Training new salespeople: Look to the next cubicle
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Training new salespeople: Look to the next cubicle

It’s spring, and the forecast calls for showers.

Showers of resumes, that is, as all those English and Psych majors begin to wake up to the fact that the four-year theme park known as college is almost over and they’ll have to get a job.

There are lots of good reasons to hire inexperienced salespeople. They’re energetic, eager to learn and happy to be working. The problem, of course, is that they don’t know anything, and somebody has to train them.

So who’s it gonna be? The sales manager? The training department? The expert salesperson who’s ready to pass on their hard-won knowledge?

Research suggests that you may get better training outcomes if you get last year’s newbies involved in training your new hires.

Of course, lots of informal peer-to-peer learning already happens in sales forces (at least the non-dysfunctional ones), and that’s a good thing. But a recent study suggests that less-experienced salespeople can play a larger role in your formal training efforts — as instructors who can augment and amplify what the trainers say.

This isn’t quite peer training. It’s “near-peer” training: delivered by salespeople who know just a little bit more than the people they’re training.

The study
The study involved German medical students, but the results are broadly applicable.

Researchers divided a class of third-year medical students into two groups. Both got regular classroom lectures from a professor.

The control group also got tutorials, conducted by the professor. Those in the experimental group were instead put into sessions run by by fourth- and fifth-year medical students. These slightly-more-advanced students were allowed to structure thee sessions as they wished, and organized the students into small groups to promote more hands-on learning experiences. Their students did 20% better on the final exam than the control group.

No doubt, some of this improvement came from the teaching format. The professor couldn’t really conduct hands-on practice with so many students. With the near-peers, there were more “teachers” and therefore more opportunities to help learners practice.

But there was another factor at work, the researchers said. Near-peers remembered what it was like to learn this stuff, and so they taught accordingly. Experts — be they German medical professors, sales trainers or experienced salespeople — often suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” They can’t remember the thinking patterns they held before they became experts, so they find it harder to translate what they know into lessons that learners can grasp. Near-peers can still speak the language of newbies

So if you’re looking for help with your latest crop of new hires, you might want to look at last year’s class. As an added bonus, recruiting near-peers to teach will help them keep their own skills sharp — and help groom them for larger leadership roles.

Blank, W.A., et al. (2013). Can near-peer medical students effectively teach a new curriculum in physical examination? BMC Medical Education, 13:165. doi:10.1186/1472-6920-13-165.

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