April 2021
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TD Magazine

Can Waterfall Immersions Help Your Sales Training Deliver Results?

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Cascading sales rep training from the leaders to the customer-facing staff ensures leadership buy-in and program adoption.

Have you ever poured all your energy into a sales enablement program only to feel disappointed that it didn't quite drive the results you had hoped for? Perhaps you received positive feedback, but a few months down the road, you began to watch sales representatives revert to their former habits. Those of us in the sales enablement space have all experienced that at some point, so how can we increase our odds?


Last year, my former manager, Ben Putterman, and I co-delivered the keynote address at the Association for Talent Development's SELL conference on exactly that topic. The presentation addressed what he and I found to be the four most common reasons sales enablement programs often fail to deliver sustained results:

  • Leadership—specifically, the lack of authentic buy-in and sponsorship from the most senior sales leaders whose priorities we translate through sales enablement programs
  • Integration—when we as sales enablement professionals are unable to weave our programs into sales reps' and managers' flow of work or into the organization's plumbing (systems, tools, etc.)
  • Complexity—when our initiatives become overly complex, leaving learners confused about what they need to do differently after completing the program
  • Team and talent—when the sales enablement team developing the programs lacks a diversity of skill sets or isn't iterating fast enough to keep pace with the changing sales enablement landscape within which it is operating

Start with gaining buy-in

It's critical for sales enablement professionals to understand those failure points, because only once we know what they are can we make plans to avoid them. When it comes to the latter three failure points, the order in which we choose to tackle them is irrelevant, but we must start by confirming that the sales leaders are fully committed to leading through change during the program's execution and beyond. Without that commitment, we need not go any further.

Why? Because a program's success or failure sits squarely on sales leaders' shoulders, not on the strength of our sales enablement teams. We can have a highly talented team design a thoughtful, high-quality program, but if sales leaders aren't able to authentically speak to why the change matters and coach their teams to sustain new behaviors over time, our efforts will ultimately be for nothing.

But here's the thing: Confirming that the sales leaders are invested in the sales enablement programs is not always as simple as it sounds. Often, senior sales leaders will eagerly commit to providing us resourcing and sponsorship because they care so deeply about developing their people and driving the sales key performance indicators we are aiming to achieve through our work. However, they sometimes commit their support without completely understanding the degree of change management that will be required to drive successful adoption and sustainment. Thus, we must clearly outline what it will take to make our work stick so that sales leaders clearly know what they are committing to and the necessary trade-offs for success.

Buy-in tactics

Here are a few tips to set up sales leaders (and, therefore, your programs) for optimal success.

Conduct a pre-mortem. Prior to doing any work, sit down with the sales leaders and proactively map out potential ways in which the program may go wrong and discuss risk-mitigation strategies. Make sure to go over the other failure points with them, asking:

  • How will this work get integrated into the flow of work for reps and managers?
  • How will we measure success?
  • Can we integrate our work into the customer relationship management system, hiring profiles, and performance management?
  • Do we have the right technology in place?

Don't wait until after things have gone off the rails to address potential challenges. Instead, do it before investing time in building the program.

Don't take the pen. Ask the sales leaders to help architect the initiative and change management strategy. Most importantly, get their commitment to be the face of the program. That entails being part of every communication touchpoint to reps and managers throughout program execution.

Whether it's an all-hands meeting, an email, or a video embedded into the learning journey, sales leaders should be the ones articulating why the program matters and setting expectations around engagement and adoption. They often will ask you to do that work because you are more intimately familiar with it. But rather than take the proverbial pen, push back and offer to coach the leaders until they feel confident delivering the message themselves.

Run waterfall immersions. This is one of the most powerful tactics of all. Yet, it's the one sales enablement professionals are most often too afraid to employ.

A waterfall immersion is when you conduct a program in waves, where the first wave begins at the top—with the company's most senior sales leaders completing the program just as a rep would from start to finish. After they complete that wave, incorporate their feedback into the program before moving onto the next wave whereby attendees of the first wave help facilitate the subsequent session for the next level of leaders. Conduct that process at each management level until sales managers help deploy the program to the customer-facing sales teams in the final wave.

Dive in

You may be skeptical of such a stair-step approach, thinking that it's too complex—and I hear you. When I embarked on launching the largest program of my career—a new sales methodology across thousands of sales reps and hundreds of managers—I shared that exact limiting belief. And if I'm being honest, I lucked into breaking it.

At the time, my company had a new sales senior vice president who believed that leaders should reallocate the time they spend memorizing speaking points the enablement team created for them to discuss changes within their sales organization to instead learning the changes themselves and walking in their team members' shoes. When my manager explained the complexity required to land our new methodology, the senior vice president said, "If I'm going to ask other people to do this, I'm going to do it myself first."

And thus began the first wave of our waterfall immersion, during which every vice president and director in the sales organization completed the two-day intensive program before helping co-deliver the next wave to their direct reports alongside my team and the vendor.

Had the senior vice president not surfaced the idea himself, I'm not sure that I would have asked for such a commitment, because I was convinced that the sales leaders were too busy with multiple other competing priorities. I also was fearful of the amount of time and work the approach would take: Would the results really be worth the efforts?

