February 2, 2010

Blended Sales Training

By Geoffrey James

Successful sales professionals combine three major elements into a unified selling method: 1) detailed product knowledge,
2) the ability to craft that knowledge into a customer solution, and 3) a wide variety of interpersonal skills. Here’s the challenge for sales organizations: providing training for this three-pronged approach without breaking the budget. While most sales managers realize there’s an ever-growing need for better skills and product knowledge among the sales team, few firms can afford to send sales reps to several weeks of classroom training, even once, let alone every year. Fortunately, it’s now possible to combine classroom instruction, online learning, and Web conferencing to simultaneously reduce training costs and increase retention. This can result in sales training programs that are far more effective than ever before.

Why Blended Training is Effective

Blended sales training relies upon an important aspect of human memory – the power of repetition. Conventional wisdom says that, if you want somebody to remember something, you should say it three times. That’s a start, but it turns out that it’s not the repetition, by itself, that locks an idea into human memory. Instead, human memory is enhanced when an idea is repeated in different ways, thereby accessing different areas of the brain.

Effective presentations always use this principle. Ideally, each slide provides a visual image of the salient points of the presentation, helping participants to remember what was said. The best classroom training also uses different varieties of repetition, usually taking the form of a combination of lectures, role-play, workbooks, discussions, breakout sessions, and classroom exercises.

Blended sales training takes this concept to the next level. In this case, classroom instruction, interactive online learning, and Webconferencing are all called into service in order to present the material from a variety of different angles. Because the message is repeated in several different ways, retention goes up and sales reps are far more likely to integrate what’s being taught and incorporate it into their day-to-day behavior.

Using the blended method, a day of online training and a day in the classroom, followed by a series of three half-hour Webconferences can be as effective as a week-long classroom experience, and certainly far more effective than either online learning or Webconferencing would be alone. “Our experience is that using different modalities of delivery is the best way to adapt a training program to a wide variety of individuals,” says Sharon Daniels, CEO of AchieveGlobal, a sales and executive training firm.

For example, say that sales reps need to be trained on a new product. An online learning session might provide an overview of what the product is basically about, followed by a class to gain hands-on experience. Later, the reps could be coached via Web conferencing on a particular aspect of the product that will be useful in a specific sales situation (like the next morning’s sales call.) Using a combination of training methods, each reinforcing the other, helps ensure that the information and skills will be used effectively.

This is not to say that blended sales training does not have potential pitfalls. In order to work, the sales training organization must have the ability to reach many learning styles and to teach using many different media. In addition, it can cost more to develop programs that utilize multiple technologies and some of the costs associated with classroom training, like travel and lodging, will still remain in place.

However, blended sales training, when implemented correctly, moves beyond the hit-or-miss event-based training of the past to a sales training concept that emphasizes long-term development and cultural change. “Companies must realize the small investment for blended learning is critical to their long-term success in changing the behavior of their teams,” says Jeff Seeley, CEO of Carew International, a sales training firm.

Implement Blended Sales Training

The key to an effective blended sales training effort is to design the training backward from the desired result, according to Julie Thomas, CEO of ValueVision Associates, a sales training firm. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to provide every piece of the training through all three vehicles. You’ll just drive yourself crazy and end up wasting a lot of money. Instead, figure out exactly what you want to change in your sales teams’ behavior or process and then select the right method for each element of that desired change. (See “Elements of a Blended Sales Training Effort.”)

Each of the three training methods has strengths. For classroom instruction, it’s the opportunity to apply the learning and gain feedback from peers, managers, and facilitators, and to benefit from synergy that is produced as participants work with one another. “The online environment can incorporate simulations and role-plays to help the learner understand what is being taught, but these skills need to be practiced in a live, classroom setting to truly anchor the behavior changes,” explains Rick Hudson, an instructor at Sales Performance International, a sales training firm. “This can be with a coach, in a small group setting within a company, or at an external training event where the learner can ask for help from the instructor or other learners when practicing what they have learned and can gain deeper insights.”

By contrast, online learning can be “an excellent supplement to classroom training,” according to Linda Richardson, CEO of Richardson, a sales training firm. A blended approach thus focuses classroom time on application, feedback, and coaching rather than lecture and the mere presentation of information. “You can maximize the effectiveness of your classroom time if the concepts, framework, models, product, and other technical information has been covered as [online] prework,” Richardson explains. Similarly, the use of technology for training is most effective when the training deals with the products and services of an organization, technology such as CRM software or processes, and learning basic technical skills, such as a new language.

Webconferencing combines some of the characteristics of classroom instruction with some of the technology of online learning. This makes it particularly appropriate for reaching mass audiences to present or discuss content that can be packaged in 45-minute segments, according to James Touchstone, an instructor with Sales Performance International. “Some of the important aspects of classroom training (e.g., interaction, group exercises, and debriefs) have been addressed by many Webconferencing providers including: functionality such as instant polling/surveys, breakout rooms, and user interfaces that help mimic a classroom environment,” he says.
Webconferencing can also be an excellent means for event-driven training such as the initial part of a product introduction to a large, geographically diverse audience, according to Richardson. “When done correctly, in an interactive fashion, Web conferencing can be substituted for quite a bit of classroom training,” she says “And that’s especially true when online instruction is available 24/7 for more in-depth training on product knowledge.” However, it’s important to remember that Web conferencing, in and of itself, can’t make a boring class interesting. “Webconferencing is much more effective if it doesn’t just consist of learning by reading and a presenter/leader walking people through a presentation,” says Richardson.

In summary, online training is best reserved for conveyance of facts – explanation of principles and other information that can be described in concrete terms. “That way, many people can participate in e-learning programs simultaneously without restriction, where instructor-led training is limited by the number of qualified consultants available to deliver,” points out Tim Sullivan, director of product development at Sales Performance International. By contrast, classroom training is best for applying concepts in practical exercises, especially to “live” situations that are relevant to each individual participant.

What’s really important about blended sales training, however, is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Because it uses different methods to teach and reinforce the same concepts, blended sales training is more likely to have a positive impact than any single training method alone.