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Why Experiential Learning is Essential in a Sales Training Programme

Sales performance improvement

diverse group of sales professionals engaging in experiential learning as part of a sales training program


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Effective learning requires two parts: theory and practice. Without both the experience is incomplete.

Theory shows learners the purpose of a particular selling skill. Practice shows learners what it means to apply that skill in a high-stake setting.

Traditionally, sales training programmes have plenty of theory. Why? Because theory is easy to deliver. Theory can be communicated via workbooks, videos, and diagrams. These mediums can be duplicated and shared quickly and easily.

This is not the case with practice.

Bringing practice into the learning experience is far more labor intensive. Practice requires facilitators. It requires sellers to come together. It often requires more time out-of-market. Practice calls for more preparation. These factors are demanding.

These demands, however, are also well worth the effort because practice brings skills to life by asking learners to apply what they have learned in front of instructors and colleagues. This environment simulates the intensity, unpredictability, and even messiness of a real customer dialogue.

Experiential learning is essential to a sales training programme for three other reasons:

  1. Getting immediate coaching and feedback
  2. Accelerating learning
  3. Improving retention

Here we look at why each of these benefits improves the efficacy of a sales training programme.

Immediate Coaching Feedback

Coaching is most effective when it happens in the moment. Experiential learning through role play enables this kind of immediate feedback because the instructors and facilitators are present during the exercises.

Learners are often more receptive to this kind of coaching because they know that the direction is coming from someone who saw the conversation. This means that the coach’s insights and direction are based on a shared experience rather than the coach’s interpretation of an exchange they never saw.

Immediate coaching also improves the learner’s focus. The presence of an instructor has the effect of intensifying the learner’s efforts because they know they are being held to a standard. As a result, learners are motivated to give their full attention to the learning process. This kind of attention is crucial because learning often demands time out-of-market which carries a cost.

Importantly, the coach can provide a level of feedback that is unmatched elsewhere. The coach can offer insights on body language, tone, word choice, and demeanor. While traditional print and digital mediums, can explore these characteristics these formats do not have the weight of live instruction delivered as personalised insights.

Accelerated Learning

Experiential learning accelerates learning because each learner benefits from the experience of all others. This has a multiplier effect on the learning process.

Each exercise, dialogue, and mock selling scenario is an opportunity for the rest of the learners to observe what works and what does not. This setting also creates a group dynamic in which learners are encouraged to exchange ideas with each other. This kind of relationship is built on the psychological safety that comes from knowing that there will be no penalties for trying something new.

This aspect of experiential learning has never been more important. Today the job of selling changes with increasing frequency and intensity. Sellers must apply a diverse set of skills while also knowing when and where each of those skills is pertinent. The only way to develop such a vast array of skills is to engage in the kind of intensified learning that happens in an experiential setting.

Moreover, research confirms the power of this approach. A meta study published in Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning evaluated more than a dozen published works and determined that there was “a significant positive improvement in the means of the experiential learning groups over the control groups.” The takeaway is clear: effective learning means more than just understanding concepts. It also means applying them.

Improved Retention

Live practice drives retention because it creates a healthy level of tension. This tension is what makes experiential learning more of an emotional experience which increases the likelihood that the skills will stick.

Research cited in Frontiers in Psychology supports this idea by showing that “substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events.”

Most people will recognise this phenomenon in other areas of their life. Many of the experiences we remember are ones that surfaced a strong emotion or were out of the ordinary. Experiential learning works the same way because role play exercises are not a common experience. Sellers are rarely asked to exhibit their skills, especially new ones, in front of a group or an instructor.

This idea not only applies to role play exercises, it also applies to classroom learning. A classroom setting has the spontaneity and immediacy that keeps learners alert because the instructor seeks responses from the group or calls on an individual to offer an insight or feedback.

Learning just the theory behind a skill will not create the kind of emotions that are crucial to anchoring the concept. Role play and classroom experience are needed to create the intensity that leads to retention.

Learning Means Doing

Therefore, learners need both theory and practice to succeed. Sales leaders can put this idea to use by including classroom learning and role play exercises in their training programmes. Doing so will replicate the pace, and urgency that can be expected in the sometimes uncomfortable arena of a real sales pursuit.

All of Richardson's sales training programmes include elements of experiential learning that are fully customised to ensure relevancy to your sellers world

Click here to set up a time to talk about the results we can deliver to your sales team.

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