Last year, a group of university and college deans issued a report that aimed to isolate the most effective learning strategies. Though it was primarily targeted at college-level instructors, the strategies are highly relevant to sales training programs as well — because they’re grounded in research about how adults acquire and retain knowledge.

So let’s take a closer look at the number-one insight in the report.

New and old

The deans started with a seemingly simple question: How do learners understand new ideas?

Cognitive science provides an unambiguous answer: the brain acquires and uses new concepts by connecting them to information it already knows.

That may seem like a duh, but it has a big impact on how to design training.

For example, traditional learning is often built around another the assumption that knowledge progresses from simple to complex. To teach children to read, we start with letters. Then we put letters together into words, and words into simple sentences: See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.

It works great. For children.

But how often have we all sat through training — purportedly for adult salespeople — that is built on the same model? You start with the basics and build from there.

Problem is, adults already know a thing or two. So starting simple just irritates them. Instead, start with something they already know.

An example may make the distinction more clear. Let’s say you want to train salespeople to tackle a new and unfamiliar market. They’ve been selling to, say, industrial customers. Now you want them to start selling to hospitals.

Traditional training might start with the basics. How many hospitals are there? What do they traditionally buy? What’s the organizational structure? What do they look for in a vendor? Good luck trying to remember all that.

A better approach would be to start with the reps’ existing knowledge — for example, their experience selling to industrial customers. So you might pose questions like these: How is a hospital like a factory? How is it not like a factory? How does its organizational structure compare with those of your current customers? How is it different?

Or you might start with another knowledge base. Most people — even sales reps — know something about hospitals. If they haven’t been patients, at least they’ve been visitors. Maybe they have a cousin or friend who’s a nurse. Maybe they watch hospital dramas on TV. Their knowledge may be incomplete or even inaccurate. But you can still build on it: What have you noticed about hospitals in your experience? Who seems to be in charge? What do they do well? What are their struggles? Why are there so many hand sanitizers around? From there, you can start building the insights reps will need to sell successfully.

When you present information this way, reps already have a hook to hang it on. They don’t have to work as hard to absorb and remember it; it makes sense in an organic way.

So the next time you need to impart new information to your sales team — be it product knowledge, sales skills or how to use the CRM — start by asking yourself: “How does this knowledge connect to what they already know?”

Source: Deans for Impact. (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

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