Although I am passionate about providing the knowledge and skills that sales teams need to be successful, I have never really liked the term training. I often think of training as what happens between dogs and their owners – and usually it’s the dog providing the training. But even more so, the word training makes me imagine terrible events with endless PowerPoint presentations. If that was not enough of a negative connotation, then we can look directly at the results: many studies of sales training underscore how little information is truly retained and how the actual impact falls very short of what sales organizations had hoped for. So, what can we do to get more meaningful implementation, adoption, results from our trainings?

Given that a significant percentage of our company’s business is in the provision of training, I have given much thought as to how we, along with leaders everywhere, can build training to be more effective. Let’s start with what I consider to be the root cause of poor teaching, and what specifically put us in the wrong direction some 200 years ago. It was around the time a teacher in Glasgow invented the blackboard. This single moment changed the direction for teaching forever. The expert could now stand in the front of the room and transmit information to the multiple students at the same time. For so many reasons, this big gain in efficiency was obviously preferable to the more traditional, one-to-one style of instruction. At the same time though, this new method of mass-transmission dramatically reduced the opportunity for dialogue between the student and the teacher, and indeed the students amongst themselves. Listening became prioritized over other forms of communication and collaboration that were, and still are, such vital elements of the learning process. Of course, the blackboard then led to the white board, then to the overhead projector, and finally to PowerPoint. Training has only gotten more and more efficient, but its effectiveness is questionable.

All that said, I know not all training is delivered in this PowerPoint style. There are fine examples out there of cohort learning, experiential learning, coaching, and simulation to name only a few. Yet the majority of what we get to engage with is the presentation style of training. Go to any business conference – places where I spend a considerable amount of time – and I assure you there will be dozens of hours of PowerPoint. In the New Year, I believe we should reevaluate how we’ve been learning these last 200 years and rethink how we design, develop, and deliver our training. As such, let me offer three changes that you can embrace in 2023 to better deploy effective training in your own organization.

1. Event Driven vs Continuous

First, we must move on from the idea that training happens in a certain place at a certain time to training being “always on.” Reflecting on our personal lives, when we want to learn something, most of us will likely go on YouTube. There are countless success stories today of how people have mastered a broad array of topics from online videos created both by experts and novices alike. We should use this phenomenon as a model for how we structure sales training, providing it in short, compelling, easily accessible, quickly consumable modules, when and where it is needed. 

2. Informational vs Transformational

There are broadly two different kinds of training. One is the provision of information. In this style, the learners know what they want and what to do with it. Take for example new product training. Salespeople know that it is about the latest version of an offering but need the details for a call with a prospect. If they can easily access it, they will get what they want in an on-demand delivery fashion. 

What about training that is aimed at providing something completely novel and may require changing behaviors? This is what I term transformational training. These teachings aim to develop new skills that will either change what a salesperson does or how they go about their current responsibilities. Since we are not just delivering information, transformational trainings call for a different style of learning as the salesperson may not know what they need or what to do with the new knowledge. This is why a more orchestrated and intrusive approach is essential. As stated before, this does not have to be a specific event, but it should still be managed process, one where the salesperson is taken down a curated learning path to develop competency with the new knowledge or with new skills. This path may include YouTube type resources but would likely also include peer-to-peer collaboration, coaching, and simulation.

3. Active vs Passive

Finally, we should determine what training can be a “passive,” always-on resource used at a salesperson’s discretion versus “active” training. Active training is largely what I described above – learning with an established path and prospective schedule that a salesperson is expected to follow. A learning path can include any learning activity that is part of a mandatory core curriculum with optional activities that are either role or experience based. I am also a big believer in the certification of ability at the end of each learning path. This could be a simple as an exit quiz or be as involved as a performance observation and evaluation with benchmarked results.

The New Year gives us the perfect opportunity to step away from the blackboard and challenge how we imagine sales training today to make it more effective for tomorrow. A guiding success metric is when salespeople stop asking for a copy of the PowerPoint. If they continue to pester you, there are far better tools than PowerPoint for making information available. When learning is transformational, then success certainly does not lie within the slides. It lies within the activities, role playing, collaboration, and coaching that is experienced through a learning path.

Written by Martyn Lewis
Posted January 31, 2023

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