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Are Your Salespeople Schrodinger’s Cat? A Thought Experiment on Training Sustainment

By April 9, 2015October 27th, 2020Bonus Focus

I think the greatest challenge we face in the Learning & Development (L&D) world is whether the audience we design and deliver content for actually use the learning in the field. In my experience the content is generally good, and improves year after year. Trends such as mobile technology and gamification can extend the life of a learning initiative, increasing the impact that L&D budgets have on their target audience. Even with new delivery methods for learning design, are you certain that your people are applying the content? Who knows? The executives who allocate training dollars think you should know.
When I reflect on this issue, which I do frequently as our business is based on solving this particular problem, I try to connect it to other disciplines, professions or stories that may have faced similar challenges.

Schrodinger’s Cat Walks into a Bar and Doesn’t
In the early decades of the 20th Century, new ground was being broken in physics. Interesting and sometimes bizarre theories around reality and quantum mechanics were being created. Many of these theories ended up in popular science fiction writing. One of the most famous of these theories is called the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics that states a quantum system (an atom or photon for example) can exist in multiple states at the same time, each corresponding to different possible outcomes. It remains in this strange state until it is interacted with or observed by the external world. Only then does this superposition collapse into one or another of the possible definite states. Basically it exists in all of its possibilities until someone observes it. So Erwin Schrodinger (inspired by Albert Einstein) put together a thought experiment to illustrate the concept in plain language.
Schrodinger’s thought experiment puts a cat into a box with a vial of poison which has a 50/50 chance of breaking and killing the cat within an hour. Quantum mechanics says that we don’t know the outcome (cat dead or alive) until we observe it; the cat is therefore in both states until we look in the box. Common sense tells us that the cat is either dead or alive but not both, and that we, as an observer have nothing to do with its fate. The weird thing is that there are things on an atomic level, like light waves, which do react differently when they are observed. Schrodinger’s and Einstein’s point was that if a theory cannot stand up to real-world observations – common sense – then we’re missing something, and that quantum mechanics doesn’t translate into the everyday world of cats in boxes.

Sales Cats
Let’s conduct our own thought experiment – don’t worry no cats will be harmed. Let’s say you have a team of 320 sales reps, of which half sell to clients on the phones, half sell to clients face to face. They have sales managers that are tasked to coach, encourage and help them succeed. You’ve put them all through a sales training program, got them all together for three days of content delivered by workshop, added some eLearning and sent them on their way to sell, sell, sell. The content was good; everyone loved the training, and gave great feedback in the smile sheets afterward. You saw an increase in sales immediately after the training, which promptly decreased and went back to normal for the rest of the quarter, even dipping a little lower than forecasted. The sales gurus in the field did a bunch of field ride-alongs and heard some of the sales training content in real conversations with clients, but not a lot. Some reps are saying it doesn’t feel natural, even the ones that loved the training. There have been a lot of emails asking managers to ensure the reps are using the sales training the way it was designed. The managers who respond say they’re too busy to coach all their reps. There are pockets of good news, some of the managers are taking the time to coach, some reps persisted with the new content and are starting to see positive results. This is a scenario I hear often.
Are your sales reps using the training the during their client conversations? It’s difficult to open the box and look at Schrodinger’s Cat and your sales rep. Either they are fully using the training or not, they cannot be doing both, the cat is not both dead and alive despite what quantum mechanics pronounces.

Practicing Saves Cats!
There is a way to look into the box, but before we get there we must also understand why the sales reps are often not comfortable implementing the new training, even if they loved it.
When a sales rep, or anyone, learns a new skill, they must first understand the concepts and thus gain the new knowledge. They understand the theory and how to apply it. eLearning and most workshop-format learning leave it to the individual to then transfer that knowledge to a usable skill. When a sales rep heads into the field ready to apply the new technique, one of two things happen. Either the new technique is tried, or the when the rep is in the middle of the sales conversation they just revert back to the norm, even if they really wanted to try it. It is unlikely that the first or second or 50th time you try something new you will be successful at it.
There is an abundance of literature about practice and transferring knowledge to a skill. I could explain how to play guitar to you, and you could understand it. Becoming a great or even mediocre guitar player takes hours and hours of practice. The 10,000 hour theory is often referred to. It is very difficult to access a new skill consciously under any kind of pressure, which accounts for the sales rep wanting but failing to apply the new technique.
Again practice is the solution. Athletes and teams will repeat a new play over and over in practice before it shows up during the game. The point of practice is to make the new technique second nature, a non-conscious act so that the players are not thinking of it, it just happens naturally when the right situation occurs.
The odds of the sales reps using the sales training is very low despite the quality of the content or will of the participants. At least Schrodinger’s Cat had a 50/50 chance of success when we look into the box. It seems like the answer to have sales training that sticks is practice. I don’t have a solution for Schrodinger’s Cat unfortunately.
Quantum mechanics also tells us that the act of measuring a phenomenon affects it, in fact forces an outcome. Measuring the effectiveness of training, especially in the field in front of a client, can also affect the outcome of a sales call. There’s nothing worse than having your boss or a regional VP sitting in or riding along on a sales call. It creates more pressure and rarely goes well, particularly if you are trying to use the new sales training you just learned at the sales conference.
A simulation that is realistic and measurable, with the ability to give performance feedback is the answer. Musicians and actors call it rehearsal, athletes call it practice, and lawyers call it a mock trial. Most professions have some form of practice when execution in real time makes the difference between success and failure.

