There is a certain type of training that does nothing to improve a sales organization's results. We call it “check box” training because the sales organizations that use it are literally checking the box that says "provided the sales force training.” Everyone knows it doesn't work, including the people and organizations that spend money on it. The reason is simple: they don't see the results they need and never see the behavioral changes that lead to the results. Fortunately, there’s a better way.
Sales Training and Checking the Box
Check box training typically brings the whole sales force together in some place for one day, often the only training they will attend in that calendar year. The sales trainer will have around 6 hours to deliver the content, most likely delivered in ninety-minute blocks.
This kind of approach basically requires perfection. The sales trainer needs to have perfect delivery, ensuring that everyone in the room understands the content, regardless of their expertise or experience. The salespeople being trained must have perfect comprehension, perfect retention, and perfect application after hearing about the content exactly one time. Rather than hope for that perfection, here are some ways to improve the results of your sales training investments.
Knowledge Transfer vs. Competency Transfer
Some people approach sales training as "knowledge transfer." Those who believe that training is just about shifting knowledge from Person A to Person B will be disappointed with the results. Even with excellent design and delivery, knowledge transfer by itself can’t deliver better performance for most people being trained.
To do that, you need to go beyond knowledge transfer to competency transfer, the ability to execute the approach, strategies, and tactics in the training. Even when the sales force is required to role play one or more scenarios, they don’t automatically gain competence.
Development Plans and Sales Training
Another reason check box training doesn't work is because it is almost always done outside of a larger, comprehensive development plan, one that provides more than a single day of knowledge transfer. Without a competency model, a development plan, and a longer-term view of building an effective and high-performing sales organization, checking a box does too little.
Rather than making check box training the end point, think of it as the start: provide the knowledge transfer that can later be enabled and reinforced as part of a larger initiative, one that provides for competency transfer and professional development.
Competency Transfer and Sales Training
Do you believe that reading Swimming for Dummies and sitting in a conference room for a day-long training—even one with Michael Phelps—would enable you to learn to swim? There is a difference between "know-what" and "know-how," as documented in Mind Over Machine: The Power of Intuition and Expertise in the Age of the Computer by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Stuart E. Dreyfus.
For instance, I watched a YouTube video of two heart surgeons repairing a patient's dilated ascending aorta. It's a very simple procedure. Having watched the video, I can tell you exactly how to do the surgery without even remotely being able to do it myself. With no follow-up activities, check box training is impotent when it comes to competency transfer. What is learned needs to be practiced—first in a safe environment so salespeople don't harm their results while they practice, and then in front of their prospective clients.
Reinforcement and Accountability
Training is part of development, but only part. It’s simply impossible to develop competencies in a group of people in six hours. Nor will a single exercise provide enough time or experience to master anything. The first time you see something, you are acquiring knowledge, an important first step. Mastering the approach or strategy requires more awareness, coupled with the experience of using what you learned. You can improve your check box training by reinforcing it with exercises and group coaching where people share their experiences: what worked, what didn't work, what the results were, and how you might adjust your own approach. Without reinforcement, competency transfer is impossible, along with the better results you need.
Any new competency is only enabled by a behavioral change, in this case made possible when sales leaders and sales managers create accountability for the behaviors they want to see in their salespeople. Having checked the “do training” box, many sales organizations go right back to doing what they've always done. Without a greater commitment to improving your sales force's effectiveness, including new and better behaviors, you’ll see no real improvement in your results.
These behavioral changes go hand in hand with the reinforcement that comes from reviewing the training, practicing it in the field, and listening to and sharing experiences with others pursuing the same competency. Together, they form a critical and overlooked form of accountability: the accountability to grow and improve.
Improving Your Check Box Sales Training
To summarize, the first and most important way to improve your training is to start with a development plan and a competency model. Check box training no longer just checks the box when it is one part of a larger program, especially one that is built on competency transfer. The second way is to reinforce the new knowledge with exercises and reviews, providing the time to practice. Finally, the accountability for behavioral changes must come from sales leaders and sales managers, without which all change initiatives fail.
Professional selling is becoming more difficult. It requires more of the salesperson than organizations (and clients) have expected in the past. These expectations focus on creating a greater level of value within the sales conversation and exhibiting consistent and valuable professional growth. Your clients and your sales organization will both remain frustrated unless and until you improve your sales force's effectiveness.