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Why Sales Training Sustainment Fails and Five Steps to Improve Success

sales training sustainment planning


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This is the second part of an interview with Gregg Kober, Richardson Sales Performance’s former Vice President of Change Management, to discuss our experience and point of view on sustaining the impact of sales training.

Part 1 focused on the three phases of behavior change. In this article, Gregg explains why sales training sustainment fails, and our 5-Steps of Sustainment Framework.

Dario: Why does sustainment fail?

Gregg: There are a lot of reasons why sales training sustainment can fail. This failure potential is one of the reasons that learning and development leaders have been somewhat reluctant to take on the sustainment dilemma. Learning and development leaders typically do not have any kind of direct control over the systems, the processes, the metrics, the HR practices and the management practices that people go back into and return to after training. Because of this lack of authority over those things, learning and development leaders are justly reluctant to be held responsible for making changes in areas where they do not have any authority.

The best learning and development leaders that we work with or sales enablement leaders are using their influence in these other areas to corral HR, to corral technology, to corral management into making changes that complement what is going on in the training. It requires a certain amount of courage on the learning and development or sales enablement leaders’ part because they are going outside of their expertise. It requires a high ability to influence one’s peers and to help make things a priority that may not be a priority for these other people. But ultimately, help to sustain that behavior change afterwards.

DP: What are the five steps to sustainment?

GK: The five steps are: set expectations, retain knowledge, apply skills, align systems, prevent relapse.

The steps to sustainment come out of research or review of the research literature on the transfer of training so what successfully makes people go from what – take what they learned in a classroom or a virtual environment and apply it back on the job. There has been quite a bit of research done over the last 30 years on how that works.

What the steps to sustainment seek to do is to codify those into some simple to remember principles so that you can apply this going forward. And at a high level, the steps are set expectations, retain knowledge, apply skills, align systems and prevent relapse.

DP: Can you go into the steps in more detail?

GK: The first step is to set expectations. Most organizations have significant issues both for their sales leaders, their sales managers and their salespeople. And so when people have to be taken out of the field for two days or three days’ worth of training, they are naturally coming back to a game of catch up. You can almost hear them. “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to respond to this client. I have so many emails to do. I had to reschedule some meetings. I got to get back on the road. I have got to fly. Yeah, the training was great. But now I am back in the real world. “

This first step is about the organization helping people to focus and saying we know you are no longer in training. But we still need you to focus on the application of these skills and this is how we would like you to do it. And it is pretty clear, concise and really incremental steps to get people started.

Step number two, retain knowledge, is similar to when you buy a new car. The value of the car begins to deteriorate when you drive it off the dealership’s lot. The same thing happens with learning. As soon as participants set foot outside of that classroom, the forgetting curve kicks in. The forgetting curve is a naturally occurring cognitive phenomenon that we all experience in our daily life. So people, when they leave training, find the forgetting curve kicking in. Things that they knew in the classroom start to be lost out in the real world because they are not being reinforced. Retaining knowledge is all about making sure that that forgetting curve does not become a major problem in people retaining all the good skills and knowledge that they have so that that – those skills and knowledge can serve as a foundation going forward for step number three.

Step number three is to apply skills. It is important to retain the knowledge after you leave the training, but then you have to use that retained knowledge as a foundation for applying your skills back on the job. Using those skills back on the job really involves three things. One, identifying when the new skills and knowledge are appropriate when to use them; two, actually using those skills and knowledge; and three, receiving constructive feedback. So that may be feedback as far as self-reflection on your own performance. It may be peer feedback. It may be feedback from your manager, both strengths and areas for improvement.

Step number four is to align systems. This sustainment step is the heart of ensuring that people believe the required behavior changes are “real” and not a “flavor of the month.” If people go through training but their work environment has not noticeably changed to support the new behaviors, people will think that the new behaviors are optional or, worse, that management is not really serious about changing behaviors. On the other hand, if people go through training and return to a work environment that is significantly different and better aligned to support the new behaviors, people will think “management is serious about this change.”

The fifth is probably the most important step, persisting in using those skills and knowledge. We all know that any time you try and do something new, you are not proficient at it the first time. So your performance is naturally going to drop. It is hard for highly skilled, highly experienced salespeople and sales managers to see their performance drop. They get worried that they are doing something wrong by using the new skills, but they are not. It is the naturally occurring move toward conscience competence. And so what we need to do is have people persist in using the skills and knowledge so that they do become consciously competent and that they can move forward with the new skills and not worry about the short-term drop in performance.

DP: How do you do that?

GK: The way you do that is really about having a developmental coaching culture. This culture automatically assumes that a person is trying to do his or her best and that we all have strengths and areas for improvement. By focusing in a non-judgmental, non-performance way on what people are trying to achieve, we help them get over that hump. And again, there is a short-term drop off in performance. We trade that for the long-term gain in the mastering of those skills with clients.

The other thing that can really help is to apply those skills in real deal situations and get feedback in real-time. So in a deal of pursuit or in an account management situation or in a prospecting or negotiation situation, having someone who you can go to who can give you real-time coaching guidance just makes all the difference because then you feel like you are operating with these new skills and knowledge with a safety net under you. You are not going to fail. If you fall, you are going to fall into that safety net and bounce back and be fine.

DP: Do you have any other advice for a learning leader, sales leader, or a line of business leader that really wants to ensure that whatever investment they make in training sticks?

GK: Make sure you have a systematic process for making sure that training sticks. So if you are going to invest 20 per cent of your overall project budget or more than 20 per cent of your overall project budget in sustainment, first of all, have that number in mind. What is that number? And preserve that number in your project budget. But then really look systematically at a way to identify what interventions at each of the five stages are appropriate in our culture.

How do I really help people to focus by setting expectations? How am I going to kick that forgetting curve so people are retaining knowledge? Make sure that skill application – people are bought into applying the skills back on the job. Ensure that managers are supportive of people applying the skills back on the job because there is nothing that kills sustainment faster than a manager saying to a salesperson I know you learned that in training, but that is not how we do things.

“That is not how we do things" has killed more good sales training than any other sentence. So making sure that your managers are skilled at training or coaching what is being trained in the sales training is really important. Then making sure that they see, in step four, aligned systems, they see a difference. So if you have a sales process, if you have done sales process work, you make sure that the sales process is reflected in the CRM. Make sure that coaching conversations around opportunities reflect that sales process. But make sure that the systems are up-to-date and people are returning going oh, this is different. This is not going to be just the sales training fad this year.

And last, really, really make sure to publicize success. People need to hear about early success. They need to hear about the wins. If people do not hear about the wins, they are going to assume that they are the only ones struggling, right. For a few months, this will have to be about people changing their behavior because you are not going to see the results immediately. And so wins early on are about people who change their behavior, who try to do things, maybe someone who failed and got back up on the horse and was persistent and tried again and succeeded.

So early wins are really important because human beings are impatient to see success. Those early wins help to cement for people, even if you do not experience them yourself, hearing about early wins helps people say they can do this. Other people can do this. I can do this too. And it makes you much more likely to persist and not fall back into your old behavior.

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