It's now more than 18 months later, and I can share that the benefits of having used the waterfall immersion method have far surpassed the time and effort it took to conduct it. Under the right circumstances, the approach can be beneficial to you as well.

Certainly, waterfall immersions are not the most efficient choice for just any enablement program. For my program, it took five months from the day the first immersion began with the most senior leaders to the last day of sales rep training. Ensuring you're using waterfall immersions for the right program is key. That's why it's important to consider the scope of audience, permanency of the change, and change management requirements before embarking on one.

Scope of audience

Reserve waterfall immersions for programs that affect most, if not every, member of the sales organization. Although you could apply modified, trimmed-down versions of a waterfall immersion within smaller teams or segments, the approach works best when the program is applicable to a broad enough audience that they can discuss it openly at large company forums such as all-hands meetings and in channels like company newsletters.

Another consideration is the degree to which the work affects cross-functional teams beyond sales. My enablement team not only needed to train sales reps with this new methodology but also had to get these other teams involved:

  • Marketing, to incorporate the methodology into client-facing narratives
  • HR, to incorporate it into the way the company equitably assesses performance
  • Talent acquisition, to account for it in the interview processes

The more teams your work affects, the more appropriate waterfall immersions become.

Permanency of the change

If you're fortunate enough to work for an innovative company, nothing stays static for long. While we should always be agile and adjust our work to evolving customer needs, reserve waterfall immersions for changes that are here to stay.

My company determined that the new sales methodology it adopted would become a shared language across all business lines and set the standard for how employees create customer value—something that will remain a top priority in perpetuity.

Because waterfall immersions do take extra time, make sure to employ them only when you know that your company will embed the program into the future of work—short of a radical unforeseen change in circumstances.


Change management requirements to sustain new behaviors

Not all changes are equal. Some product and process changes are more straightforward, whereas others will require consistent practice before new behaviors ultimately become habits.

The most significant benefit of waterfall immersions is that sales leaders will be able to speak with authenticity to their teams about how they felt when they learned about the change, what they learned through their own immersion, and why they believe investing time in this program is important. While sales leaders reading speaking points from a script may be sufficient for simpler changes, there's no point in them faking it when it comes to large-scale changes.

Simply put, a leader's authenticity will directly influence how the change occurs, how employees will receive it, and whether it will be successful.

Let it flow

Once you determine that you have a program that meets the above criteria, the next step is implementing the immersion cascade. Here's a step-by-step overview of what comes next.

Sell the importance of waterfall immersions to the most senior sales stakeholders. Here's your chance to put your sales skills to work. Depending on your seniority and relationship with the stakeholders, don't be afraid to ask your manager for help facilitating the discussion if needed.

This is the perfect time to have the pre-mortem conversation so that the sales leaders understand all that must happen for the program to be successful. In addition to sharing that their immersion will be critical for them to lead with authenticity, explain that it will also serve as their opportunity to provide feedback and shape the program for the subsequent rounds.

Map out logistics and schedule immersions at every level. For my company's sales methodology deployment, the enablement team relied on global business leaders coming together for a two-day in-person training. After scheduling the first immersion, the team calculated how long it would take to incorporate the feedback before hosting the subsequent immersion (it took roughly two weeks, but that may vary for you depending on your team's size and your program's complexity).

Don't forget that it's essential for each set of leaders to help co-facilitate their direct reports' training. So, every leader must attend two separate sessions: the first one as the learner and the second as the facilitator.

Ensure each wave mirrors the next. One goal of waterfall immersions is for those at the top to intimately understand what their individual contributors will learn and be asked to do. For that reason, your most senior stakeholders must go through the experience exactly as a rep would.

For my company, that included prework, where facilitators asked participants to bring an active opportunity to the workshop, and post-work, where facilitators asked them to apply what they learned with the customer.

The benefits are twofold. First, sales leaders will better understand what the enablement team will ask of their direct reports. Second, they will know that participants will actively work on real sales opportunities throughout the process so that the time out of seat for training benefits these opportunities in real time.

At each step along the way, communicate what's come before. When sales leaders facilitate (or co-facilitate alongside sales enablement), ensure they lead with learnings from their own immersion. When reps understand that their managers are walking the walk with them, they typically approach the training experience with a more open mind, increasing your likelihood of success.

Although waterfall immersions take time and effort, deploying programs using the approach helps increase buy-in at every level of the sales organization.

About the Author

Kira Pollard-Lipkis leads global sales readiness across the talent, learning, and Glint businesses at LinkedIn. She is passionate about accelerating sales performance by creating corporate learning cultures that foster continuous skills development to drive employee engagement. Because many of her customers are sales professionals who sell LinkedIn Learning, her team holds a high bar for creating, delivering, and sustaining high-quality modern learning experiences not unlike the ones LinkedIn provides its own customers.

Pollard-Lipkis is a firm believer that coaching plays a critical role in fostering cultures of learning and sustaining meaningful behavior change. In addition to her work at LinkedIn, she has her own coaching practice, Kira Adrienne Coaching + Consulting, where she works with emerging and experienced leaders to help them create meaningful success. She also is currently completing her certification through the Co-Active Training Institute.

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