Self-directed sales training: Does it work?
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Self-directed sales training: Does it work?

If you provide your people with self-directed sales training — that is, training materials that they can access on their own as they see fit — will they take responsibility for improving themselves? Or do you have to make them take their medicine? And, more to the point, if you do offer self-directed sales training, will you see an improvement in performance?

Research from the University of South Florida (Tampa, FL) and Bryant University (Smithfield, RI) offers some insight into these questions, as well as the larger question of what makes self-directed sales training effective.

A study published in 2008, for example, looked at 392 salespeople in the financial services industry and examined the impact of mandatory and voluntary self-directed learning programs. The study found that self-directed training does improve performance (as measured by supervisors’ performance evaluations) — but only if it’s voluntary.

That last part is a little surprising. We’ve all seen plenty of examples of organizations offering self-study materials that never get used. And you might think that salespeople would blow off their training if you left it all up to them. But, according to this study, salespeople will engage on their own — and because they’re engaging by choice, they seem to get more out of it.

However, if you think that means all you have to do is build it and they will come, think again.

While you shouldn’t force people to engage in SDL, the research shows that it’s critically important for organizations to do all they can to encourage its use. Salespeople will use self-directed learning only if they see that their bosses and their organization are committed to it.

Getting salespeople engaged
Here are some implications for sales managers, per study author Stefanie Boyer:

Show that you’re serious about learning. Salespeople will take their cue from management: If sales managers are publicly committed to the process, and actively help salespeople make the most of it, they’ll get better outcomes.

Coach people through the process. Self-directed learning doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Sales managers need to take an active role to help people use it effectively. And yet, as the research showed, compelling people to engage can backfire. The sales manager’s role is to encourage and support, not require, SDL. For example, they should keep their ear to the ground to learn what issues salespeople are struggling with, and then guide salespeople toward the appropriate resources.

Ask for feedback. Sales managers should encourage salespeople to give them feedback, and use that feedback to improve the process — for example, by seeking out good content on relevant issues and weeding out material that isn’t working. Not only will the learning improve, but salespeople will feel more ownership if they have input into the program.

Source: Boyer, S., (2008). Self-directed learning: Measures and models for salesperson training and development. Graduate School Theses and Dissertations.

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