reinforcement is like having knee replacement surgery and then foregoing physical therapy. There is no substitute for a top-notch surgeon (or sales training provider), but even with the most successful surgery (or sales training program), results will be greatly compromised without the recommended follow-up therapy.