Research offers an effective model for sales training
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Research offers an effective model for sales training

In sales training — as in most kinds of training — we all think a lot about the inputs: What knowledge are we stuffing into the heads of salespeople? But the real test of effective training isn’t the inputs but the outputs: What behaviors result from that knowledge?

Research identifies two factors that are key to creating this “training transfer” — that is, training the results in behavior change:

    Validity — in other words, the degree to which learners feel that the content is related to the job requirements. Learners need to see that the content is relevant and realistic, or they won’t apply it.

    Competence — the training must in fact make people better at their jobs. In other words, generalized or theoretical knowledge doesn’t lead to new behaviors. The knowledge must be practical.

So how can you make sure that your training meets these two criteria? You’d think the answer lies in how you develop content. But a research study shows that how you deliver that content is just as important.

In an experiment, researchers provided sales training to two groups. The content was identical for both. But one group got six days of training in a row. The other group got one day of training, a week back on the job, then a second day of training, another week on the job, and so on.

You can probably guess which group did better: the second group, with the training broken up into smaller sessions. It’s well established, after all, that this type of “spaced” learning is stickier. When you space out your training, you force learners to revisit the material, which helps embed it in their memory. In addition, shorter lessons help reduce cognitive overload. There’s only so much you can learn at one time before your brain turns to mush.

Validity and competence
But another reason why the spaced lessons worked better, the researchers concluded, was because they promoted content validity and competence.

Here’s how: After the first lesson, the learners in Group 2 were encouraged to try out what they’d learned on the job. So they were immediately able to test the “content validity” of the learning. They got immediate feedback — from the job itself — telling them that this content had relevance to their job. At the same time, they built competence, because they could apply the learning to actual, real-world tasks, and could see the results for themselves.

So by the time the salespeople returned for their second lesson, the training had scored two big successes: It was proven to have content validity and it had already increased the competence of the learner.

These successes, in turn, led to greater engagement with the next lesson, which in turn led to learners being even more willing to practice what they learned afterwards. This cycle of learning-and-doing created a positive feedback loop. Ultimately, learners in the second group were signficantly more likely to judge the content to be valid, and more likely to apply what they’d learned. And that translated into bottom-line results. The researchers reported that the “employees in spaced training registered a significantly greater increase in gross revenue percentage” than those who underwent mass training. In plain English, they made more money — which could be the most powerful validation of all.

Source: Kauffeld, S., Lehman-Willenbrock, N. (2010). Sales training: effect of spaced practice on training transfer. Journal of European Industrial Training, 34(1):23-37.

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