Training transfer: A cautionary tale for sales trainers
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Training transfer: A cautionary tale for sales trainers

The Holy Grail of sales training — indeed, any kind of training — is what learning professionals call “training transfer”: Did the learner actually apply the knowledge and skills that you taught them?

A new study out of Midwestern State University, University of North Texas and Purdue University took an in-depth look at what promotes sales-training transfer. It confirmed much of what you might expect. But it found a few surprises as well — including one that offers a cautionary tale for sales managers and trainers.

First the good news: The study found several factors that enhance training transfer. In a nutshell: Recruit salespeople who believe in themselves and are eager to learn. Then put them in an organizational culture that values learning. When those conditions were met, the study found, training transfer was likely to happen.

Now the not-so-good news. In the companies that were being studied, training transfer had a negative impact on sales performance. In other words, the more reps learned, the less they sold.

Upon closer inspection, the researchers came up with a plausible reason for this apparent paradox: Salespeople were being trained to do things that didn’t work. Specifically, the researchers write:

“The sample organization’s initial sales training concentrated on product demonstrations and a ‘social’ approach to selling. The social selling approach was designed to make the customer feel relaxed and comfortable. It placed little emphasis, though, on product benefits or on identifying buyers’ needs…. The social selling approach was not designed to elicit potential customer needs and for that reason may be ineffective at enhancing salesperson performance.”

Garbage in, garbage out
Yikes. This company had managed create a training machine that was good at inserting bad knowledge into the heads of its salespeople. I’m reminded of those 19th century surgeons who didn’t wash their hands or instruments between patients, efficiently spreading death and destruction while thinking they were helping. I’d hate to think that sales trainers are infecting salespeoples’ minds the way those doctors infected their patients’ bodies.

This sort of thing happens, I think, when sales trainers don’t do enough to challenge the content that they’re expected to deliver. I’m sure that the idea of “social” selling seemed perfectly reasonable to whoever put together this organization’s sales training. Probably there was a senior sales exec who swore by it and a well-credentialed subject-matter expert who provided a nice theoretical framework for it. But I doubt that anyone produced any empirical evidence to prove that it worked.

The lesson? It’s not enough to think about how you’re delivering training. It’s just as important to validate what you’re delivering. Don’t abdicate to subject-matter experts or senior managers who “know” what works. Challenge them and insist on evidence. You can have the greatest sales training program in the world, but if you’re transferring bad knowledge, it (and you) will be judged a failure.

Source: Sager, J.K., et al. (2014). Factors influencing the impact of sales training: Test of a model. International Journal of Marketing Studies (6)1.

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