Fewer than half of sales organizations are satisfied with their training efforts, and a paltry fewer than 7 percent said their training exceeded expectations, according to CSO Insights. But you don’t need us to tell you that the world of business is changing fast in 2017, and that it’s been hard for sales teams to keep up. What we’ll go into detail about in this article is how both those problems can be transformed into successes with engaging online learning experiences.

First Things First

But first, let’s back up and define what selling means in today’s environment. “It is harder to sell today than ever before,” says Byron Matthews, CEO of Miller Heiman Group, a sales management consulting company. “We have seen a steady decline in sales performance over the past four years. One of the primary reasons is that customers are demanding value in the sales process. It’s not good enough to just show up and ask questions, sellers need to show value through ‘selling.’”

What does that mean? Matthews continues, “This may come to light in helping clients see unrecognized problems, risks or helping navigate the change they are trying to accomplish by developing business cases, case studies or implementation plans.”

“Bottom line,” concludes Matthews, “Selling is more precise than it ever has been and as a result, sales enablement— the capability that enables the seller at the right time to add value, or provide the right skill that allows them to execute in a way that differentiate themselves—couldn’t be more important.”

Microsoft: Proof in the Pudding

Let’s look at Microsoft’s transformation in recent years, as an example. They’ve gone from selling on-premise software to cloud-based software. They went from a salesforce that’s skilled at talking to primarily IT departments to one facing very different discussions with primarily business decision-makers. Those are big changes requiring a very different set of skills.

But Microsoft’s sales and marketing readiness team sees this as one of many recent positive changes in the world of sales. Chris Pirie, general manager of field readiness and learning at Microsoft, believes “Shifting buying cycles with more prepared customers who do their research before they talk to a salesperson is one of the most positive disruptors we’ve seen in the last few years.” He continues, “This is in addition to access to social networks like LinkedIn and data from those tools, the broad collection of data in CRM and the insights derived from that data, etcetera.”

All these changes, combined with the ambitious timeline and goals of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, meant that classroom-based training would simply take too long to transform Microsoft’s salesforce appropriately (over five years at their traditional training speed). That’s why Microsoft turned to online learning for answers, knowing that the move to technology-enabled sales training would make their sales enablement faster. What they discovered is it has also turned out to be groundbreaking and transforming in more ways than one.

Firstly, it’s driven up sales revenue quickly. Over $50 million in revenue has been directly attributed to the learnings in the course by 177 respondents of a survey after the first year of the program. And, that response group comprises less than 3 percent of the over 14,000 learners that have been through the MOOC-like experience to date. Course completion rates are also high, averaging nearly 80 percent across the voluntary courses over the last two years. That’s an important metric when it comes to sellers who, of course, want to be spending all their time selling but spend 64 percent of it on other things, from lead-gen/research to meetings and admin, according to the 2016 Sales Performance Optimization Study.

As you might expect from such high completion rates, the satisfaction ratings have hovered around 99 percent as well. Microsoft has also won a slew of industry awards based on the business impact of their suite of corporate MOOCs. But perhaps the most important aspect of moving their sales training online is that Microsoft now has a new humming engine of engaging online learning practices to call upon more broadly. The MOOC-like approach has expanded from general business strategy and financial acumen to other topics including digital transformation, public sector sales strategy and specific verticals. 

How?

But, how? With ruthless relevance, keeping the learner and the salesperson at the center.

Help me be more successful: Content, whether it’s from a business school partner like INSEAD, Wharton or Kellogg, or internally-created, is given context with examples and insights specifically related to Microsoft’s products, markets and opportunities. And, “what’s in it for me,” is clearly delineated throughout the experience.

Make it easy for me: Short-form content with access anytime and anywhere, and with clear guidance and expectations both within the course and in marcoms surrounding the experience. For example, short videos, reference documents and discussion forums.

Challenge and reward me: Points, badges, gamification and the competitive spirit of leaderboards. Additionally, rigorous peer-graded real-world capstone assignments to boot.

Demand Is Increasing

Microsoft is just one example of the possibilities of sales enablement transformation. It’s been truly refreshing to see how many RFPs come through specifically asking about the digital components of enablement offerings. There is also an increased expectation for experiential learning to be incorporated just as effectively (if not better) online as in-person. For example, applying learning to real-world scenarios and uploading a role-playing video for peer feedback, incorporating simulations, remote coaching, office hours and best-practice sharing. Various components of the modern learning ecosystem can come into play at different stages of the learning experience. They can be put together in different combinations to best suit your sales organization and priorities.

Another Way of Blending

One health care technology company went with a blended learning approach to their new online sales enablement program. They assigned small cohorts of two to four sellers to regularly meet via web conference outside of the self-paced online learning. By carefully mixing junior and senior salespeople, and integrating social learning and self-enhancing communities of practice, the company created a mentoring atmosphere that shared tacit knowledge with new salespeople, getting them onboard faster and more solidly. After all, salespeople, like most learners, trust their peers the most and tend to highly value their opinions and experiences.

Expanding the Limits of Sales Enablement

It’s a mistake to limit your thinking about sales enablement to just the sales organization. The best sales transformations run across the enterprise. Higher performing organizations have a disciplined sales enablement function, but also tend to enable broadly across the organization, including marketing, customer success and customer service (i.e., selling at every level of the customer lifecycle). Higher maturity and broader sales enablement tends to lead to 8.2 points higher revenue plan attainment, according to CSO Insights.

This is one reason why Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, started a partner accreditation program for both partner sellers and technical professionals who implement Telstra solutions for businesses. The results from the pilot have been striking, including an overall pilot participant Net Promoter Score of +63, which is on par with the best traditional face-to-face training.

Engaging online sales enablement training is not just the way of the future – it’s the training of the present, and it’s working. There are so many options out there for engaging learning experiences. What an exciting time to be in sales transformation!

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