Delivering e-learning to the sales force might be one of the best ways for an enterprise to build measurable business impact and increase productivity according to a recent report from brandon-hall.com. Companies that participated in the study, including Avon, Century 21, Canon and Wyeth, found that using technology to deploy learning not only facilitates the work their sales people do for new product rollouts, but also positively affects overall performance.
“We set out to solve one of the problems when you study any sort of training program,” said Leo Lucas, e-learning consultant, E-learning Consulting. “Does the training program by itself really have an impact on the business? And the reality is there’s lots of factors that affect performance. So we tried to structure the study in such a way that it could really get to the heart of, ‘Was sales training effective?’”
Most of the companies that participated in the study had either undergone a recent business change or had a realization that their current learning solutions weren’t good enough to achieve the results they wanted, Lucas said. “In the case of Wyeth, for instance, they decided new employees were taking too much time away from the job when they got started,” he explained. “Century 21 felt their existing training program didn’t have the kind of reach and impact they wanted it to have. All of the other companies had some kind of fundamental change going on in their company and usually in their industry as well, and they needed a different approach. We picked sales training as opposed to all other training because sales performance is somewhat more objective. You’re either selling, or you’re not selling. Other jobs aren’t quite so cut-and-dried as far as the performance goes.”
Participating companies had a measurement program in place with a combination of business and learning measurement data to help prove what worked or did not work. Additionally, participants were already industry leaders that knew how to execute learning programs, had good products and were well positioned in the market. The control factor, according to Lucas, was finding companies that are different from one another—working in different industries, employing different sales strategies and using different distribution channels. That way, the study could look at a universal approach to solving sales training issues, he added. “The study sets out to look in a deep and broad way at what really works in sales training when you take it from a business perspective, as opposed to a department-by-department or initiative-by-initiative kind of approach,” Lucas said.
The report concluded that a blended learning program tied directly into performance garnered the best results, while instructor-led, classroom training by itself does not work. When classroom training is the only learning alternative, new hires don’t have immediate access to training, which is important because sales organizations always have a high degree of turnover. “Every company has new employees,” Lucas said. “Even the ones with the lowest turnover still had 10 percent, 20 percent turnover, and some companies have gigantic sales turnover because that’s the nature of their business. The trick was: How do you get new employees ready to sell for your company? You can hire the most talented salespeople from a salesmanship standpoint, but they have to know about your products and your company.”
Obviously companies cannot wait weeks or months for brand-new sales staff to get up to speed if they are to remain competitive. “Each one of these companies said, ‘The first component has to be some sort of self-paced trained or virtual classroom training that I can schedule immediately,’” Lucas said. “So all of them were looking at, ‘I need to get productivity. I hired someone. I’m paying them. I need to make them effective on the job just as soon as I can.’ The other thing is each company invests billions of dollars in new product rollouts. If it takes months and months and months for your sales force to be effective selling new products and services, you’re just not going to be a significant competitor in the marketplace. It drove them to have a self-paced component as part of any sort of training program they had so they could get immediate access, immediate impact and a kind of speed-rollout within their company.”
According to data in the report, the nature of instructor-led classroom learning offered also changed as blended options became available. Classes became more like practice sessions with role-playing, simulations, problem-solving and group teamwork to apply lessons in a safe learning environment before approaching customers. “Each company had different workplace factors,” Lucas said. “They had to adjust their courses and on-the-job course material so that it would work within the structure of the company. Century 21 scheduled morning training sessions because that’s when agents were least likely to be working with their clients. Wyeth had something called “Dashboard Time,” the realization that their sales guys were going from doctor’s office to doctor’s office so they’d have audiotapes and CD-ROMs because it wasn’t particularly practical to be online the majority of the day. Each company would adjust their program to look quite a bit different as far as exactly how they executed it, but it had common elements of this blended strategy from immediate access to support of learning about this and how it might apply, practicing it and then tying it directly to the job.”
Lucas said that although the majority of participating companies were from a wide range of industries, many ended up doing something fairly similar with learning. “These are market-leading companies that figure out how to do it better than everybody else,” Lucas said. “This is the best to do now—they’ll come up with the best to do next year as well.”