Making Sales Training Stick: Building a Continuous Learning Environment
You know the feeling. You’re driving in your car, trying to get where you’re going, but are frustratingly slowed by every traffic light on the road. Oh how you’d rather be on a smooth highway, free of traffic lights (and traffic) and motoring on toward your destination unimpeded. Sound familiar?
That scenario represents a good analogy for the difference between a training culture and a culture of continuous learning. When companies provide training once or even a few times per year and view the programs as independent, standalone events are driving the first car. Rather than building momentum, the constant starting and stopping can be a drain on your resources as well as limiting the driver’s (your sales reps) capabilities. However, if you choose, you can remove those obstacles and set a course for cruising down the highway unimpeded towards your goals, getting there faster than your stop-and-start peers.
Need more convincing? A continuous learning environment is a business strategy, not an L&D strategy. Organizations with a strong learning culture significantly outperform their peers in several areas:
- Innovation: 92% more likely to devise novel products and processes
- Productivity: 52% greater employee productivity
- Customer Satisfaction: 53% better response to customer needs
- Costs: 50% greater ability to manage costs
- Time to Market: 56% more likely to be first to market
- Profitability: 17% more likely to be a market share leader
Source: High-Impact Learning Culture: The 40 Best Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise (Bersin, June 2010)
Those numbers can significantly enhance the effectiveness of your sales organization and directly translate to your bottom line.
A Continuous Learning Environment Approach Requires an Enlightened Mindset
What does it take to transition to a continuous learning approach? Of course getting senior-level buy-in is critical along with enlisting key supporters and influencers down the line to help reinforce the change, but there also are some fundamental changes in “doctrine” that will be necessary for you to accept and espouse.
A training curriculum isn’t enough. Having an organized set of training programs – even if they contain pre-learning and prep work as well as follow-up activities – is still mired in the old way of thinking. A traditional approach to learning places the overwhelming majority of the focus, time, and resources on the intervention itself. (It’s not a bad thing that L&D managers and their staffs have event planning skills, but that should not be where they place their emphasis.) Some might give attention to pre- and post-training, but only as an afterthought and “if I have time” and “if there’s anything left in the budget.” The bottom line is that L&D feels little ownership or responsibility for what happens between interventions.
Conversely, in making the leap to a continuous learning environment, there are several key differences:
- Attention is given to all phases of training (before, intervention, after). Quash the one-and-done training mindset for good by evaluating your starting point, preparing your reps before the training program, and knowing what you’ll do after the event to keep them interested and engaged.
- Environmental vs. intervention-driven. This requires a broader knowledge and awareness of your business, including how you make money, the interconnectedness and interdependencies among business groups and units (as well as gaps between them), and future direction. Moving the needle demands a big picture outlook and the ability to connect the dots to create points of leverage and synergy where it might not have existed previously.
- Recognize that other phases are of at least equal importance. Pre-training work should not be viewed as reps filling out forms before they arrive; similarly, a post-training survey or evaluation does not constitute engagement. Traditional approaches might place 80%-90% of budget and time against the intervention with a mere 5%-10% half-heartedly divided between pre- and post-training. Be radical and split your attention into equal thirds, or maybe even place greater emphasis beyond the event.
- L&D takes ownership of “learning as a process.” They need to truly partner with sales leaders and others to help enact this change. Help reps get on a ride that doesn’t stop. It’s the difference in speed and efficiency between Frogger and Pole Position (without the recklessness). Look for opportunities to reinforce, develop, apply, and become expert at what you’ve taught them until it’s time to take it to the next level.
Tactics to Help Foster a Culture of Continuous Learning
Here are a few suggestions for ways to bring about a continuous learning environment. (Again, senior-level sponsorship and endorsement is critical; without it, your efforts could wither on the vine if they get anywhere at all.)
Gamification. We’ve covered in previous posts how gamification tools such as Richardson’s QuickCheckTM can help keep learners engaged well beyond the training event, but more importantly increase their retention of critical knowledge gained that would otherwise be lost soon after a training event.
Social media and networks. Get cozy with the guys down the hall in IT. Work with them to create internal online groups, forums, discussion boards, blogs, and the like to help reps keep the dialogue going beyond the training. Monitor the chatter to influence future trainings (e.g., where to place more or less focus). Also enlist the marketing and communications folks for their help in devising communications campaigns to help keep fuel on the fire post- and between trainings among reps.
Job mentoring, shadowing, and sharing. When one group has the benefit of being trained and gaining expertise in a certain area, how can you leverage that until everyone has had the chance to receive the same training? Do you even need to run everyone through the same program, or can your trained group become leaders and mentors for the others? And how can you spread the “magic” that’s happening with one particular team across the entire organization?
Some organizations can train everyone concurrently while others need to move in stages or phases. In either approach, look for experts or fast learners who can help others. That’s where job mentoring, job shadowing, and job sharing come into play. Establishing cross-functional sales teams is another way of bringing people together with varying levels of expertise and sharing experiences.
When you do this, be careful how you position your expectations of what they’ll do with it. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a quote made popular by the Spiderman movies, but was originally made famous by the French philosopher Voltaire. Be sure that your mentors are up to the task and not withholding information or effort in helping others to advance. Communicate and reinforce the expectation that they will help others and not hoard their knowledge for their own benefit.
Reward the behaviors and results you want to see. This goes for all involved, including (1) the L&D leaders who need to change their mindset and approach to learning, (2) reps that successfully complete training and master skills, and (3) mentors who go above and beyond to help others. If you really want to enact a behavior change, money will usually get their attention.
What do you do to help “make learning stick” in your organization? Leave us your ideas or thoughts on those presented here in the Comments.