Sales Training Engagement: Understand What May Be Holding You Back

When the topic of sales training comes up in many training staff meetings, it can be a minefield. I know from my days directing training for a large orthopedic company that many of my staff had very mixed feelings about working with sales people. Sometimes it was because the training staff had little to no experience in sales themselves, and other times it was because they had mixed experiences working with sales people and sales training in a previous career. This lack of engagement was certainly perplexing at the time, but I just chalked it up to people’s individual like and dislikes.

While not all of the training staff felt this way, the real problem I faced, along with every organization with a substantial sales channel, is that successful selling is an extremely important activity to nearly every company. A thriving, successful and effective sales channel is what keeps any company viable in today’s challenging interconnected global market.

Training departments need to be fully engaged in sales training, but why was I struggling with engagement? Personal preferences are oftentimes based on other things like our fears, experience, misconceptions and our habits. When we like or dislike interacting with someone or a department, it’s really an expression of something much more nuanced.

One of the reasons for sales training engagement is confirmation bias, which is “the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” Daniel Kahneman, a Jewish-born Nobel Prize-winning researcher first coined this term in 1961. He commonly refers to an impactful story from his childhood living in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

As a young boy, Kahneman was playing at a friend’s house and lost track of time. He knew it was past the curfew imposed by the Nazi regime. He decided to hide his required yellow Star of David on his coat by turning it inside out and take his chances. As he feared, he bumped into an SS officer on a deserted street and there was nowhere to hide. He picked up his pace but was certain the soldier would notice his star.

The soldier stopped him anyway and to young Kahneman’s surprise, the soldier bent over, picked him up and hugged him. The soldier had great emotion in his voice as he spoke. When he put the young boy down, he took out his wallet and showed pictures of his son and gave the lone child some money. Young Kahneman went home convinced that as his mother told him, people were endlessly complicated and interesting.

What feelings arose while reading that story? Did you wonder what Jewish boys and Nazi SS officers have to do with training? Why are Nazis in a business article? These are all examples of confirmation bias. Research has shown that we look for information that confirms our preconceptions, and we tend to discount information that does not support our perceptions and preconceived notions, and also fail to acknowledge and weigh appropriately the experiences that contradict what we believe already.

In this fast-paced, ever-changing, innovation-driven market, training staffs have to confront confirmation bias toward sales teams. Our evolutionary-based biases can be productive in survival situations, but are often counter-productive in business, the classroom and life. Kahneman’s mother knew that people were complex because she had more data, an advanced world view knowing that people are more complex than we realize. It was her life experiences and data that helped her think differently.

Data helps vaccinate against the effects of confirmation bias. It is data that can be used to set the foundation for ROI calculation after training, and data that will be used to engage stakeholder buy-in during and after training to ensure adoption and manage the process of change. People have their own confirmation bias when it comes to sales data also, but even though no group of data is perfect and can have its own bias, data along with good mentorship and guided interpretation can get you farther than simply trying to operate the same way you always did. Understanding this phenomenon is one thing, balancing out its effect requires an intentional strategy.

The foundation of effective confirmation bias strategies are based in research data. The first kind of research we need to do is look into ourselves. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence can assist us in inventorying and thereby becoming more vigilant in watchdogging our own bias. As a consultant working with all types of clients and markets, it’s important for me to be intentional about checking my own confirmation bias at the door. After researching ourselves we can look at research involving the people or companies we are going to work with.

For training departments there are a plethora of good research out there on sales teams and best practices. CSO Insights has been collecting data for the last 13 years. Their 2016 Sales Best Practice Study is open for participation until January 31, 2016. LTEN also conducts annual surveys among its members, as well as ongoing surveys for the VHOW column in Focus magazine and through the LTEN Research Panel.

By participating in and examining these types of research initiatives, your experiences and bias becomes part of the collective database we all have at our fingertips by utilizing the Internet. Use the best available research you have access to and counteract the potential confirmation bias that may be preventing you from becoming fully engaged in sales training.

Mike Hintz is president of Northlink Consulting, which partners with companies to optimize their sales channel by strengthening insights and boosting alignment. His balanced approach encourages meaningful transformation. Email Mike at

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