Training: High school football teams do it for the season and elite athletes do it for the Olympics. Corporate employees and sales teams do it, too. For many, running the stadium stairs has more appeal than spending the day in a corporate training session. Business training can feel tiresome, condescending, and perfunctory—a hoop to jump through to get some carrot or to avoid a particular stick. This might be one reason why some companies avoid corporate training altogether. But if you’ve experienced success in direct sales leadership for a substantial length of time, you probably understand the value of training as a retention tool. Very few recruits who have no sales knowledge will manage to pick it up on their own. Whether or not you train your team, it’s worthwhile to consider what recent research says about training.
The decline of corporate training
The Wall Street Journal piece, Just Whose Job is it to Train Workers, states that the percentage of training-related manufacturing jobs declined by half between 2006 and 2013. The number of formal apprenticeships in the country fell 40% between 2003 and 2013. “Where bosses once hired for potential, viewing workers as lumps of clay to be molded to the company’s needs, they now want hires to arrive with all or most of the skills needed for the job” (WSJ).
This is bad news for unskilled job-seekers, but it also presents the opportunity for direct sellers to entice recruits. If you offer training that will help recruits develop skills that have real market value, you’re doing better than many corporate employers.
The value of training individuals
In a review of research about training, Herman Aguinis and Kurt Kraiger (2009) found a multitude of ways it can improve individual performance. Training can impart:
- Innovative abilities
- Tacit abilities (such as the “feel” required to remove dents from a bumper)
- Knowledge and comprehension of facts and terms (declarative knowledge)
- The ability to perform skilled technical tasks (procedural knowledge)
- Awareness of where and when to use specific skills (strategic knowledge)
Training may also increase a trainee’s ability to perform under stress, without direction, with the expectation of positive outcomes. Aguinis and Kraiger had two other findings that are especially important to direct sellers: Training can prepare trainees to work within a new cultural environment and (perhaps the most important finding) training is associated with increases in sales.
The value of training teams and organizations
Aguinis and Kraiger also considered how training can impact teams and organizations. It allows teams to work better in new situations, collaborate better to solve problems, and plan more efficiently. A company with on-the-job or in-house trainers produces higher quality products and experiences higher profits and (again) sales volume. Organizations which take training seriously may gain “social capital”—in other words, they might foster higher employee dedication and less turnover.
Although this research is specific to corporate training, we can apply the same principles to team training within a direct sales organization. Social capital is the bread and butter of MLMs. Training in a way that imparts wisdom—instead of just flashing your charisma—should be a part of how you cultivate your social capital.
The greater social value of training
Aguinis and Kraiger also examined the research into how training can impact society and the economy at large. Economists believe that money spent on training is a sign of a healthy market. An analysis by van Leeuwen and van Praag in 2002 suggested that every euro spent on training generated 10 euros in skill value for the economy at large. Training can also be the factor that gives an entire country access to economic blocks and unions—while the lack of training seems to relate to a country’s inability to join large-scale market economies (as is the case in Poland). Studies on Israeli Defense cadets showed how “transformational leadership” training empowered leaders and helped them internalize moral values and motivate others.
The right way to train
Those who study the science of training have a number of tips for companies looking to implement new training programs. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, training expert Dr. Eduardo Salas points out some ways to avoid common training pitfalls:
Conduct a thorough training-needs analysis, finding out exactly where skill deficiencies lie.
In the context of a direct selling team, this might be as simple as opening up a dialogue—encouraging your teammates to discuss areas and scenarios in which they’re struggling. Another way of dealing with this is to look at the real data on how your team is performing. If your company works with our sponsor, InfoTrax, then you might have access to their distributor tool, Evo, which allows you to look at detailed reports about the performance of your team.
Evaluate training by looking at what trainees actually learned, not just whether they enjoyed the training.
As mentioned earlier, social capital is vital in direct sales—but if you’re so motivated to make sure everyone’s happy that you fail to teach anything, you’re not going to improve your team’s skills or income. After a sales training, pay attention to the sales performance of your trainees and review the information with them—more than once. Retention is just as serious of a problem in memory as it is in organization building!
Do not assume that your training is effective just because it uses technology. Mobile apps, video games, and simulations are not a panacea in and of themselves.
Technology (for example, video conferencing) can improve your ability to train by expanding your reach and increasing engagement. But the tools can’t do the job for you. Instead they facilitate your ability to do the job.
Training sessions must have specific goals and supervisor feedback to be effective.
When you set goals and make the effort to evaluate how well you met them, you set yourself up to continually improve your training process. And setting goals for individual trainings can help you stay focused. Sessions with a singular topic are likely to be shorter and easier to follow and thus your trainees are more likely to be engaged for the duration of the training.
Trainees need to practice and apply the skills learned with concrete feedback on how well the new behavior worked.
You can practice during a training session by having your team roleplay a sales strategy. After the training you can join in on trainee sales calls to observe how they’re applying the trained technique. This allows you to see whether they’re getting the desired results and whether they’re correctly using the technique. You can then help them individually adjust their methods—and you can adjust your training methods themselves to improve the results that future trainees get.
One of the worst things you can do as a direct seller is sponsor people and then leave them to figure it out on their own. Succeeding in this business is not easy. And if success in direct sales came naturally to you, you might not realize that it doesn’t come naturally to others. If you don’t train, no matter how much you recruit, you won’t be able to build something that is stable and lasting.
Finally, make an effort to be teachable yourself and to cultivate a learner mentality within your team. Take the time to identify what’s working for you and then share that information. Some things that are second-nature to you might have a huge impact on your team’s capabilities.
At its worst, training can be a waste of time and money. But if it targets behaviors that help trainees do their jobs more efficiently and effectively—and if they are motivated to learn and practice what they have learned—training can provide great benefits to your team.