Maximize the Business Impact of Sales Training

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Summary: Where are you on the sliding scale of outcome expectations, from “providing a supportive experience for learners” on the far left, to “delivering and validating a full-blown business impact and ROI” on the far right? The most important lesson here is to know where you stand and the expectations for your role. Here is how to ensure you deliver business value.

Start with Extreme Clarity on Expectations

Over many years in the sales performance profession, I’ve noticed a sliding scale of outcome expectations.

When I started my first formal sales training role in 1991, in a Fortune 50 corporation, I worked for leaders who gave me a wide berth on what to teach and how to teach it, but they wanted to know:

  • What they were getting for their training investment
  • If it was improving results
  • Whether there was a return on investment.

So, I learned about training evaluation. At the time, it was primarily the Kirkpatrick model of Reaction, Learning, Application/Behavior, and Results. Jack Phillips didn’t publish his 5-step model with ROI until 1997, but I did that on my own, based on my leadership’s direction.

This was my first formal sales training job, so I thought that’s what everyone did. As I got more ensconced in the profession, outside of this employer, I learned this wasn’t the case.

In my very next sales training leadership role at a large, respected, and successful private company, the leaders wanted to understand and buy into what we were teaching and how we were doing it, but they said they believed in training and didn’t care if I ran pre-post analyses, evaluated training, or conducted periodic ROI studies. I did anyway – mostly for me, to know that what I did was working – but the senior leadership team did not expect nor demand it. (Although admittedly, after the fact, they did like seeing the results.)

So, this is the first thing to determine. Where are you on the sliding scale of outcome expectations, from “providing a supportive experience for learners” on the far left, to “delivering and validating a full-blown business impact and ROI” on the far right?  

The most important lesson here is to know where you stand and the expectations for your role. If you wait until someone asks you about ROI later, it’s probably too late. I’ll approach the rest of this article from the lens of doing what you must to ensure you deliver business value. I’ll leave you with two thoughts before moving into the ways to ensure results:

  • It’s ironic that the effort and expense required to analyze and report ROI can actually reduce the ROI. Beyond this post, I’d encourage studying the methodologies and selecting the proper depth, based on your leadership team’s expectations. “Evidence” or “validation” may be enough for some. Others will seek “proof.” Act accordingly.
  • When discussing training evaluation, I often quip that “All training evaluation is a lie. The important thing is to get together and agree on which lies to believe.” You need to build a cross-functional team to collaborate and co-create your measurement, attribution, and reporting strategies. If you expect your senior sales leader, CFO, and other C-suite leaders to believe your reporting, they need to have a hand in creating the measurement strategy. I have seen credibility (and the mythical “seat at the table”) gained or lost over this, so for your own benefit, don’t ignore this advice.

What You Need to Get Right

With the above foundation in place, here’s a list of the critical factors or performance levers you can pull to maximize business value from training and get the best-possible return for your investment.  

  • Training Content
  • Scope of Effort
  • Metrics & Measures
  • Change Management
  • Behavior Change & Sales Mastery
  • Performance Support
  • Workflow Integration
  • Sales Management Operating System
  • Coaching Culture

Training Content

The first thing to ensure is that the content you are teaching will produce results in the real world, if you can use it. If you are not starting with content that has been proven effective, preferably in your industry or company, you are gambling with company money. Consider conducting a top performer analysis to design or customize the content, or select it from a reputable vendor that built their curriculum based on a sales methodology that worked in real-world settings.

Scope of Effort

As with expectations, you should determine the sliding scale of scope – from a back-of-napkin effort to a full-blown change management plan. If you’re expecting business value from training, it’s more likely to be a process or methodology implementation and on the right side of the sliding scale. You will need to change behaviors across your sales force and ensure adoption and sales mastery. To do that, you will need to manage it as a change management project. More on that in a moment.

Metrics & Measures

If you’re going to measure results, you need to know what you’re trying to improve and what you’re measuring against. Start by determining that (conduct a Situation Assessment), then set your current benchmarks and target outcomes, what metrics you’ll measure, and develop your measurement and reporting plan.

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As mentioned above, I suggest collaborating across functions with all groups that do things that can impact results: marketing, sales operations, pricing, compensation, and others. Include your CFO or someone on their team, and the senior sales leader, at a minimum. Gain alignment and buy-in towards your measurement and attribution plans, and how you will do a monthly analysis of progress. Projecting the organic trend line and seeing if you can push the line is one way to proceed. Remember to watch for any seasonal pattern year-over-year, so you don’t falsely attribute an accretive increase to training, when it was about to happen anyway.

