We Tested, Therefore They Forget!
Feature Story – By James Ashby
As sales trainers, we spend hundreds of hours preparing and creating ways to ensure that our training courses not only have a level of excitement, but are also effective and poignant. Then to ensure we’ve done our job well, we end the training by testing for knowledge.
While that seems like a great plan, I wanted to share some of my own experiences.
During one of my training events, I presented the material and showcased how our solutions are helping hospitals achieve optimal business results. The students consisted of mostly new hires with a variety of backgrounds, including clinical, sales and management. During the week, we showcased product knowledge in a myriad of learning formats including presentation, skills testing and collective learning.
All of this was leading to a large 100-question test, in which each person would have to pass or risk repeating. I was excited regarding their aptitude as the test scores achieved a magical 98% average. I was certain that I just gave the best educational session in the history of training!
During the sessions, I could feel the electricity of learning and you could see the sparks fly in the room as the creative juices flowed. Presenters were hitting their marks and product knowledge was flowing. When it all concluded, I felt like I was sending 43 “A” sales players onto the field! Wow what an accomplishment — prepaid bonuses for everyone!
Then, reality set in.
Three months later, I provided an in-field role-play evaluation, creating a mock selling moment filled with our sales leaders playing the hospital staff. The role play was typical and nothing too advanced from a selling perspective. This evaluation would allow the leadership team to rank the sales team and ensure we understood where improvements could be made for the various representatives.
The sales teams were required to present 30 minutes as if they were presenting to the hospital’s senior leadership. To accomplish this task, it would require homework, product knowledge, critical business and clinical line questions, objection handling, presentation skills and next-step requirements, all typical daily sales moments. And of course, these are items that we covered during the training sessions.
I arrived that day with moments of confidence as well as uncertainty. Panic began to set in as one sales representative after another stood in the spotlight only to flounder on the key metrics: product knowledge, presentation skills, objection handling and overall polished sales behavior.
I wondered, was it the pressure of presenting to peers? Even more frightening, is this really how the executives see our sales teams? Either way, in my mind, this did not match our goals.
A Ray of Hope
One could certainly begin to question our ability to teach. How did each of these individuals score near-perfect on their tests and then struggle with simple product knowledge? As we rounded the day, there was one glimmer of hope.
A newer representative stood up and knocked it out of the park. He was very prepared, well-spoken, practiced his material, had mastery-level understanding of the product, took notes, understood critical moments and, best of all, took the opportunity to ask for additional meetings in the effort to ABC (always be closing).
As everyone stood in joyous applause for the representative, I noticed a swell of water formed in the eye of the senior sales leader. I imagined them saying, “So you’re saying there is a chance?”
Learning very complex selling techniques requires time and continued effort. The time to mastery is dependent on each sales representative.
Has This Happened to You?
Many of the same representatives received the same training as this “model” sales person, and all scored high in the written and presentation test. How is it that they landed with such a thud? What went wrong and why could they all not provide a presentation like the new person? How did they forget so much when we covered all of this in a classroom?
The answer is simple: As trainers we are tasked with training sales teams with often the smallest of budgets and the quickest time possible. This magnifies the “Ebbinghaus Effect,” the dreaded learning curve! For those not aware of this learning factor, I would like to demonstrate its reality by proposing a question. If I were to provide a basic calculus question to anyone reading this article, how many would be able to solve the problem? Probably fewer than 5%.
As educated professionals, it is not that we did not memorize the material in college, but that we did not learn to apply the information and we did not continually reinforce the knowledge. When sales teams truly understand versus memorize information, the creative and practical memory recall will have a higher success rate for longevity — something like riding a bicycle.
As I reevaluated the day with the senior executives, I concluded that we simply put too much material into a short period of time. Working for a few companies in various sales roles, I understood this business line segment is extremely complex. At least 15 director and senior hospital level call points, large capital purchasing and large committee decision support is required. Our training contains intense learning around market forces on healthcare, understanding each hospital department’s goals and the associated Key Performance Indicators, not to mention product knowledge and competitor knowledge. If that’s not enough, we also throw in exclusive training I call “sellucation” (selling through education) to drive customers to change or think differently.
Learning very complex selling techniques requires time and continued effort. The time to mastery is dependent on each sales representative, as they must digest and practice multiple times to ensure they have laid the foundation that builds toward mastery.
Visualize the Empire State Building. What did it take to create, build and ensure the iconic structure is maintained? It requires a solid core foundation that allows growth and expansion, steel girders to hold the weight of the concrete, steel, wiring, plumbing, windows, HVAC, etc. If we associate this concept to learning, we understand that each piece we teach must integrate with the existing knowledge and experience to build overall mastery of the topic. Without the smaller steps, the individual risks memorization versus mastery.
Unfortunately, typical U.S. schools follow a learning path that often creates a failure to truly understand and master knowledge because they present facts that are memorized temporarily to pass tests, but then forgotten.
As trainers, we are outstanding at presenting the information and even testing. But does this really accomplish the task of making our sales teams better and more effective sellers with higher win rates? How do we ensure the sales representative is effectively using the material?
Answer … Field Trainers!
Though we are one of the largest med-tech companies in the world, Philips has never utilized field sales trainers to ensure pull-through and mastery is taking place in front of the customer. Working with Greg Adamson, senior director of North America training, and Bob Kopanic, North American market sales leader, we set out to fundamentally change the front-line sales team. Our collective goal was to drive mastery-level behaviors into the field by utilizing field trainers.
Field trainers would be the front-line training arm to ensure that the sales teams are delivering the promise of world-class solutions to our customers. For our organization, these individuals are responsible for product knowledge, competitive knowledge and adherence to “solution selling” methodology, reviewing presentation skills in the field, objection handling, negotiation techniques and closing meetings.
In order to perform knowledge transfer from memorization to application, senior leadership teams must have an appetite and commitment to training.
Field trainers can ensure the transfer of classroom information is being applied at the local level and provide on-the-spot coaching that improves customer experience. For our company, field trainers are the kryptonite to the forgetting curve.
James Ashby is a senior manager of training with Philips. Email James at