I recently had a conversation that rocked me back on my heels. A prospective client was looking for help putting together product knowledge training for his sales team. As is often the case, serious budget constraints were in play.
On the one hand, he had a lowball bid from a supplier he had worked with before. He knew this supplier would create a poorly designed e-learning course. But, the price was right. On the other hand, he wanted to do something that would actually be effective. But, money was tight.
Like so many before him, he followed the path of least resistance and chose the low-cost option. His justification? “Well, it’s better than nothing,” he told me.
I completely understood where he was coming from. He’s a busy learning professional in a demanding job. It was quick and easy to come up with his justification. In contrast, it would have taken time and effort to come up with an effective approach that was within his budget—time and effort he didn’t think he could afford.
Was he right? Is doing something, anything, at any level of quality, really better than nothing? And, if so, under what circumstances?
I don’t believe that wasting learners’ time and a company’s resources on something you know will be ineffective is better than nothing. How could it be? You’ve spent time and invested money to get exactly nowhere.
That said, you don’t have to blow through your budget to create effective training. In fact, it’s possible to over-invest in training. Many years ago, the L&D team for one of my clients came up with a glossy magazine-style design for the participant guide for one of their courses. It was beautifully done, and there’s no doubt the idea was clever. But, how much did the high production values contribute to the actual learning over and above what would have occurred with a simpler, less expensive format? I suspect very little, if at all.
So, what are the bare minimum requirements of effective training? Turns out there are four:
- A clearly defined, concrete course objective. You must define in observable, measureable terms what people will be able to do as a result of the training program. You should be able to describe this goal in a single sentence. Here’s an example: “By the end of this course, you will be able to answer questions about XYZ product with 99 percent accuracy.” It’s clear. It’s succinct. And, you can check to see if this actually happens. How? In one case, one of my clients sent secret shoppers into their stores to ask questions and record the accuracy of their sales team’s answers.
- Essential information people need to know to meet the objective. Now that you know what you want to accomplish, you can select the right content. This is what people need to know to achieve the objective—no more and no less.
Ideally, you’ll organize this content in a way that mirrors how learners will use it on the job. In the case of my prospect, because the sales team would be using the product knowledge gained from the course to answer customers’ questions, both proactively and reactively, I recommended that he present the content in a Q&A format. This mimicry between the training and the job helps learners transfer what they learn to their work. This is because they don’t have to take the extra step of mapping topical content to real-life situations—they’ve practiced it already.
- Activities that mirror the job. The purpose of activities is to provide learners with a chance to translate new knowledge into new skills. It’s one thing to know about something and quite another to be able to do it. Activities should represent a day in the life of learners. In the case of my prospect, learners might be creating sales presentations, responding to objections, answering questions, and finding and sending supporting content, to name just a few activities. This means that learners should have a chance to do all of these things during the training.
Doing is only half the story, though. Learners also need feedback on and coaching to improve their performance so it is up to par. For example, they might compare their sales presentation against a checklist to ensure that they covered key points. Or, they could answer customer questions in a timed activity. Take too long and you lose points!
- We can all be a little bit lazy about implementing new skills, especially when we feel overwhelmed and stressed at work. Optimizing our performance is the least of our worries. We just want to get through the day. Plus, if we don’t apply what we learned right away, we are likely to forget it, or forget enough of it that it makes application challenging. This is why it is key that you build in accountability.
Building in accountability can be as simple as sending secret shoppers out to test a sales team’s product knowledge, having managers review a rep’s sales presentation to make sure that it conforms with standards, or spot checking prospects to ensure that they are satisfied with the answers they received to their questions. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to happen.
Training doesn’t have to have a high price tag to be effective. Including these four elements will ensure your training yields results.
One last piece of advice: If you are working on a tight budget with an outside firm, don’t blow your budget on revisions. Settle disagreements between subject matter experts in-house. Consolidate edits before passing them off to the supplier’s production team. And, make changes early in the production process. A change to a storyboard in PowerPoint is a lot cheaper than a change to a narrated e-learning course.