Sales

How to Get the Most Value from Sales Training

This is not one of my recommended methods

You have just been selected to attend sales training; I offer my congratulations or condolences, depending on how you feel about it. One thing is sure, though, you’re not getting out of it, so you might as well get as much out of it as you can. Your company is spending a lot of money to have you professionally trained, but so are you. You’re making a big investment simply by taking time out of the field, so you might as maximize your return on that investment.

Most people who attend any training get far less out of the experience than they could, and since sales training is meant to directly impact your professional skill and performance, you may be leaving a lot of money on the table by being a mere passive attendant. The key point is that you need to take active control of your own learning.

There are things you can do before during and after training that will help you squeeze the most juice from that “lemon” you’ve been handed.

Before

Do the pre-work. It will save time, make everything easier to follow, and surprise the hell out of the trainer.

Set specific goals for yourself. Some of the best learning comes from knowing exactly what you’re looking for. Before showing up, take stock of your skills and knowledge, major changes you’re trying to adapt to, maybe a tough sales problem you’ve been struggling with. Then write down your goals.

Carve out the time. Arrange for someone else to handle your customers’ needs while you’re gone, or let your top customers know you will be out of touch for a few days.

During

Adopt a learning attitude. This means being humble—no matter how good you think you are, you can always learn more. Sometimes, one technique may make the difference in one deal, and that will make the whole session worth it.

Remember that even if the material covered is something you already know, there is a lot of value in brushing up on the basics. The success of the TV show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” reminds us how much we’ve forgotten of what we once knew. Studies have shown that many physicians get worse as they have more time in grade.

If in spite of this, you still think you know more than anyone else in the room (maybe even including the instructor), the best way to prove it is to take a leadership role and help others who might not be as advanced.

Set aside your distractions. Obviously, the world does not stop when you’re in training. Your customers still have needs and you can’t ignore them, but as much as possible make arrangements for someone else to take care of your customers while you’re in training.

Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. The biggest distractions don’t come from your phone, however. They are psychological distractions caused by focusing on what you can’t control. You can always find reasons the training won’t work in the real world, from lack of management support to having enough time, to your compensation plan,[1] but if you let those take away your focus from what you can control, you’re not going to get benefit from the training.

Try new stuff. Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong the first time. If it were easy, it might not be worth teaching anyway. Even if something seems wrong or impractical, give it a try before you decide.

If you get coaching on ways to improve, listen carefully to understand and not to argue or make excuses.

Ask a lot of questions. Challenge the instructor. Process things deeply. If you’re not hearing answers to the questions and goals you wrote down before the training, make sure you ask.

Review. At night, take some time to review the material you covered during the day. Maybe re-write your notes and consider ways that you will apply lessons learned after the training ends. Believe it or not, some of what you learned during the day is already being erased from your memory. Make it stick by reviewing the material at night. Nights off are not for catching up on your drinking with colleagues from other offices that you haven’t seen in a while.

Test yourself. Research shows that lessons that seem to come easily can actually be forgotten just as easily.

After

The most critical learning from any course takes place after the training. This is when the new skills either wither on the vine or take root and become habits. If you’re a golfer, you could go to the best pro in the world and get an amazing lesson—and it would be a complete waste of your time if you did not practice what you learned.[2]

Use it or lose it. There are learning curves and there are forgetting curves. When you leave the training session, your skill and/or knowledge level will be higher than what you began with. As soon as you leave, that level will not stay the same. It will increase if you practice and apply the lessons, or it will drop drastically if you don’t. I’ve seen this numerous times when I run “refresher” classes. They usually turn into full-blown re-teaching because people have not kept up with the skills. That means the original session was a complete waste of money and time.

Write down specific goals for what you will do differently. By specifically, that means what you will do differently, plus when and where. These implementation intentions have been shown to boost actual execution of intentions by over 100%. For example, before your next few sales calls, you could work on particular techniques, such as challenge questions.

Create a schedule to go back and review the material. It works if you do this individually, but works even better if you do it with others. Spacing out learning is a very effective way to embed knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, it’s economically unfeasible for your company to design most of its sales training this way, so you have to make it happen.


[1] See Brian Lambert, “Barriers to Appropriate Sales Training,” Training and Development, June 2010, p. 22.

[2] Here’s a documented example: Navy F/A-18 pilots who attended an intensive two-week course were able to improve their bombing accuracy from 200 feet to 50 feet. 45 days later they were back to where they were before training. Ralph E. Chatham, “20th Century Revolution in Military Training,” in Development of Professional Expertise, K. Anders Ericsson, ed.

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