The Science of Learning Sales
The rookie sales rep just lost a big deal to the competition. The sales manager spends three hours of one-on-one sales coaching, covering what went wrong and what to do differently. After this latest crash course on selling, the manager sends the sales rep back into the field. However, the next opportunity is lost due to the same shortcomings, and the sales manager and rep both wonder, “Was this a mistake?”
High-performing selling is a skill. Acquiring new skills requires deep learning. One of the least efficient methods of adult learning is the traditional lecture. This article explores the modern concepts of adult learning and what the most recent science says.
Note to reader: Books have been written by Ph.D.-credentialed professors on adult learning. This is not a doctorate-level course but instead a summary of learning concepts for sales managers. Often, sales managers teach selling the way they were taught. Here is a glimpse into the concepts, theories, and science of adult learning. And like everything in sales, it’s constantly evolving and a lifetime pursuit. Let’s begin.
The Illusion of Competence
We’ve all experienced the phenomenon. Like the rookie sales rep above, sometimes we think we know something, yet draw a blank. The Illusion of Competence is a psychological theory that researchers Asher Koriat and UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork proposed. The theory suggests that people often overestimate their level of understanding or competence in a particular domain, leading to an “illusion of competence.”
According to this theory, people tend to judge their competence on how easily they can retrieve information from memory. When information comes to mind quickly, people assume they understand it well and are competent. However, this ease of retrieval can be misleading and not always an accurate indicator of actual knowledge or understanding.
The theory also suggests that people may be more prone to the illusion of competence when they lack feedback or have limited exposure to the topic they are trying to understand. In other words, if people do not receive feedback on their performance, they may overestimate their level of competence. This is why we can read a chapter and highlight segments, only to re-read the chapter the following day and fail to recall the material studied. We could not transfer the information from working memory (short-term) to declarative memory (long-term).
Overall, the illusion of competence theory emphasizes the importance of being aware of one’s limitations and the potential biases that can arise when making judgments about one’s knowledge or understanding. It also highlights the importance of seeking feedback and exposure to various experiences to improve competence in a given area.
Adult Learning Theories
Adult learning theory is based on the idea that adults learn differently than children. Adults bring their own experiences and knowledge to the learning process, influencing how they absorb and retain new information. Adults are motivated to learn when they can see the relevance of the subject matter to their personal and professional lives. Adults prefer a problem-centered and practical approach rather than abstract concepts.
The Learning Process
Learning is a process that involves several stages, including attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval. Understanding how each step works can help sales leaders create effective learning programs that support reps through each stage of development. When you stack learning theory on top of a structured learning process, you have a methodology.
The Role of Memory
Memory plays a crucial role in the learning process. Recent research has shown that memory can be improved through various techniques such as spaced repetition, active recall, and mnemonics.
For most people, working memory can hold a maximum of four pieces of information at once but is quickly forgotten.
Long-term memory uses a different part of the brain. The saying, “Like riding a bike,” means the brain has encoded and consolidated the skill for easy recall.
Learning is not the same for everyone; one approach rarely works for all learners. Since working memory and background experience will differ dramatically between learners, lecturing (passive learning) on a subject is insufficient.
Passive learning, like reading a handout or listening to a lecturer without actively participating, is an ineffective way to learn complex subjects. Passive learning is ineffective because it doesn’t require the learner to actively process the information or engage with it meaningfully. Instead, learners may rely on working memory, become bored, and struggle to retain the information. Yet, reading and lecturing are two of the most popular training methodologies in sales.
The Impact of Emotions on Learning
Emotions can have a significant impact on learning. Positive emotions, such as curiosity and interest, can enhance the learning process, while negative emotions, such as anxiety and stress, can hinder it. Understanding how emotions impact learning can help sales leaders create an environment that supports positive emotions and minimizes negative ones.
The Importance of Prior Knowledge
Adult learners have a wealth of prior knowledge and experience, which can be leveraged to enhance learning. Sales leaders should consider their employees’ prior knowledge and design learning programs that build on this knowledge. This makes assessment a critical process in adult learning.
The Role of Motivation
Motivation is crucial for adult learners, as they need to be self-directed and engaged in the learning process. Sales leaders can enhance motivation by providing clear goals, feedback, and recognition.
The Use of Technology
Technology can be an effective tool for adult learners, providing flexibility, interactivity, and personalized learning. Recent case studies have shown that using technology in learning can improve knowledge retention, engagement, and motivation.
Neuroscience of Learning
At this point, you might wonder what neuroscience says about adult learning. Neuroscience says learning must be more than fun, or it can backfire. Let’s go back to learning to ride a bike.
As children, we learn to ride our bikes because it is fun, but we also desire to ride with others. We see the big kids doing it and can’t wait for Santa to deliver our first bike. To learn, we must be willing to risk falling off and the chance of bumps and bruises. This is called desirable difficulties in learning. Desirable difficulties mean applying the mental effort required to build a strong neural link to remember a concept. For sales leaders, creating a training method that requires more time, skill, and effort pays off with better learning.
Pomodoro Method of Learning
The best way to learn complex skills that require effort is in chunks, not marathon sessions. Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro method in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short 5-minute breaks. This technique teaches students to study in short, concentrated bursts. This technique has been widely popularized by apps and websites providing timers and instructions.
The relaxation phase of the Pomodoro technique is crucial for effective learning. Scientific research confirms that the brain processes information at rest. Since learning involves the creation of new neural pathways, it takes time to achieve. The most effective way to do this is by switching from focused concentration to a more relaxed and diffused state. This approach challenges the notion that long study sessions are necessary for successful learning.
The Scaffold Method of Learning
Putting all this together is like building a skyscraper; you can’t make a skyscraper with a scaffold. Scaffold teaching is an instructional approach that provides temporary support to students as they learn new concepts or skills. Just like a scaffold supports workers to reach new heights on a tall building, scaffold instruction builds on prior learning.
In scaffold teaching, the instructor provides support at the level needed to be successful. This support can take many forms, including providing examples, breaking tasks into smaller steps, giving prompts, and offering feedback and role-playing. This method emphasizes the importance of providing support that allows them to work at the edge of their current abilities, called the “zone of proximal development.”
In this zone, students can complete tasks with the guidance and support of an expert but cannot do so without that support. The goal of scaffold teaching is to gradually remove the support as the student becomes more independent and capable of performing the task independently.
Scaffold teaching is especially effective when teaching complex or abstract concepts like selling, as it allows learners to build on their prior knowledge and experiences. The temporary support the expert provides helps bridge the gap between what they already know and what they are trying to learn.
Another benefit of scaffold teaching is that it allows for differentiated instruction, which means that students of varying abilities and learning styles can be supported at their level. This can help to prevent sales reps from becoming frustrated or disengaged, as they are given the support that they need to be successful. The purpose in sales training is to aim high, set big goals, and then provide the scaffold to help sales reps get there.
If you are a new sales manager, you may know what good selling looks like in your mind’s eye, but sales reps can’t read your mind. Teaching sales skills is not the challenge. The challenge is to have reps apply those skills in the field, in front of prospects, under pressure. This makes retaining new information one of the learner’s top challenges. Providing sales reps with the tools to retain learning can be one of the best gifts a sales coach can give.
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