For training evaluation, there are multiple models that are deeper and more complete now (I especially like Will Thalheimer’s LTEM model), but for a simple results analysis, Kirkpatrick’s four levels still work, to give you what you need to go to the fifth level (ala Jack Phillips) and analyze ROI (Reaction, Learning, Application, Results + ROI).

The earlier stages in the model, especially Learning and Application, are important for several reasons. If you test and find learning did not occur and assess and find that behaviors have not changed on-the-job (reps are not applying what they learned with prospects and customers), any lift in results can’t be attributed to the training. In addition, the results at these levels give you an opportunity to diagnose where the breakdown in the chain has occurred, so you can address the issue and hopefully then lift results that can then be attributed to training.

Lastly, if you haven’t tracked all of this before, here’s something to be aware of. Because of discomfort, uncertainty, and conscious incompetence, performance often dips after skills training, during the initial application phase. You want to acknowledge this, prepare others for it (especially managers and leaders), and get your learners through it as quickly as possible.

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Change Management

If you are trying to change behaviors, get adoption, and deliver results, it rarely happens by luck. Conduct change management planning. Whether you use Kotter’s 8 Steps, ADKAR, Lewin’s model, or another method, use something. At a minimum:

  • Find an executive sponsor and garner their top-down support,
  • Over-communicate the “Why” of change and the expectations at all levels in the organization.
  • Develop an implementation plan to set the stage for adoption.
  • Ensure front-line sales manager engagement and readiness for content/behavioral change support.

Behavior Change & Sales Mastery

Systems (as in systems thinking) are interrelated and this is no different. Part of your change plan must include how you will specifically guide your reps/learners to achieve skill mastery and implement what they’ve learned. Provide time and space for practice, feedback, coaching, and mastery. The five stages of sales mastery and behavior change are:

  1. Learn
  2. Remember
  3. Practice
  4. Apply
  5. Master
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The only stage I’ve ever seen skipped successfully is Stage 2, and only if you move quickly enough from Stage 1: Learn to Stage 3: Practice. In most large-scale implementations, having a reinforcement and retention strategy will be required. This is especially true if you are implementing a sales methodology, which spans across the customer lifecycle and includes too much to remember until practice, coaching, and follow-up make it “the way we do things around here” and part of each rep’s “muscle memory.” And even then, the next few elements will be very helpful.

Performance Support

This is a part of the 5 stages, but like Workflow Integration below, deserves to be called out.

  • Develop job aids to help reps prepare to use what they learned.
  • Create playbooks that reinforce the methodology.
  • Make it easy to prepare and apply what was learned.

Workflow Integration

And with this performance support, you can integrate the methodology content right into the workflow by using CRM or enablement software to serve up reminders of what to do and how to do it. Make it “the way we do things around here.”

Sales Management Operating System (smOS)

Speaking of workflow integration, it’s not always technology based. You can work with your front-line sales managers to insert the content/methodology into managers’ individual and team meetings.

The Sales Management Operating System (smOS) is a subset of the larger Sales Management System that I have implemented for years. In the middle-right of the smOS, note the section titled Meetings. It’s just below Activities, where content can also be integrated.

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Managers must ask questions, probe, and discuss the content, processes, methods, and best practices around what you’ve taught. Having a common language creates shorthand, which makes communication more efficient, as well. What gets talked about gets focused on. This is especially helpful as part of the recurring cadence of manager-led (or manager-organized) meetings, such as:

  • Team Meetings
  • Pipeline Management Meetings
  • Forecast Meetings
  • 1:1 Observations & Coaching Sessions
  • Best Practice Sharing Meetings

We know from sales research studies that the biggest leap in results, specifically increases in revenue plan attainment, quota attainment, and win rates, occur when process and methodology adoption reach 75 percent, with the best-possible results occurring after 90 percent adoption. This is how you make a business impact.

Coaching Culture

If you look at the rest of the smOS, you’ll see “Sales Coaching Framework” called out, just below the Meetings section. Coaching has been proven as a performance lever and force multiplier many times over. Fostering a coaching culture – with a focus on the ongoing development and a cadence of continuous improvement – will also be necessary for adoption, mastery, and driving results.

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Closing Thought

As you review these elements, you can already see there is overlap. Independently, any of these actions will help. Combined, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This is the power of systems thinking, and the best way that you can maximize your business value from sales training.

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