Using Microlearning and Reinforcement Techniques for Sales Enablement Success

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Sales professionals have undoubtedly sat through many annual sales kick-off meetings, product launch training sessions, and classroom lectures wondering what they were trying to achieve. However, managers hope these events will impart the knowledge and skills of top-performing sales reps to less-experienced peers. They’re also trying to hone important skills like storytelling, customizing a sales message, and presentation skills.

Knowledge is a salesperson’s currency, and sales training and enablement practices exist to help reps become better at the bottom line: selling. However, a not-so-secret reality of this process is that traditional sales training methods are no longer effective on their own.

Consider a few statistics: About 55 percent of salespeople lack basic sales skills. In addition, approximately 50 percent of content learned is forgotten within five weeks of a training event, and 84 percent within 90 days. Yet U.S. businesses continue to spend a whopping $160 billion annually on employee learning and training.

Given the time and money companies invest, it’s not a question of increasing effort or expense. Rather, the fundamental problem is the way training is often delivered: intense yet infrequent bursts, such as with annual sales kick-off meeting or through lengthy, one-size-fits-all e-learning courses provided through corporate learning management systems.

So how can we make learning more efficient and effective so that knowledge is actually retained over time?

Microlearning for Macro-Effectiveness

Not only are today’s sales reps forgetful, they’re busy as well. In fact, research shows that, on average, employees are interrupted every three minutes. Sitting through lengthy online training courses or getting pulled out of the field to attend kick-off events are not an efficient use of sales reps’ valuable time. What they do have time for is bite-sized pieces of information that they can consume throughout their day to help them to stay up-to-date and retain knowledge.

This type of information sharing is known as microlearning, and technology today is uniquely poised to enable it. Microlearning describes any learning model that operates on the principle that people learn more effectively if content is broken into smaller units and delivered in short sessions. Mobile devices give sales organizations the power to help reps practice in short bursts whenever (and wherever) they have a few minutes of free time.

And science backs it up, too. Research shows that microlearning works because presenting information in small chunks reduces cognitive load and eases the perceived burden of learning. Giving reps the option to review information on their own schedule (and in accordance with their own attention span) makes it easier for them to engage throughout a busy week.

Combining Microlearning With Reinforcement Learning

Microlearning is most effective when combined with spaced repetition and reinforcement learning—techniques that involve the periodic reinforcement of new learning. This is because baseline training courses only put new information into a learner’s short-term memory because the topics are only visited once or twice. A conscious effort is still needed to retain that information, though, because a person’s ability to recall information disappears over time unless the material is revisited.

Because we get hit with all sorts of stimuli throughout the day, the brain has evolved to determine which information is most important by registering how often it’s presented. So the more we revisit a given concept, the more we strengthen the information pathways (synapses) in the brain for future recall.

Microlearning and reinforcement learning techniques give busy people a way to actually take advantage of this in the real world, using ongoing exercises, coaching, quizzing and drilling. Reinforcement learning works best when new information is reintroduced within 24 hours, and again in the subsequent days and weeks, with gradually increasing time intervals added between review sessions over the ensuing time period. In fact, studies show a 30 to 55 percent improvement in knowledge recall when using spaced repetition.

Many successful sales organizations are using reinforcement learning and spaced repetition techniques, such as quizzes and flashcards. They also break down content from sales kick-off and product training events into smaller, bite-sized videos that can be watched at regular intervals in order to more effectively deliver this type of learning. Other best practices include gamification and the sharing of peer-generated content that can be consumed in bite-sized pieces at regular intervals.

Using these techniques moves information from the brain’s prefrontal cortex to the high-capacity, long-term memory of the hippocampus, where increasingly less effort and time is needed to activate it for later retrieval. Since salespeople can’t lean on reference material to fill knowledge gaps when questions arise in the field, they have to know it all cold. Having knowledge down pat also helps reps to present in a more natural way, so they don’t have to make a huge recall effort in front of the customer.

In Defense of Sales Training

Despite the effectiveness of microlearning and reinforcement techniques, you can’t learn everything you need to successfully sell in bite-sized chunks. Honing innate skills, such as storytelling and the best way to deliver a compelling message as part of a sales presentation, still benefits from a face-to-face interaction.

For modern-day sales organizations, video is proving to be a powerful tool to help busy sales reps get this much-needed face time with colleagues. Not only does the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text, which allows more information to be delivered in smaller chunks, employees are 75 percent more likely to watch a video than to read documents, emails, or web articles. Using video, trainers and managers bypass the need for in-person meetings and ride-alongs to facilitate interactive learning for their reps that can be further strengthened through reinforcement after the fact.

While the sales kick-off meeting isn’t going away anytime soon, the skills learned during in-person training can be augmented by microlearning and reinforcement learning techniques. Salespeople battle tight schedules and constant travel, so learning content needs to be accessible on-demand wherever they’re located. Microlearning is a commonsense approach to making sure your reps always deliver when a deal is on the line.

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