Close your eyes. Picture a sales room. Are there a dozen reps sitting side-by-side? Are half of them on the phone and the other half talking a mile a minute? Are they ribbing each other, checking leaderboards and making challenges?
What you’re picturing might be stereotypical. It might not be exactly what the sales floor looks like at your organization. Yet what you’re picturing is also a crucial element of sales training: informal peer-to-peer learning.
When it comes to sales training, many businesses are eager to invest. They ask their learning and development (L&D) teams to design new-hire onboarding, host annual kick-offs and contract third-party sales methodology training to make sure their reps have all the tools necessary to hit (and exceed) quota. Yet while all of these formal programs support a successful sales organization, winning salespeople will tell you they learned the most from the reps sitting in the same room as them.
Close your eyes again. Picture your sales team as it really is today. Are some of your reps working from home? Are they spread out across offices, time zones or even countries?
The challenge for today’s sales leadership and sales trainers is to figure out how to build informal peer-to-peer learning into hybrid workforces. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to accomplishing this, many organizations are solving this problem in creative ways. Read on for four ideas from sales training experts Jen Allen-Knuth (Lavender, formerly at Challenger), Leslie Douglas (JB Sales), and David Dulany (Tenbound).
Create Formal and Informal Online Spaces
For decades, businesses have invested in offices that allowed for sales “bullpens,” where reps sit next to each other and their managers. The traditional bullpen allows reps to hear each other’s calls, ask each other questions in the moment, lean over to see each other’s screens, and to get in-the-moment coaching from their direct managers.
Supporting a hybrid sales workforce requires the same intentionality as creating a bullpen in the physical office. For a close approximation, David Dulany, founder and CEO of Tenbound, recommends hosting a Zoom room that stays open for a standard set of hours. This could be for each manager and their direct reports, or it could be for a larger group of reps. Either way, set an expectation that everyone joins with their cameras on and their mics unmuted (to a reasonable degree). This allows managers and peers to overhear each other’s calls, ask questions as soon as they come up and also build camaraderie so they trust each other enough to give feedback.
For another, more targeted approach, Leslie Douglas, vice president of sponsor sales at Sell Better, suggests setting up regular meetings between reps for peer-to-peer feedback. These could be one-on-one or small groups. The important thing is to put them on the calendar, keep them regular and give parameters for what kind of feedback they should give each other. This way, you set the expectation that reps should rely on each other for help, even when they aren’t physically together.
Encourage Reps To Share Stories
In the traditional bullpen environment, reps start sharing stories with each other naturally. It is a way to blow off steam, bond with deskmates and maybe even kill time before their next round of cold calls.
In a hybrid workforce, it takes further encouragement. From his vantage point helping start and run business development teams for tech companies, David Dulany recommends requiring reps to share stories in daily stand-ups. Depending on the size of your team, this might not be every rep every day. However, many reps you can include, be sure to encourage both success and failure stories. They can be as small as an anecdote on building rapport over the phone or as big as tracing a deal win from the first cold call through to the contract signing. The point is to help reps break the ice with each other, so they continue to talk after the meeting ends.
For Jen Allen-Knuth, head of community growth at Lavender, it is important to keep the focus on how reps are beating their own personal goals, rather than creating an overly competitive environment. She sees success when salespeople are in competition with themselves. Sharing stories in a formal meeting helps reps see how they can learn a new skill, or how they can overcome their next hurdle, without becoming a place where people are shamed or bragging.
Foster a Culture of Feedback Between Reps
Informal learning often comes in the way of feedback. “Hey, I heard you say X on that call … what if next time you tried Y?” or reading drafts of pitch decks or even talking through the next move in a sales play. However, to give and receive feedback requires that your reps trust each other. That means you have to actively foster an environment of feedback.
Douglas recommends you begin by modeling it yourself. Ask for feedback after you have presented a new idea to the team and in your one-on-ones. Make sure you give feedback, too, so that the whole team begins to expect it as part of your culture.
The entire team should be coached on how to give effective feedback. On a rep-to-rep basis, sales managers can and should get to know how each individual prefers to receive critical notes. As a team, you can train the whole group to offer constructive criticism without demoralizing each other. One example is the classic compliment sandwich. Another useful tip Douglas suggests is to start with one or two things that the rep did well, then to focus on one or two things they can focus on improving. This makes the critiques feel manageable and helps the rep stay open to feedback.
With that in mind, Douglas also recommends being mindful about offering positive feedback. She compares it to reviewing a restaurant: We are much more likely to jump on a review site to complain about bad service than we are to heap praise on excellent service or to acknowledge good service. As a leader, she makes a goal of writing a note of positive feedback to at least one person per week. This is a practice you can encourage among your reps, too, to boost morale and make sure they feel seen by their leaders and their peers.
Build Your Tech Stack Around Your Reps
One advantage the hybrid workforce has over the bullpens of the 1990s: There is a whole lot more technology designed to improve the sales process. That same technology can also foster informal just-in-time learning for your reps.
Take your chat solution, for example. Set it up with channels for each team, and job function — as well as the whole sales organization — that are dedicated to sharing stories and asking teammates questions. You might also set up chatbots to help point reps to the right resources at the right time. For example, if they type into the channel, “Where can I find this quarter’s pricing sheet?” your chatbot can respond with the link immediately, so that they don’t have to wait for a manager or peer to see the question.
On top of that, sales outreach solutions track much more data than ever before. Make sure you regularly share stats with your reps on what type of subject line is getting the most opens or replies, or what steps of a cadence are most effective at booking demos or whatever other insights you can glean. This will help keep the whole team aligned, and it might even spark more anecdotal examples from reps.
Dulany even thinks there is room for technology to give just-in-time coaching to reps. He has seen solutions that use artificial intelligence (AI) to pop up on the screen during calls or emails with suggestions on how to change their approach based on historical data. This can help fill in for managers, particularly in hybrid environments, so that team leads can focus on more in-depth feedback during one-on-ones.
Ask any seasoned sales rep in your organization, and they will tell you a key to success early on is informal peer-to-peer learning. For young reps, this environment is not only about learning the skills and tools necessary to succeed at their jobs, but also about building morale and helping them see what a career in sales entails. Sales organizations need formal learning programs. As workforces become increasingly hybrid and complex, it is crucial that sales leaders — and the L&D teams supporting them — become intentional about fostering informal learning.