Optimizing Sales Enablement and Sales Training by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer

Key Stakeholders: Chief Sales Officer, Sales Directors and Managers, Sales Operations Directors and Managers, Training Officers, Learning and Development Professionals

Top Takeaways: If you want an efficient sales team you need to provide them with the right tools and train them effectively. If you want sales enablement and training tools that are highly effective they need to be grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. Many sales teams and sales focused vendors have access to these tools. What is needed is an effective way to leverage these tools to maximum advantage. This is where learning science comes in. In this report, I briefly outline the learning science behind sales enablement, people skills training and situational awareness.

(Note: This report represents the first step in an ongoing research initiative focused on critically evaluating the effectiveness of sales enablement and sales training solutions on the market. My goal in this research is to critically evaluate and accurately reflect the current state of the sales enablement and sales training sector from the perspective of learning science.)

Do you want to provide your sales team with up-to-date content and guidance on pitch deck creation all of which has been analytically-verified to be effective?  Do you want sales professionals who can deliver a sales pitch (verbally and non-verbally) that is persuasive, closes deals and is effective under normal and extreme conditions (e.g., pressure, objections)? Do you want sales professionals with situational awareness who know when to use Sandler, Challenger, or some other sales methodology, and who can “think on their feet”?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then you want sales enablement and sales training tool that are grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. You want solutions that leverages the $100’s of millions of dollars in psychological and brain science research (over $10 million of which was awarded to the author) and translates those into best practices for sales enablement and training.

In this report, I briefly review the psychology and brain science of learning, then map this learning science onto three critical aspects of optimized sales enablement and sales training:

  • Sales enablement – Simply put the goal is to make the sales team’s life as easy as possible by providing guidance on content curation, pitch deck creation, and client outreach. Following from what is known about the brain science of learning, these tools need to be available 24/7 on any device, easy to navigate, and seamlessly integrated with other software tools such as one’s CRM.
  • “People” skills training – The goal is to provide the sales professional with the people skills necessary to convey the right message with verbal and non-verbal cues, to utilize the appropriate persuasion techniques, and to do all of this under normal as well as extreme situations (e.g., when objections are raised or under time or social pressure).
  • “Situational Awareness” – The best sales person is the one most adaptable to different individuals and situations. This involves a rich suite of cognitive, behavioral, but most importantly emotional skills. One needs to develop the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” and develop empathy in order to “read” another individual personality and current mental state, and to understand how one’s behavior affects another’s state of mind. One needs an understanding and experience with different situations in order to effectively select the approach strategy at any given time. Although many sales methodologies have been proposed, it is well established that different situations require different strategies. High situational awareness is key to knowing when to use what strategy.

Distinct Learning Systems in the Brain (the “What”, the “How”, the “Feel”)

As I have elaborated in detail in other research reports, there are distinct learning systems in the brain. Each system is “optimally” tuned to specific types of learning, and critically, the training tools that most effectively recruit each learning system are different.

The figure below provides an overview of the three main learning systems in the brain, along with the relevant psychological processes, and a schematic of the relevant brain regions.

 

 

Cognitive Skills Learning (The “What”): The cognitive skills learning system has evolved to learn facts. I refer to this as the “what” system. Cognitive skill learning relies heavily on working memory and attention and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when information comes in brief, coherent chunks (often referred to as microlearning), is delivered spaced over time, and is tested periodically to ensure storage of the information in long-term memory housed in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe structures. I refer to these procedures as those that “Train for Retention”.

 

Behavioral Skills Learning (The “How”): The behavioral skills learning system has evolved to learn behaviors. I refer to this as the “how” system. Behavioral skill learning does not rely on working memory and attention, in fact, I have shown that “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behaviors are learned through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Behaviors that are rewarded will be more likely to occur in the future, and behaviors that are punished will be less likely to occur in the future. Physical repetitions are key to long-term behavior change.

Emotional Learning (The “Feel”): The emotional learning system has evolved to affect engagement and to facilitate the development of empathy and understanding of our and others’ behaviors. I refer to this as the “feel” system. Emotional learning affects processing in both the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems. Content that is emotionally engaging enhances processing in the cognitive skills learning system and can speed learning and strengthen long-term retention. In addition, an emotional understanding of a potential client or business will affect the type of sales content utilized and the approach taken in a pitch. An emotional understanding of others can be instilled by “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” and learning how to leverage emotional processes like personality enhances effective behavior change. The relevant brain systems are the amygdala and other limbic structures.

Optimized Sales Enablement and Sales Training

Sales enablement: To goal is to provide the sales team with the best possible information available to select sales content, build effective pitch decks, and identify clients. The learning science implications are clear: provide the sales team with this information while minimizing their cognitive load. The idea is to minimize the reliance on the sales representatives’ cognitive skills learning system (the “what”) leaving that cognitive processing available for other tasks like strategizing, tweaking the pitch based on other knowledge (e.g., personality) or practicing pitch deck delivery. By automating this process as much as possible (e.g., via AI), seamlessly integrating with a CRM and other software (e.g., email), and providing JIT availability across platforms, the working memory and attention load placed on the sale representative is minimized while the speed of creation and quality of the sales content and pitch decks is enhanced. A number of vendors address sales enablement specifically, and often with very different approaches.

 “People” skills training: At its core, people skills are about behavior. They are about what we “do”, “how” we do it, and our “intent”. They are challenging, nuanced and difficult. The learning science implications are clear: behavior change involves gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain (the “how”) and extensive physical repetitions. If a behavior is elicited that is rewarded, dopamine will be released into the basal ganglia, the neural connections that drove that behavior will be strengthened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will increase. If a behavior is elicited that is punished, dopamine will not be released, the neural connections that drive that behavior will be weakened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will decrease. People skills training requires in person or virtual role play with real-time interaction and corrective feedback. Ideally, and especially for sales training, the role play should occur under a broad range of environmental settings including extreme conditions such as under objection or time and social pressure. Interestingly, some of the tools that are most effective for cognitive skills learning, such as spaced training, microlearning and testing are suboptimal for people skills training. As just one example, microlearning is ineffective for people skills training because behavioral skills are best learned with longer training sessions and broad variability in scenarios. A number of vendors include tools for people skills training. The future most likely involves virtual reality and AI-driven interactions.

“Situational Awareness”: The best sales person is the one who adapts most effectively to different individuals and situations. This individual has a keen understanding of personality, empathy and an ability to “put themselves in another’s shoes”. Effective emotional learning and the situational awareness that comes with it can enhance both cognitive and behavioral skills (the “what” and the “how”). It can facilitate small but meaningful changes to content, pitch, delivery, and enhances one’s ability to “think on their feet”, all in the interest of most effectively aligning themselves with the current situation. Some vendors address specific critical aspects of situational awareness directly (e.g., measuring and leveraging personality) whereas others rely on broader-based efforts such as the use of broad-based scenarios during practice. Again, the future will likely involve virtual reality and tools for literally “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

Conclusion and Call to Action

As this very brief primer suggests, sales enablement and sales training are fascinating problems facing the corporate sector. I believe that effective solutions to these problems must leverage learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science – as well as innovative technologies.

If you need guidance and consultation finding the right sales enablement or sales training platform for your needs, come and talk to me. If you work at a sales enablement or sales training vendor who would like to be considered for inclusion in this research initiative or would like to leverage the extensive learning science for your platform reach out.

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