In 1769, James Watt completed big improvements to Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, invented in 1705. Although this advanced steam engine revolutionized manufacturing, which previously relied on water and animal power, it took many decades for the technology to see wide-spread acceptance. Online training has been around in some form or another since the mid-1990s, and over the last 25 years, adoption has been similarly slow and steady. But the recent pandemic has put this transformation into high gear.
Competence is defined as a blend of knowledge, skill and attitude. For salespeople, sales skills are primary. Of course, knowledge is also important – the three steps to handling an objection, the five-steps buyers go through to make a purchase, etc. And don’t forget “sales attitude.” But good skills are the make or break part of any successful salesperson’s approach. All the knowledge in the world isn’t useful if the salesperson can’t apply the knowledge in a critical sales situation.
Sales skills are hard to teach without instructor interaction, and with coaches and fellow participants in learning. I always use the analogy from my aircraft pilot training. I first took ground school and obtained all the knowledge I needed: how to contact air traffic control, altitudes I should maintain, the angle of attack that would lead to a spin, and the like. But the first time I was behind the yoke of an actual plane, I was no pilot. I had the knowledge and a superior attitude but no skill.
We’ve found online training requires a quite different method of facilitation to build skill. In the classroom, you see each participant, their body language, their eye contact or lack of it, and their engagement. Online, the instructor must carefully keep track of who is interacting and who is silent. The instructor must effortlessly glide from PowerPoint back to webcams, and to know what open- and closed-ended questions to ask on each page of the Participant Guide. One-on-one coaching is critical.
In March of 2020, we found ourselves converting all of our face-to-face Boot Camps to virtual training sessions. Oh, we’ve had online courses for many years and done hundreds of webinars, but this was much more complex. Our pilots went well, and we quickly learned how to build sales skills even if we couldn’t be face-to-face. After all, our participants were really in the same boat. They were telephone sales reps, and wouldn’t be face-to-face with their customers either.
In telephone sales, we know word choice is critical since you have only one ear of tone-of-voice and no body language. With virtual training, the instructor must key on word choice, but must also use the interest generating tools the telephone salesperson must use – engaging open-ended questions, thought-provoking materials, exercises that demand participation. The participant must be mentally transported away from their workspace to a space of learning.
So now? Lessons learned. It’s full steam ahead.