“Interactive” has been a buzzword in the meetings and events industry for many years, and with good reason: It ties in to another important buzzword, “engagement.” Attendees want to interact with their peers and with presenters, with products at product launches and exhibits, with local cultures on incentive trips, and so on. Planners who facilitate these interactions can expect a more engaged group of attendees who then will better absorb the business at hand — especially critical for action-oriented salespeople, who, if allowed to fall asleep at the wheel, will never arrive at the intended destination. Here are some signposts planners can follow to keep training sessions from running off the road.
Typically very energetic, salespeople are not likely to be engaged by a speech or lecture for long, and that’s a problem if the content is sales techniques that are directly relevant to the company’s bottom line. “We believe it’s hard to sit for hours listening to one person be a ‘talking head,’ versus facilitating a group discussion, going out and taking five minutes for a table discussion, and doing a lot of interaction,” remarks Edie DePhillips, vice president, sales advisory manager, event project management team, at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Des Moines, Iowa.
Other major firms share that philosophy. When delivering a sales training session, it is arguable that one should “lecture only as a last resort,” to quote one of the underlying principles observed at Agoura Hills, California-based University of Farmers.
A variety of other activities regularly supplant lecturing at the award-winning university, explains Dave Nystrom, head of field training.
“We subscribe to a 60/20/8 formula,” he says. “Every 60 minutes all learning ends. Every 20 minutes you change topic, and every eight minutes you change what the attendees are actually doing. So for eight minutes, they’re reading or talking about a case study, or they’re putting the barriers up on a flip chart, or they’re watching a video, or they’re playing a game, etc. We try to vary the way they interact with the material six to 10 times within the session.”
“Every 60 minutes all learning ends. Every 20 minutes you change topic, and every eight minutes you change what the attendees are actually doing.” — Dave Nystrom
Attendees also absorb sales concepts better if they arrive at them via specific sales situations, before considering the application of the ideas to their jobs or the background theory. “Traditionally, training has been theory first, application second and experience third,” Nystrom says. “We flip it around: We let them experience it right upfront, then we talk about the application, and then give the theory behind it. It’s what we call the EAT approach. So we start by presenting the situation and asking, what do you do? What do you have to do differently? They usually figure it out for themselves.”
While the emphasis on interactive sales training has not obviated traditional speakers within many training programs, it has tended to limit the span of time that participants play the role of listeners. “After a speaker’s done, we would typically move on to the next speaker. This year, we tried following each speaker up with about 10–15 minutes of open discussion,” notes Barb Orvis, senior meetings and events planner with St. Cloud, Minnesota-based ING. “Then the audience can share perhaps how they might have implemented what the speaker talked about. Sometimes I think we put great speakers in front of people, but then (the attendees) don’t get a chance to immediately talk with their peers around the table. They might have to wait two to three hours, and some have already checked out; (the topic) is in the back of their mind.”
With this discussion component in mind, Orvis has the seating set up in crescent rounds instead of classroom or theater-style. Birmingham, Alabama-based Protective Life Insurance Company uses the same arrangement for its sales group role-playing sessions, informally called “war rooms.” “We try to get them down to smaller numbers, groups of 10 to 12, and sometimes we’ll set it up like an office so they can really get a lot out of the role-playing,” says Lisa Ramsay, CMP, director of meetings. “When you set it up in an environment like that, it’s not so sterile; (attendees) are less restricted, and more casual and open. It helps the learning process.”
Socializing outside of the meeting room also helps to facilitate interactive learning, and establishes useful connections among salespeople from disparate regions. “Each evening we usually do some kind of cocktail reception and a dinner. The networking is important because sometimes if (a participant) gets home and has a question about a part of the business, they have a contact they can call,” Orvis says.
The value of face-to-face networking is a major reason why ING has not replaced more of its sales training meetings with virtual learning, she adds. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep the meetings short (most programs require only two hotel nights), since “we don’t want to take them out of the office for too long, which takes time away from them selling in the field.” The individual sessions last about an hour and 50 minutes, and Orvis has found it effective to end the last session no later than 4:30 p.m. “Anything later, and even getting to that point, you start to notice a drop off in attendance; it’s an overload of content,” she explains. The point should be borne in mind even for training programs with required attendance.
There are other practical ways in which planners can help to ensure the trainees maintain focus, for example by allowing them enough time to recuperate from their flight. “If we are going to start the program on the day that they fly in, we’ll maybe kick off with a lunch and try not to make that afternoon so intense, but rather the next morning once everyone’s had a good night’s sleep,” Ramsay relates.
Avoiding F&B that induces lethargy is also sensible. “Nowadays people are concentrating on getting a lot of protein, and we provide healthy snacks like fruits, yogurt and nuts,” she adds. At the University of Farmers, trainees have access to a snack room that is adjacent to the classroom. “One of the things about adult learning is that when you’re thirsty, you’re thirsty, not when break is being done,” Nystrom says. “So we let them get what they need any time they want it. (Fixed break times) are a challenge with using hotels for training, generally speaking.”
