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Experiential Learning: Enough for Sustained Sales Transformation?

The verdict, if it was ever in doubt, is in. 

Experiential learning is an essential component of driving behavioral change.  For some time, learning theory has supported the view (e.g. Jean Piaget, John Dewey) that combining intellectual comprehension and hands-on experience is the best way for adults to learn.  The classical Greeks recognized this phenomenon with their concept of Autopsis – learning best by seeing for oneself.

Whether its onboarding new employees or transforming your whole sales team, people learn best when workshops are well-designed, expertly-facilitated and combine action learning along with a sound conceptual foundation.

McKinsey & Company, in their article Experiential learning: What’s missing in most change programs, summarizes this immersive approach as having 5 essential components:

1. Experiencing and exploring: doing

2. Sharing and reflecting: what happened?

3. Processing and analyzing: what’s important?

4. Generalizing: so what?

5. Applying: what works for me?

So experiential learning is the foundation for real behavior change.  However, as critical as it is, experiential learning is not sufficient to sustain permanent changes in selling behaviors.  In fact, it may only get you 10% of the way there.  Why?   To find out, let’s review the 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development, which was created in the 1980s by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).

The model’s creators hold that 70% of learning actually happens while doing the job (on the job training, OJT) - during the daily performance and refining of skills.  This is the seller’s experience of working, trying, applying and fine-tuning the skills they’ve learned and developing their own approach to what works and what doesn’t.

According to the model, another 20% of the behavior change comes, not from training, but from encouragement and feedback from other people.

Alas, only 10% of professional development actually comes from the formal training event.  So, as good as it is, experiential learning workshops constitute only a fraction of what is required for sustained behavior change.

So, how do we address the 90% of what’s required to really install new selling behaviors?

Let’s start with the 70%.  This is all about shaping the seller’s OTJ environment after the training intervention.  Does the seller’s work environment reflect and support the behavior changes?  For example, are there checklists, visual aids or other reminders that serve as constant reinforcement for the new behaviors?

Or is the seller left to fend for herself?  After the inspiring workshop, does the learner return to a work space that is devoid of support for these new ways of thinking and doing, an environment completely divorced from what was learned in the classroom?

The most interesting trend in addressing the 70% - OTJ application and learning - is the advent of new embedded sales performance support tools.  This is about providing just-in-time (JIT) access to content and continuous learning to support sustained high performance.  Solutions from companies like Brainshark, Qvidian, Seismic and KnowledgeTree, promise content in context that will serve up the right asset at exactly the right time in the sales process.  Brainshark’s Sales Accelerator integrates with selling stages in Salesforce.com to do this.

Sales organizations ignore the 70% at their peril.  Companies can invest in the most innovative selling methodologies (e.g. The Challenger Sale or Command of the Message, etc.) but if they don’t spend the time to fully re-architect the seller’s environment, they won’t get the ROI they expect.

What about the 20% of learning that comes from feedback?  In spite of the variety of feedback sources sellers may have access to (social learning, mentoring, collaborative learning), the most important and most often overlooked is coaching by frontline sales managers.  No one has more influence, or at should have, than sales managers on reinforcing behavior.  Given this fact, it is a sad reality that the role of the sales manager is often an afterthought in implementing a new behavior.  And when they do get involved, it is often in the role of the inspector, to check if the new behavior was performed, but not to offer real coaching on the performance.

Of course, inspection (e.g. pipeline reviews, etc.) has its place.  But what has the greatest impact is actual coaching behavior.  As Jason Jordan and Michelle Vazzana point out in Cracking the Sales Management Code, managers can’t directly impact the lagging indicators of performance – the metrics on which they so often obsess and grill their sellers (e.g. won/loss ratio, % of deals advancing by stage, etc.).  One metric they can affect is the activities of their sellers.  How well are sellers applying the new behaviors they’ve been taught?  How often and how well do managers engage with their sellers to observe these behaviors and provide real coaching to help the seller improve performance?  Installing a regular cadence of developmental coaching on the newly learned skills is the best kind of feedback and the best way to ensure that new selling behaviors become selling habits.

So experiential learning is the answer, or at least 10% of the answer to the question of how we drive permanent sales behavior change.  But a more complete formula for transforming the sales organization is better represented as:

Sustained sales behavior change = experiential learning + embedded performance support + performance coaching

Douglas Draper