You probably spend a lot on sales training. On average, firms spend about 20% more per capita on sales training than they spend in all other functions. Yet, surveys report a steady decline in the share of sales reps achieving quota and that participants in traditional classroom-type training seminars forget more than 80% of the information taught within 90 days. (See Jimmy Touchstone in the references.) Talk about quarterly short-termism! Further, these meetings steal time from prospecting and selling, and the result is not only disappointing but also dilutive and counterproductive.

Nonetheless, the goal here is sound: In any competitive market, if you don’t invest in people’s skill development, you eventually get what you don’t pay for—especially in sales. Over time, most salespeople must deal with new products, features, competitors, and changing buyers and influencers. Developing and maintaining relevant selling skills is a process, not an event. At any point in time, most salespeople have multiple accounts and deal with different buying protocols and needs. A customer involved in re-buys may not need the information required for a new purchaser in the category. One prospect is primarily concerned with innovative product features while another is concerned with just-in-time delivery. The “out” vendor faces different tasks than the seller of the existing solution at that account. During the course of a week, or even a day, salespeople encounter these differences.

The problem with much sales training is that it misunderstands how salespeople learn. Most learning in sales is accomplished through peer learning in specific task-oriented contexts. This is sometimes referred to as “learning in the flow of work". Talking about selling is not the same as selling. To acquire a behavioral skill (versus a concept or new information), people must apply that behavior multiple times (from 3-20 times, according to different studies) before it becomes practiced enough to be comfortable and effective. (See the research about practice and adult learning in the References.)

Further, the effects seem to be cumulative because modeling behavior is a big driver of how salespeople develop. Reps improve by seeing how their peers perform key tasks. They pick up important lessons about how to pitch, answer objections, wisely use marketing collateral, and other aspects of selling specific to that product in that market, while gaining confidence in their ability to sell. This is profoundly different from what people experience in most training seminars, especially if the instructor lacks the credibility of successful peers.

Many firms must therefore augment current practice with tools and processes that encourage learning in the flow of work. Some companies are doing that and, as by-products, improving hiring, onboarding, best-practice dissemination, and performance management as well as selling skills.

Blended learning and performance

Sharon Ruddock, global vice president of digital commerce at SAP, transitioned to a blended learning approach that includes a virtual component and formal classroom-style exercises.

“We use interactive video, face-to-face meetings, and experiential learning as part of a larger learning arc,” Ruddock says. “Instead of a single face-to-face where reps dive in for days and are done, having a digital component allows for reinforcement on the back end and peer mentoring. Everything is data-driven so we can analyze a rep's performance and suggest coaching in specific areas. With these methods at our disposal, the lines between formal and informal learning are blurring.” For example, comparing a rep’s performance on digital learning assignments with that rep’s deal history helps to indicate why and how a rep would benefit from coaching about objection handling in a specific vertical, or how to handle executive-level conversations. Managers can then coach to specific topics and skill sets, and reinforce the learning with relevant peer-created resources from the field.

Ruddock notes that reps want specific information when and where they need it. “When a rep is heading to a meeting and trying to hone in on a customer’s industry- and role-specific pain points, we want to make sure they can quickly access that information via video on their mobile device.”

There is a more general point at stake here. In business, what’s the value of information that may be relevant, yet arrives too late to be used? The answer is less than zero, because resources were expended in finding and delivering that information. To avoid this, Ruddock employs chatbots “so reps can find what they need to have a real conversation about a customer’s unique challenges and not just rely on a generic response.” She notes that this just-in-time content has to be short, two- to five-minutes per video, tailored to a specific question, and tagged correctly using keywords so targeted answers can be located.

A next step is to use these methods and materials in onboarding reps—a major issue for sales organizations. Across industries, it now takes on average three to four months to hire a rep and, once hired, companies report ramp-up time to full productivity takes more than nine months. (See CSO Insights: 2018 Sales Talent Study in the references.) That is an entire year without a fully productive seller. SAP Academy, the company’s onboarding program for recent college graduates, aims to shorten this time by using training to predict how reps will perform in the field.

It starts with a rigorous hiring process. With over 12,500 applicants each year and just a few hundred accepted, the admissions rate is lower than Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Stanford. Then, the Academy introduces reps to core sales concepts and employs continuous learning and reinforcement through classroom training, digital learning, and on-the-job exercises. As part of the program, reps record and share videos of themselves delivering product pitches. SAP reps and Academy students have access to the growing library of peer-generated video content, which contains examples of how reps handle specific situations. As Ruddock notes, “We’ve found people are more open to learning from peers who have been-there-done-that. It’s one of our most powerful learning tools. We’ve had over 100K views and 10K videos created by our more than 8,000 salespeople worldwide.”

