The Personal Virtual Classroom

By Henry Canaday

People learn in different ways. Some can read a book and absorb everything they need to move forward. Others require the personal involvement of the teacher/student relationship. And nowadays, some people find sitting down at a computer and taking an online course are enough to get them to the next step. Now, if any of these sound good, then all of them must sound better. Now that online tools are helping companies cut the expenses and time required for sales training, sales managers and trainers can exploit these tools for what they do best – train reps to sell.

AchieveGlobal has found online training extremely useful for product training and reinforcement of classroom lessons, says sales VP Steve Carlson. Technologies that deliver online training are exploding. Carlson says companies should exploit the tools salespeople already use, such as Twitter and smart phones.

“Online is very good for knowledge acquisition and information sharing, but if it is about skills, it is better to begin live, face-to-face, or on an interactive Website,” Carlson argues. “You must get feedback and coaching from managers.”

AchieveGlobal now uses every training tool – including Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) with breakout sessions, whiteboards, and chatting all on Adobe Connect Pro – for a maximum of two hours. The big advantage of virtual training is that it effectively trains distant reps, which might otherwise be too expensive.

Sales Readiness Group focuses entirely on VILT. Company president David Jacoby emphasizes that this is not simply e-learning or distance learning, which can be unsynchronized sessions in front of a PC. “Sales reps are social,” Jacoby emphasizes. “They must get together.”

VILT always features a live instructor, requires some activity every five minutes, and addresses classes of 8 to 15 salespeople. With more than 15, participation declines. “The odds are, you won’t be called upon [during a heavily attended live-instruction session], so you expect others to give answers,” Jacoby explains.

With VILT, students are required to engage in activities such as role-playing. Role-plays may be done with other students watching or in breakout sessions of one rep, one “customer,” and one “observer.” Technology has improved enough to make breakout sessions practical.

In addition, VILT saves travel and lodging expenses and allows traditional three-day training sessions to be done in six two-hour modules. And virtual training allows instructors to space out learn/practice/review steps, rather than give students too much to absorb at once.

“Online training will continue to grow,” Jacoby predicts. “Technology is getting better; it is easier to use and more powerful.”

Some firms are even more ambitious. York Baur, executive vice president of The TAS Group, says knowledge transfer can always be done in small bits online. Practicing new skills can be done in face-to-face sessions or interactive Webinars.

To put lessons into practice, TAS embeds a coaching tool in standard CRM, Saleforce, Oracle, SAP, Siebel, and Microsoft Dynamics. “We use intelligent software,” Baur explains. “Based on the information the rep puts in the CRM, it spots holes in the process and suggests alternative strategies.”

If a rep sees a decision maker without having seen decision influencers, TAS’s Dealmaker cautions him or her and suggests questions to ask. Dealmaker measures sales results and learns from experience. “It can’t help you judge personalities,” Baur admits, “but it spots systematic problems in departures from approved processes. It cannot fully replace personal coaching, but it can handle a lot of common problems in B2B sales.”

“Online training must be one tool in a training program,” cautions Stephen Meyer, CEO of Rapid Learning Institute. His company makes 10-minute videos on sales skills: “That is the length of a TV program between commercials.” A video on cold calling can be used to kick off a sales meeting, followed by a discussion and instruction on best practice.

Short videos can be used to reinforce live instructions. “People lose 80 to 90 percent of what they learn, but if you reinforce it five times, they will retain it,” Meyer says. A review video followed by an online test is especially strong reinforcement.