There are other features of the Farmers training environment that can be difficult to replicate at hotels. “The typical hotel room has a front and a back, but we use the whole room with projections in four places. So no matter where you’re sitting you can see (the presentation). And every person here has a $400 ergonomic chair. Before we built the university we used hotels, and part of our contract was that they had to buy such chairs. They were willing to do that,” he says.
A good post-event survey will include various questions about the site choice, given that trainers want to deliver content in an ideal physical environment. A less-than-ideal site may adversely impact participants’ reaction to the learning event, which is Level One of the “Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Evaluation Model,” a learning and training evaluation methodology. At the University of Farmers, Level Two of the model — how much participants learned due to the training — is sometimes determined via pre- and post-tests to ascertain the learning increase, Nystrom notes. (A high average score on the post-test alone does not necessarily mean a learning increase, as participants might have achieved that score without having taken the course.)
Nystrom also identifies a Level Zero, which is the number of participants in the session. ING has begun using RFID technology to capture this metric, which is significant when attendance is not mandatory. “We use it at some of our larger meetings to know who’s attending which breakout sessions, and that sometimes tells us whether our attendance is dropping off later in the day and we can adjust our schedules in that regard,” Orvis explains. “And if we’re offering one particular topic over two days, and each day we see high numbers in those sessions, that tells us there’s a high interest and we follow up in the coming months with snippets or webinars for people who couldn’t attend.”
After the Level Three measurement — behavior change as a result of the learning — business results are measured in Level Four, which is the ultimate ROI. “If we see a sales increase of the products they’ve been trained on, we equate that to the success of the meeting,” Orvis says. DePhillips puts the point more generally: “Our litmus test is whether we are moving forward, whether the business is moving in the right direction. You should also be able to see if what you taught or the message you shared becomes part of the (corporate) culture.”
Wells Fargo’s training initiative for its salesforce of more than 9,000 home mortgage consultants is a multipronged approach that includes face-to-face, online and self-guided training. “The mortgage industry, as much as we’re trying to make it an easier industry to operate in, still is a complicated business,” says DePhillips. “So we need to look at the type of training we need to deliver and determine what’s the best way. We may do a combination; for example, we may roll out an initial high-level training to get people accustomed to the topic, goals and lingo, and then go in deeper with hands-on computer training if it’s tech-based or skill-building with role-playing, which obviously needs to be face-to-face.”
Flexibility in the training medium is also key at the University of Farmers. “Our ultimate goal is to let the learner learn it the way they want to learn it; some prefer online, some in a classroom, some by experience: ‘Give me five things I can go do to experience it,’ ” says Nystrom. “So if the topic justifies it, we try to have it available any way the learner wants. Some topics are better suited (to a particular medium). If it’s 100 percent knowledge based, you wouldn’t ever do that in a classroom, or if it’s 100 percent skill based, you’re better off doing that in a classroom. For example, you can learn the rules of golf by reading them, but you can’t learn how to swing a golf club just by reading it. Or you can play Tiger Woods golf on a computer, but it’s not the same as playing golf on a course.” Accordingly, while some topics are only available via a certain medium of instruction, others come with recommendations as to the best medium to choose.
Most recently, Farmers is trying to also provide more flexibility in training sites. “For some of our major curricula, they have to come here to attend them, and many programs are 2½ days. It means time away from the office and travel expenses for our audience, these agents and independent contractors,” says Nystrom. “So one of the things we’re exploring is called Bring the U to You, which means we’ll have to start using hotels. We’re just piloting it now to see what level of interest we get.”
The overarching objective is to create sales-training programs that fit learners’ needs on multiple levels including:
When a good fit is achieved, trainers often find that the programs effectively promote themselves, since agents are looking for well-targeted, convenient education.
“One of the great things about Wells Fargo culture is development,” says DePhillips. “We really want people to succeed, and in order to do that we offer these opportunities, and our team members take advantage of it. They know the value of (the programs), and they can see the outcomes in how they have bettered themselves, and so we really don’t have to promote. We tell them it’s out there, and we provide a pretty clear path as to training: ‘Here are the steps and the different classes that will help you be successful.’ We have a great internal website as well as team members dedicated to L&D that help them find the classes, get to the classes and then execute on what they learned.”
The highly skilled and educated agents that “graduate” from these programs are directly responsible for satisfied customers. “We want our customers to succeed,” she adds, “and in order to do that we need to be on top of our game, with the best-trained agents who can share the latest information with our customers so they can ultimately be successful in their home ownership.”
And finding happy customers at the end of the road is on everyone’s roadmap to success. I&FMM