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How to Improve Sales Training Through Practice

Learn. Practice. Perform.

No one argues with that sequence. And whether you’re a little leaguer just getting a feel for bat and ball, a newly initiated carpenter, a new mom, or a freshly onboarded sales representative, the logic is inescapable: the more you practice, the better your skills will become.

But, as important as it is, there’s a lot more to optimizing a sales force’s productivity than practice. Let’s go back a few steps.

The potential to truly maximize productivity is rooted in a fundamental change in the learning game. Although there was nothing wrong with the way we approached learning in the past, it was limited by compliance tracking requirements, resource constraints, delivery mechanisms, and mental roadblocks.

Some of those challenges are still there, to be sure. But our options for addressing those problems have improved and expanded dramatically because technology has grown into a game changer, a difference maker.

Today, mobile devices are tools with the potential to optimize performance and productivity. As a result, mobile technology is opening a whole new world of opportunity for sales reps.

Three Essential Pieces

So let’s examine a basic framework for optimizing productivity in the workplace, including three essential pieces: alignment, content, and continuous learning.

Alignment

Alignment refers to the coming together of the sales, marketing, and training departments. This alignment allows the departments to see each others’ activities more clearly and to work together toward a shared goal—greater selling success.

A definitive content strategy will prep, aim, and deliver information in the most useful way for sales reps to receive, consume, and apply it.

Continuous learning is iterative in nature. Think process not event. You can use the framework when these building blocks are in place.

So what are reps expected to learn and apply? Content, of course.

Make no mistake about it, when enabling your reps, content is the core, and it represents a two-fold challenge: content creation-delivery and feedback-improvement.

Think of the first challenge—content creation-delivery—as a real machine. It is the process, personnel, and procedures any organization has in place to generate content in its various forms. In an ideal world, after creation-delivery turns out content, reps receive it and provide immediate feedback.

Additional feedback from peers and other relevant communities, as well as prospective buyers and actual purchasers, flows into the iterative funnel and presto!

Out the other end come new versions of the content, strengthened and improved by the various feedback streams.

In the real world, it seldom happens so flawlessly.

Content

Interfacing with content is at the heart of sales reps learning. And judging from research findings, there is ample room for improvement in how sales reps receive, consume and apply content.

For example, according to a Cahners survey, 58% of buyers report that sales reps are unable to answer their questions adequately.

So are sales reps merely not learning? Or are they not learning the right things?

According to IDC, a staggering 90% of selling content is never actually used in selling. Worse yet, some studies, including one from MGI Research, have suggested that as much as 70% of the $10 billion invested in mobile enterprise software has been wasted.

Part of the reason is that sales, marketing, and training departments are out of alignment. However, with technology to help enable alignment, things have the possibility to change for the better.

With the visibility that alignment creates, trainers have a better window to see into what reps need, creating points of connection that allow them to build, test, and iterate.

Continuous Learning

An agile content strategy means you can fail fast and move on, building quickly upon successes. To be sure, agile is the core of continuous learning, allowing you to be iterative and to continuously expand sales reps’ abilities and confidence.

However, without the learning component, a sound content strategy is little more than a good idea in search of a purpose.

In the past, restraints limited and slowed down learning, but technology has changed the game, making it easier to equip a training program for continuous learning.

Mobile makes learning constant, eliminating the intervals between formal learning “events.” Mobile technology makes learning a long-term, fluid process because learners are always connected, and there’s no need to wait for anything to perform.

A good way to think about today’s mobile-enabled learning is a concept called 70:20:10.

Developed by Charles Jennings, the idea suggests that 70% of learning happens through working, and 20% of it occurs with coaching and feedback. The remaining 10% of learning is the result of workshops and courses. Said another way, an astounding 90% of learning happens informally. That means 90% of learning depends on meeting people where they are—not in expecting them to meet you in a formal and often-contrived “place.”

That’s a reality that fits well with a mobile learning strategy.

Early in this article, we introduced a basic framework for how to optimize productivity that included three essential pieces: alignment, content, and continuous learning. Now it’s time to dive deeper into learning, specifically the role of practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

Almost everyone's heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” Well, perfection may be a stretch, but brain science does support the idea of performance improvement through practice. That’s why coaches, no matter what the game, drill players on the fundamentals.