Looking in the Box: Building the Right Practice Simulation
Creating a practice simulation that achieves the objectives of converting knowledge into skill, measuring the effective use of those skills, creating feedback and practice loops, and constructing pressure to simulate reality consists of more than doing roleplays with your manager at your desk or your fellow trainees at the workshop.
As a salesperson, I am always striving to really understand how my client feels during our sales conversations. Am I sounding credible and confident? Have I uncovered the right need, do I understand the problem? Am I listening or just pushing features? What worked? What didn’t? I could have benefitted from honest feedback from my client. As a learning designer, I value feedback on the effectiveness of a process that my company uses. Is the questioning model working? Did using empathy to overcome an objective have the desired effect? In both cases, these questions have to be answered by someone who can convincingly act as a client, understand the sales process and give effective feedback and coaching to assist the sales person to try using the content and to improve. The roleplay professional playing the client needs to be an actor, a coach, a sales process expert and motivator. The most important aspect is that the roleplayer reacts as if they are the client; they have to be the client.

Part One: Use a Professional Roleplayer Coach
There are two parts to a great scenario; first the conversation has to be realistic. This is what our clients object to…, here’s how they express it…, their expectations are…, they sound like… The second part of a great scenario is designing the possible routes of the conversation that reward good use of the skills and punish participants for not using the desired skills. Hiding cross-selling opportunities or having the customer reveal inside information if the salesperson establishes a good personal rapport are good examples. Alternatively, if the salesperson is too pushy, a customer can shut down and try to end the conversation. A great roleplay scenario is not designed to represent every sales situation or client, just the one that exercises the skills being practiced. It is important to design several scenarios so that a variety of situations can be addressed.

Part Two: Build Realistic and Strategic Scenarios
The last component is measurement. Observing a client interaction does affect the outcome of the process, as with quantum mechanics, unless the measurement is being done by someone in the experiment. It would be like a flea on Schrodinger’s Cat telling us exactly what happened and when in the box. The skills designed into the scenario need to be recorded by the roleplayers over the course of the scenarios. Several scenarios separated by two or three months gives an accurate picture of an individual’s and team’s progress. Imagine knowing that at the beginning of the training 15 percent of your salespeople could create a value proposition the way you designed and by the end of the process that number is now 87 percent. That is legitimate Level 3 Kirkpatrick measurement. The professional roleplayer must also allow and encourage individual style during the measurement process. Saying the right words is not enough, relating and convincing the client is what counts.
The obvious reality we all face is cost and by extension return on investment (ROI) drive the implementation of these programs. Let’s look at what was invested in the initial training of our 320 salespeople. By a conservative calculation of travel, accommodations, and content development cost, I put the investment at just over $500,000 or $1,800 per participant, and this doesn’t even take into account the cost associated with missed opportunities by being out of the office for four or five days to attend the training. Most learning and development departments would consider this a conservative estimate. Most research states that participants retain 10 percent to 15 percent of the knowledge transferred during workshops or eLearning. Research also shows that bite-sized, scenario-based practice increases that retention to above 80 percent. The cost for a typical scenario-based practice, delivered remotely over the telephone by professional roleplayers is estimated at $500 to $600 per participant, with no loss of opportunities due to time away from the office. This comparison becomes even more striking considering that after observing that sales people in the field are not using the training, the usual course of action is to select a new sales training provider and start the costly process again. This is an unnecessary expense that an investment in practice resolves.
Erwin Schrödinger contributed to science in many ways over his career; his unconventional scientific theories earned him a Nobel Prize. He continued to face challenges with an eye to comparing traditional and new scientific ideas against reality and common sense. The common sense of our Schrödinger inspired thought experiment is that we know people improve through directed practice and feedback and yet we subject our learners to a fire hose of content and expect them to master those skills in real life pressure filled situations.

Randy Sabourin is the co-president of e-roleplay Inc. and co-founder of Anderson Sabourin Consulting Inc. (ASCI). He assists organizations sustain learning and development investments using a combination of practice and behavioral awareness. Email Randy at

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