Consider the following scenario…
Company XYZ rounds up two representatives from every group involved with sales training, including vendors, training staff, VPs of sales, frontline sales managers, and sales reps, to participate in a comprehensive opinion survey about the status of sales training in the organization. Before the survey begins, leaders make a small bet about whether there will be universal agreement on one question: Do you think training reinforcement is important?
In general, there was substantial disagreement on many of the survey items—due to diversity of the groups involved. However, the comment section included such responses as:
- “What we do after the training will be as important as the training itself.”
- “Our sales training never sticks because of lack of reinforcement.”
- “After three months most of the learning will be lost if we don’t reinforce it.”
Clearly, leaders at Company XYZ may have won the bet, but lack of training reinforcement will likely lose the company some important sales.
Bottom line: If your organization does not reinforce the skills learned during sales training, learning will decay—and decay will be rapid. Indeed, many skills may disappear within three months.
How can an organization reinforce its sales training?
In order to improve the future, it is good idea to examine the past. Historically, it seems that a lot of effort has gone into simply trying to “buy” reinforcement with off-the-shelf participant reinforcement kits, videos, webinars, and so forth. Although these approaches are helpful, they are inadequate. Indeed, by themselves, such tools will not sufficiently reinforce an organization’s training investment. A company cannot just buy reinforcement from a training vendor; they must also internally assess what they need to do and then go and actually do it.
Effective training reinforcement must include coaching and institutional support. These are two very different—but equally important—types of reinforcement follow-up. Let’s take a brief look at each.
Coaching. Everyone is familiar with the concept of coaching. So, the problem is not recognizing that coaching is the right thing to do; the problem is doing it right.
Before your company implements its sales training efforts, a plan needs to be in place for how frontline managers are going to continue coaching others on the skills taught during training. To do so, the following issues need to be addressed:
- Are our frontline managers skilled in the art and science of coaching? If not, what are we going to do about that?
- Are our frontline managers knowledgeable in the application of the skills being taught during training? If not, how do we correct that?
- What tasks are we not going to have our frontline managers perform so they will have the time to get serious about coaching?
Institutional Support. Whereas there is a lot of discussion about coaching, there is less attention given to institutional support as a type of reinforcement.
There are numerous topics and ideas that a sales rep must already be knowledgeable about in order to successfully apply any new skills taught during a sales training program. Although topics will vary depending on the company and the focus of the training, lack of such knowledge is one of the main reasons that new skills are never applied and soon decay.
To add clarity as to what institutional support might look like, let’s examine how one company recently assessed the type of support it would need to reinforce its training. In this case, training consisted of a sales simulation, and the management team was engaged in the training. After observing the performance of others during training, the management team identified three priority areas. Here are their observations:
- Messaging. There are a number of general, straightforward topics that the sales reps simply do not seem to have sufficient background on to discuss when a question is asked during a sales call. Example topics include: “How is the acquisition going?” and “What is the unique benefits of doing business with your company?” While everyone needs to be able to fine-tune a response, they should start from a common set of talking points. Therefore, elements of a sample “narrative” that the reps could use when certain topics bubble up in conversation are required.
- Success stories. Most agree that stories are compelling and motivating. But because many reps have not been with the company very long or have operated in solos, they do not have a collection of success stories for their own area—and certainly not for the other areas. At this point, it is not a realistic expectation for the reps to create their own stories; instead they should focus on how to use stories effectively in the sales calls. Therefore, we must develop past successes into stories and distribute them to reps.
- Integration. The company is moving from selling individual products to selling an integrated solution. However, there is no common vision among the sales reps as to exactly what that “means for the customer.” We need to describe for reps the company’s short- and long-term vision of what integration might look like and how it might impact the customer.
These are just examples of how institutional support can be used to address deficiencies identified by one company for one training solution. Each effort at each company will likely be different. The important factor, though, is that if training is going to work, these types of problems must be addressed.
Sales training is increasingly important. It costs a fair amount of money, and is very difficult to do over again. So, the moral of the story is to get it right the first time. And, getting it right requires getting serious about reinforcement.