The goal is to reach a point where the execution of basic skills becomes ingrained, even automatic. Legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, always stressed fundamentals before creativity. He also made a habit of covering new material in the first half of practice. That gave players the chance to apply the new material in practice during the second half.

Left-brain and right-brain discussions are familiar to most people. The left (logical) side of the brain is the home of rational thought, reasoning, calculating and thinking through decisions. The right (intuitive) brain is where intuition resides. It is all about emotions, senses and creative thought.

During practice, the intuitive part of the brain gets exercised. The goal of practice is to move the execution of basic skills along the path to mastery—from the logical brain in the direction of the intuitive brain.

This is where skills and knowledge are applied. According to some sources, the ability to use skills and call into play relevant knowledge on the job is embarrassingly absent from today’s workforce. Findings from a 2013 study by McKinsey indicate that, while 72% of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work, only 42% of employers agree.

From the time we enter school, we're conditioned to memorize and gain an understanding of topics, and we're seldom afforded the opportunity to apply this knowledge and become skillful before entering the workforce.

Sales reps have a lot to learn, and what they are expected to know keeps changing and expanding. Hence the desperate need for the practice of the fundamental skills.

Confidence begins with competence. Providing opportunities for sales reps to practice what they learn encourages long-term comprehension. And with comprehension and competence come the confidence, poise, and polish needed to succeed in the field. But how does this happen?

The Science Behind Practice

In an article on Artificial Intuition, Monica Anderson makes it clear that intuition-based skills are improved with practice. However, it’s important to remember that the intuitive half of the brain isn’t necessarily better than the logical half, just different.

The brain uses both to do its work.

What about the argument that we are either right-brained or left-brained—in other words, that one side or the other dominates? According to expert Kendra Cherry, the idea of left or right brain dominance is a myth. Again, one is not better than the other. They are just different and provide different categories of service.

According to Jason Shen in his piece, “The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill," learning rewires our brains. It’s necessary to activate portions of the brain, to accomplish any task.

“Our brains coordinate a complex set of actions involving motor function, visual and audio processing, verbal language skills, and more. At first, the new skill might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable. What practice is doing is helping the brain optimize for this set of coordinated activities...”

So once more—does practice make perfect?

Perfection in the absolute sense is probably unattainable, but it’s clear that the human brain maintains its plasticity and therefore the ability to change itself and improve performance. How much practice is enough? According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

Here’s a naturally less precise but far more practical guideline: “The Takeaway: practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison... To improve your performance, you need to practice frequently and get lots of feedback, so you practice correctly."

3 Ways to Practice

Practice doesn’t guarantee your sales reps will perform flawlessly with every client. But the following exercises will help move along them the path toward greater confidence and productivity.

1. Experiential Learning

Experiential learning provides realistic opportunities for sales reps to immerse themselves in their clients’ worlds to fully experience their roles. They get to see and feel firsthand the tasks, challenges, and duties of the people they serve.

2. Role Play

Role play offers opportunities for sales reps to practice scenarios they are likely to encounter in the field. Such exercises involve practicing sales pitches, conversations, and calls with a facilitator, followed by immediate one-on-one feedback.

3. Scenario-based Simulations

Scenario-based simulations are true-to-life virtual replications of a real-work environment and allow learners to practice everyday tasks within it. This provides a safe place to make decisions about what tactics to use and which strategic paths to follow. Decisions made can be measured against best practices and feedback can be provided to help the learners make better decisions and fewer mistakes in the real world.

Performance Success

Experiential learning, simulations, and role-playing are all components of practice. While the techniques are not new, the recognition of how well they all play together in a cohesive technology-enabled practice environment is new—and exciting.

By following the basic framework of alignment, content, and continuous learning, you'll quickly be on your way to improving your teams performance and productivity. Couple that framework with the science of how we learn and varying ways to implement practice and you're on your way to performance success.


Curious what a performance solution looks like?

Check out this mobile-first, continuous learning platform we built for Janssen.

Learn more!

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