The Crazy Neuroscience Behind How Salespeople Learn (or Don’t)

You’ve just brought on a bunch of new sales reps. To get them productive quickly, you run them through a detailed, week-long onboarding agenda to review your product specs in detail, discuss any objections that prospects might have, and describe the strategies and examples that they can use to guide the prospect and close the deal. You also present the reps with sales binders, and ask them to spend some time reviewing the entire book, which should have all the information they need to navigate a sales process.

Everyone seems engaged during the session, and they all take detailed notes the whole time. But then, when it comes time to put that practice into action, it seems like the training never happened at all. Your sales reps are asking you the most rudimentary questions and frantically scanning their sales binders to gather the information they need. Did they learn nothing from your training?

The science of learning

Unfortunately, probably not—or at least, not much. Noted American psychologist Carl Seashore once said that the average man does not use more than 10 percent of his natural capacity for learning.

So how do we tap into the other 90 percent to enable our sales teams to hit the ground running?

According to a study published in IOSR Journal of Pharmacy and Biological Sciences, there are only three steps to retaining knowledge:

  • Step 1: Association – The new fact must be associated with existing knowledge, and provided with context. For instance, “our wearable fitness tracker is similar to a Fitbit, except for X, Y, and Z.”
  • Step 2: Impression – The sales rep must use as many senses as possible to take in the knowledge, including reading the information, hearing a lecture, seeing a video, and gaining a tactile understanding of how to use the product.
  • Step 3: Repetition – Most people know that repetition is important to knowledge retention, but they go about it the wrong way. Instead of reading an entire manual to retain as much information as possible, short bursts of focused attention are far more effective. In fact, numerous studies have shown that students focus best when concentrating on a task for brief intervals of time rather than an extended period: In Public Speaking for Success, Dale Carnegie recounts a study where a group of students were able to memorize more nonsensical syllables in 38 repetitions over a 3-day period than by doing 68 repetitions in a single day.

That means an extended sales training session focused on rote memorization is a bad strategy for building a successful sales team. Instead, focus on delivering knowledge in a way that they’ll actually remember it.

Moving to an experiential training model

Learning isn’t limited to the classroom or training room: By reducing the amount of time spent on lectures and rote memorization, you can get your sales reps into the field faster, where they’ll be able to more easily gain a genuine understanding of everything you’re trying to teach them.

“Experiential learning”—in which students learn through applying knowledge in a real-world situation, rather than simply reading or hearing about it—is a highly effective strategy for increasing knowledge retention. The model was developed in 1984 by educational theorist David Kolb, who stated that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” It has since gained traction in many universities, and is an ideal model for sales training as well.

Instead of asking your sales reps to memorize hundreds of pages of information up front, give them the tools to digest information at their own rate, based on when they might actually need to use it. They can then apply that knowledge in real-world situations, helping them to cement it into long-term memory.

Make way for mobile

The key to ensuring they draw on your resources is to make it as simple and convenient as possible to do so. And that means ditching the paper binders and 10-pound reference books and moving to an intuitive platform that your reps are already using more than 200 times a day: their smartphones and tablets.

By adopting a mobile-based sales training guide, you can enable your team to search for particular videos, features, or data points right when they need access to that specific knowledge. These online guides can be fully interactive, so you can include quizzes to test their knowledge and see how well they’re processing the information. Whether they’re participating in a mock sales call with fellow reps, or going out on a prospecting call, they’ll be able to quickly look up the information they need, and then build a strong association with that data by digesting it and then using it immediately in a real-world scenario.

The bottom line

By giving your sales reps the tools to educate themselves, rather than wasting valuable time and resources on a drawn-out training session, they’ll be able to focus less on memorizing facts and figures—and more on how to use the data available at their fingertips to close deals.

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