SAP’s use of the content and associated analytics to improve sales management and coaching illustrates a key area of performance leverage in most organizations. An excellent rep is excellent within his or her territory while a manager has, for good or ill, more influence across multiple people and segments. The Sales Leadership Academy works with managers on their coaching skills, forecasting, and ability to analyze opportunities with their people. Ruddock’s team looks at pipeline build, win rate, sales cycle time, and customer satisfaction to demonstrate from a learning perspective which initiatives improve which metric.

“We work with managers to say, ‘These are your reps’ strengths and weaknesses and the initiatives each rep would benefit from to improve quota attainment.’ We can quantify what type of increase they should see in revenue attainment for the year.” Sales managers who complete the program increase their team’s win rate by 28% and the average value of closed deals by 23%.

“This changes the conversation,” Ruddock says. “Now, when someone asks, ‘Why learn?’ we can point to our data. Learning improves our sales performance and abilities.”

Today, sales training at SAP reflects what research shows about the reality of adult learning: the importance of periodic reinforcements and microlearning lessons that are concise, about behaviors as well as concepts, and easy to revisit via flash drills, best-practice videos, and coaching exercises.

Faster, better, personalized learning

SAP isn’t the only example. Citizens Bank has cut its training production and consumption time in half. The retail division’s “Monday Morning Mission” meetings and Friday wrap-up calls are now accompanied by short videos that communicate a behavior or best practice and weekly action items with branch managers.

Kimberly Dee, executive vice president and customer transformation director, notes that “Our meetings have gone from about 45 to 20 minutes, and we’re getting more information across. Video is more engaging than the email recaps previously shared post-meeting, and opens lines of communication: managers respond within the video platform with questions or clarifications easier and sooner.”

Moreover, not everyone learns the same way. Reps have different starting points depending upon their experience and customers, but the path of least resistance for most training departments is a standardized approach pitched at the lowest common denominator. Some people are visual learners, some respond to audio narrative, and others need to see it in writing. Dee emphasizes that “by augmenting our content with video, we’re able to connect the dots for many people in a way we couldn’t before. 52% of our employees are millennials. The days of having people in multi-day training classes are disappearing, because it’s inefficient and it’s not the way those people learn.”

So what, now what?

There are broader lessons in these companies’ practices. In our personal lives, we routinely use tools to get information at the time of need. Waze doesn’t only provide driving directions; it also provides real-time information from other drivers about current road conditions—access to collaborative knowledge. YouTube has over 1.8 billion users monthly who view five billion videos daily, and data indicate that emails with videos have four times the click-through-rate of those without video. Video is a learning multiplier as well as access to J-I-T knowledge. But the medium is significantly underutilized in sales training where, as these examples illustrate, relevant videos from peers turn advice into a narrative that sticks and is easily refreshed when outdated. Further, the benefits go beyond sales. Once established, these systems help to unlock and disseminate knowledge that in most companies is trapped in inboxes or tedious PowerPoint presentations.

Second, both SAP and Citizens operate in selling environments where consistent messaging is required, but so is adaptation to diverse customers and usage contexts. “Increased access to the sales community at SAP ensures that the best messaging is not only being used but used across the globe,” says Ruddock. “Instead of star reps performing individually, the entire sales force can benefit from their insight and experience.”

These cross-cutting demands for adaptation with consistency are now common and, as another manager notes, reflect a growing need in organizations to “better connect the decision-makers with those seeking a decision. What began as an initiative to improve sales training has helped to flatten our organization and increase agility.”

Third, the medium affects the message and messengers. As Dee notes, “our communications were like a game of telephone with messages passed sequentially. The rapid, concise video formats make people more thoughtful and disciplined in articulating their point of view, employees get messaging directly from the source in their words, and can share their own experiences and questions.”

Finally, companies struggle to accelerate learning cycles for good reasons. Customers now have easy access to online comparisons of products and prices, and expect an organization to present them with a coherent face. For much of the past two decades, the message has been to break down silos via reorganization, cultural change, and superior “leadership” capabilities. But that is a rough, lengthy, uncertain road. Another route is to begin where value is created or destroyed in most firms— in the external market with customers via sales initiatives—and use tools that make your organization easier to navigate and your people better and more-willing navigators.


  • Jimmy Touchstone, The Sales Training Dilemma, Sales Performance International (March, 2019).
  • For the research about practice and adult learning, see K. Anders Ericsson, “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 683-703; K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (July 1993): 363- 406; and “Unlocking the DNA of the Adaptable Workforce,” Global Human Capital Study 2008 (IBM, 2008).
  • CSO Insights: 2018 Sales Talent Study (Miller Heiman, 2018), page 6.

All Contributors

Frank V. Cespedes

Harvard Business School

Yuchun Lee

Co-founder and CEO, Allego

Mark Magnacca

President and Co-Founder, Allego