Sales Managers are the Key to Virtual Training Success

Doug Wyatt

Doug Wyatt 
Director Product Management, SPARXiQ 

There is a surge in virtual training right now. Some companies are venturing into the use of virtual training for the first time, while others are using it more than they ever have before. In either case, it is critical to ensure that virtual training impacts your company for the better. When it comes to sales training, companies need to make sure that training investments convert to better performance by examining key metrics such as revenue, new business and profitability. What is a sure-fire way to make sure this happens? Let your managers lead the process.  

One Company’s Virtualization

A few years ago, I worked with a specialty chemical supplier who went to market through a sales force of over three hundred spread across North America. At the time, the company was training several new hires each week. New hires got a crash course in the selling process, products, and support systems over the course of three days before getting in front of customers. The local district manager personally delivered this training , guided by a 4-inch-thick training binder.

I worked to build and implement a 25-hour modular virtual sales training program where this critical onboarding content was chunked and spread over six months with scheduled weekly assignments. By centralizing a consistent training virtually, we could be sure that the new hires in Nebraska were getting close to the same experience as the ones in New Hampshire. With everyone being trained by iPad and laptop screens, how important was the district manager? Still very important.

Among the dozens of local district managers, there was predictably an uneven level of execution and quality of training. Some of the managers took the entire new hire program themselves  before they used it with their first hire, as we requested, and others decided not to do so. Unsurprisingly, the new hire ramp up, performance numbers, and hire retention were consistently better when the rep was hired into districts with a manager who bought into the program and had taken it on their own. The manager is the most important cog in the sales training machine.

The Proactive Manager Difference

When you invest in training, virtual or not, you expect an ROI of some sort. In the case of compliance training, you hope that reduction of liability and risk can protect your company against negative financial consequences of missteps. When it comes to skills training, particularly for salespeople, you expect that your company’s performance improves, and employees gain the knowledge to acquire customers and effectively sell products and services.

It is critical to expect and enable your managers to lead the initiative proactively. Imagine that you’re an outside salesperson working remotely with your primary lifeline being your district or regional manager. You see this person from time to time and talk regularly. You receive an email from corporate assigning you a training program that’s rolling out. Later that day you mention to your manager that you received the email. Now, imagine how the optics are different if the manager sighs and communicates a “get it done when you can, I guess” sentiment compared with an excited “I just took that last week” response.

Along these lines, Broad and Newstrom’s Transfer of Training discussed the impact of training activities on the successful transfer of knowledge and skills. In the chart to the right, you see the three primary roles involved in most training (manager, trainer and trainee) as well as the three time periods around the training (before, during and after). The numbers in the chart reflect the relative importance of that person’s contribution at a given time. Is it surprising that two of the three most important combinations involve the manager? That’s right. The most critical contribution to the eventual transfer of knowledge comes from the manager before the training even happens. The manager’s follow-up is the third most important.

Sales managers role in virtual training

In order for managers to be proactive and to own the “before,” they must be included in the training implementation. A manager who is sitting on the same side of the table as the corporate team assigning the training communicates positivity and trust in the process. Inversely, a manager who is only a bystander to the training program, the same way her sales reps are, conveys the attitude that training is something that happens “to us” and “we have to put up with.”  I saw examples of both in the company I described earlier. The results between the two approaches were staggeringly different.

The Training Roles Managers Play

While the pre-training communication and expectation-setting role of the manager is critical and considered the most important piece of the training puzzle per Broad and Newstrom, the roles the manager plays following the training are also important and require focus.

There are four critical post-training activities that managers must own for their reps to be able to apply and excel based on what they’ve learned:

Preparation

Managers are responsible for preparing sellers to apply what they’ve learned in real customer situations. This can be done with discussion points and situationals, or potentially working together to complete any post-training.

Practice

When reps learn something, but haven’t practiced it, their level of confidence in the new knowledge is generally low. For the knowledge to actually transfer to real-life situations, practice is necessary. This is generally done through role plays and subsequent coaching.

Application

As the new skills or knowledge is transferred into actual customer situations, it’s important that the manager is observing how they are applied, confirming that they are being used effectively.

Coaching

No doubt the most important piece of the puzzle, coaching is critical. Following their role in observing the application of new skills, managers coach reps on how to improve any areas that could have been executed better.

Getting Managers Involved in Virtual Training

Virtual training can be fantastic and highly effective. The experience can be standardized and consistently high-quality for every salesperson. However, just because the computer or tablet is training the reps doesn’t mean that the manager can spend his time doing other things. Managers need to be just as involved as if they were teaching the training material themselves, particularly in the post-training phase as discussed above.

How can organizations create an environment where managers are driving the process rather than “receiving” it as their reps do? Here are some key steps to implement from my experience.

Early Awareness

Do your managers get together in person or virtually from time to time? Monthly? Quarterly? When they do, share the upcoming training program(s) in detail, get their buy-in, and build excitement. After all, the managers likely want their reps to be better trained and continuously developing. Resistance or apathy toward the program generally aren’t the result of managers not wanting to develop their reps; they’re symptoms of managers being surprised and naturally defensive to the new initiative.

Full Participation

It should go without saying, but it needs to be said. When there is a training program assigned to salespeople, the managers must take it as well, ideally with a head start. Completing the program first, or at least staying a few steps ahead of their reps, enables managers to lead by example and facilitate conversations around the program so that the concepts can be brought into everyday job duties.

Manager Support Tools

Where possible, give your managers leader guides, scenarios, exercises, coaching support and discussion points to drive conversations with their team members around the learning content. Even if training is being delivered completely virtually – over video, live webinar, or eLearning formats – don’t let your managers sit on the sidelines. Give them these tools so that the concepts presented in the training can be adapted and applied into everyday examples the employee faces. For example, proactive managers incorporate topics from recent training in their team’s meetings, which can be highly effective.

Expectations & Accountability

Even a company that communicates upcoming training initiatives and gives managers all the necessary support tools can still have instances where some managers aren’t engaged. Set clear expectations of the managers’ role in making the training successful and do whatever it takes to hold them accountable. If it comes to it, incentivize it. You could offer gift cards to managers whose teams have 100 percent completion on time. The amount you spend on incentives will be insignificant compared to the difference between having a training investment produce a return and having it go to waste.

At SPARXiQ, we’ve worked to continuously refine and improve our video training programs to help our clients move the needle in key performance metrics. While we’ve always put effort into developing our Hollywood-level production quality which goes a long way toward keeping learners engaged, a big part of our clients’ success requires providing front-line managers the tools to support and drive the learning process. These days, when we talk with potential clients about planning an implementation of our training programs, we are always sure to showcase the manager toolset and discuss how managers’ active role can make a significant difference in the return on training investment. If you’d like to learn more about our video-based training programs, click here.

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