Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." The quote seems quasi-profound enough except that he didn't say it. Another Chinese thinker, Xunzi, said something kinda sorta similar and it got chopped up around the mid-sixties and misattributed to Confucius, presumably because the latter has more street cred. 'If Confucius said it, it must be meaningful,' so it goes. Either way, the statement has a few holes. Those of us in sales know that visual learning isn't necessarily better than auditory learning, though as individuals, we tend to favor one style over the other. So what did this fellow, Xunzi actually say, and how can we turn this ancient knowledge into useful sales training programs where skills are learned, retained, and used in the field for professional growth and improved performance?
In an article posted a few weeks ago, I discussed the 7 Sales Training Success Factors and how to avoid sales training failure. If you missed it, you may find it here. The overwhelming feedback from that article was that more details on each of the seven factors would be helpful. I addressed Factor 3 in this article regarding the Trainability of Salespeople and the important role of Commitment. Today, I'll address Factor 6, Salesperson Training with Sufficient Time Scale. The question we'll pose is which plays a larger role in training retention; the strength of your memory, or the spacing of the learning?
Xunzi, not Confucius, said, "Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as knowing, knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues until it is put into action." So this is a bit more useful but still needs cleaning up. We can extract from it that we learn what we act upon better than than what we simply hear or see. In another words, we don't really know a thing until we do it. This distinction is important in the context of both training and coaching.
In the context of sales training and coaching, we know from our own research that weekly to bi-weekly training and coaching helps with retention. Weekly is useful for a program in which the follow-up and reinforcement from management is unknown. Bi-weekly is more useful when managers are engaged in coaching by allowing enough time to try the strategies and tactics in the field and get feedback from the coach. The goal is to create the optimal learning journey for the participants.
The Forgetting Curve
Important original research on memory retention was done by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s. He gave us the term, "learning curve" and correspondingly, the "forgetting curve," which most people forget about. He showed that we retain about 20% of what we learn after 31 days. As the material is reintroduced, our memory improves until there is enough repetition to create a strong neural pathway in our brain so we can readily use the information. The Forgetting Curve, shows how retention drops over time. The graph below shows that as the information is forgotten, periodic reinforcement improves and prolongs the memory of it.
The Forgetting Curve with Periodic Relearning
Next let's look at the strength of the memory. We all know where we were and what we were doing when a major and impactful event occurred. Choose from among many such events in our collective consciousness. But where were you when they unveiled the 2012 Ford Fiesta. "The Ford Fiesta is among the best of an impressive choice of recently redesigned subcompacts," the announcer told us. Remember? Neither do I. But it happened.
Let's look at another example: the introduction of the iPod from Steve Jobs at Apple. Our memory of that event is a little stronger. For most of us, however, the strength of that memory has a lot to do with the reinforcement of it through the storm of video links gone viral upon the death of Mr. Jobs. In other words, the information was reinforced more recently than the original event and spaced far enough apart so that the second exposure conjures the first, somewhat blending them over time. The introduction was also a visual and auditory experience that's hard to forget. Who cannot create an image in their mind of Steve Jobs standing alone on a stage? Picture it now. What is he wearing? I'm willing to bet you answered that correctly.
Quality and Spacing
So here's what we learn about learning: The quality of the experience is important and the spacing is also important. The quality or strength of sales training consists of the following components:
- Pictures, Sounds, and Feelings associated with the material, which could be from video clips, a dynamic speaker, and/or robust audience participation
- The Intensity of Emotions surrounding the associations. A "thousand songs in your pocket!" vs. "Recently redesigned subcompact."
- The Mnemonics, which is a fancy way of saying the meanings you associate with the words or concepts. It is easier, for example, to remember ideas that you can apply to other areas of life than ideas that have no meaning outside of the given context. If I tell you that the tendency to get emotionally involved in the sale will reduce your chance of success, you might find other areas of life where that's also true, which leads to better retention.
The spacing of sales training refers to the following:
- How often does it take place?
- How long between sessions?
- Length of the session.
- The amount of material covered in each session.
The answer to the question posed in the opening is that both the strength of the memory and the amount of time between sessions are equally important. The stronger the memory, the longer is the acceptable spacing between sessions. Extensive sales training experience has shown that one to four weeks is optimal depending on other factors. When training is coupled with coaching, we see dramatic improvements in closing percentages and in revenues.
Training Supplemented with Coaching Improves Results
Sales Training with Sufficient Time Scale
Getting back to the original point, an important factor in sales training success (number 6 from the article
on training success factors) is having a sufficient time scale, preferably customized to the current skill level and willingness of the team, and tailored for the involvement of leadership and the skill and frequency of coaching from sales management. We now know that one-and-done doesn't work and therefore wastes time and resources. To get this right, most companies prefer to measure the current state
of the sales organization before attempting a comprehensive training program. That way, training can be customized for the size and scope that best fits your organization and addresses the required needs based on what will help your team fill pipelines, close more deals, and hit your growth targets.