How Can Microlearning Solve Your Sales Problem?

by Rory Christian

Of the executive buyers asked to discuss their experiences of meetings with vendor salespeople:

  • 57% said meetings with sales reps often failed to meet expectations because they weren’t knowledgeable enough about their industry
  •  77% of buyers said sales reps didn’t have a deep enough understanding of their business issues to properly articulate the value of their products or services
  •  76% said sales reps fell short on knowledge of the role and responsibilities of the executive they were selling to

Forrester research September 2014

Information is everywhere, and accessible anywhere, spilling out of the circuitry of every tablet and every smartphone in your company.

People are looking at more information and more often than they ever have before, at work as well as at home.

Companies are finding new ways of using mobile and cloud technologies to create flexible working environments empower employees, increase productivity and reduce the costs that come with the need for office space.

Think about:

  • the engineers using mobile devices to view and record component data while they carry out remote asset maintenance
  • the virtual meetings happening in airports, hotels, coffee shops, conference centers and restaurants
  • the final rehearsal for a sales pitch that takes place in a car park just before you ‘go on stage’

Barriers to mobile learning

The effects on the eLearning and wider sales enablement industry are huge, because it’s not just the delivery mechanism that’s been disrupted.

The creation of a new segment of learners – the mobile, client-facing, sales and service staff on whom your customer relationships depend – demands a fundamental shift in the way training needs to be designed and delivered to these kinds of employees.

Recent research from Towards Maturity certainly supports this view. While a massive 80%in-focus-2016-consumer-learner-thumb-shadow of respondents view online learning in a positive light:

  • 53% cited location or IT as a barrier
  • 42% think that their company provides relevant online learning for their job

Whether you’re deskbound, or out on the road visiting clients, companies have adopted a flexible IT infrastructure that’s able to fit the needs of different users, and the onus falls on training content providers to embrace the way learners are using the internet, and to package their content accordingly.

How microlearning can help

This new approach centers on content that is:

  • mobile-friendly (of course) – the ultimate aim is to empower employees and increase productivity through ‘anyplace/anytime’ access to content. Of course, there’s research suggesting that content is as much as 25% more taxing to read on a screen than in a book – something that definitely rings true in my experience – which is where the next two characteristics fit in…
  • bite-sized – Getting a week-long course down to a day, or even an hour, is often too long for client-facing staff who prefer to access training during a specific ‘moment of need’ – in the car park ten minutes before a big pitch, to use our prior example. Microlearning breaks subjects down into sessions of 5 – 10 minutes (sometimes even shorter), nicely side-stepping the inherent limitations of our ever-shortening attention spans!
  • highly-focused – In every session, the depth of the ‘knowledge dive’ is dictated by the learner. Giving employees the freedom to customize their own learning experience gives traditional learning a much-needed shot in the arm – as Winston Churchill once said, ‘I am always ready to learn although I don’t always like being taught!’
    Typically, content is delivered in video format, podcasts, interactive mobile apps, and other formats that align with the goal of ‘just-in-time’ support and allow workers to quickly apply new knowledge and skills to real life situations.

But there are limitations

All great, so far.

But I found myself nodding in agreement with this article that points out a series of possible weaknesses in the microlearning model – that the approach doesn’t necessarily allow learners to become fluent in wider scope topics.

Excel tutorials, TEDTalk videos, and language lessons, are one thing.

But how could microlearning fit in when we’re helping staff learn about subjects as broad and complex as, say, Aerospace and Defense, or Oil & Gas?

Is there an approach to microlearning that will get a sales rep ‘up to speed’ quickly, and embed the depth of knowledge they need to be able to understand their clients’ industry issues, their role-specific responsibilities, and be able to ‘swing from branch to branch’ as the sales conversation develops?

So the problem is not how to break the content up – that’s the easy part!

The issue is finding a way to retain the ‘subject ecosystems’ salespeople need to know before they engage in business conversations with senior executives.

Models of Training

The value of industry training lies in helping companies move their salesforce away from talking to clients in terms of their own products and services, and towards talking about business outcomes and solutions.

The Forrester research above demonstrates perfectly how content can fit into sales enablement efforts – and it’s not the only evidence of the worrying reality.

Supporting it is IDC research indicating that less than half of the buyers they interviewed considered their own sales reps to be ‘very prepared’ for an initial meeting!

So there are plenty of salespeople constrained not by sales skills, but by lack of knowledge of their prospects’ industries.

They range from new hires who need to ‘hit the ground running,’ to the experienced reps assigned to a new account in an industry they’ve never worked in before.

Traditional chapter-driven, linear courses don’t fit the bill for the kind of learner who’s traveling from client site to client site all day. It’s a missed an opportunity if the focus is only on offering CPE credits to employees – work through the chapters, take the test, print the certificate….you’re done.

Conversely, simply calling each two minute microlearning section a ‘lecture,’ and giving it a name doesn’t seem to retain the value of the content. What’s needed is a microlearning concept that provides real value.

Industry knowledge and its role in sales

So let’s step back and try to understand the underlying needs.

Imagine a sales rep from an IT vendor has an initial meeting with an Oil & Gas client. He might have watched a short video about big data. He might even have watched an overview of upstream operations.

But when you’re sitting in front of the buyer, understanding concepts without knowing how they fit together won’t give you the confidence and credibility you need to hold your own in a sales discussion.

As we can see from the Forrester and IDC research, truly effective selling comes, in part, from:

  • becoming fluent in a whole new language of industry-specific terms
  • using these terms to position your offer in the context of real world business problems
  • being able to anticipate the direction the discussion is headed
  • being able to guide the discussion towards areas in which your offering has a proven record of delivering benefits

Therefore, there was no way that traditional microlearning could help our sales rep form the ‘mental maps’ they needed to keep pace if the conversation shifted to: the digital oilfield, low oil prices, rising production costs, falling EROEI, the cost of complying with regulations – and so on. A stronger structure is needed.

Automotive wiki page from Cambashi Industry Vertical training
Snapshot of an Automotive wiki page

The birth of the Industry Wiki

And so ideas for videos, games, apps, podcasts, and all the other flashy delivery technologies went by the wayside.

But in the end, the solution to this tricky problem was as simple as it is effective. A suite of industry-specific Wikis provides bite-sized, memorable information to meet sales goals.  It ultimately offers e-learning that:

  • presents content in a familiar and interactive learning tool
  • retains the mobile-responsive/bite-sized/non-linear learning dynamic that make microlearning so effective
  • solves the ‘context problem’ by creating ‘subject ecosystems’ – intuitively linking related topics, rather than displaying them in isolation
  • can handle continuous, real-time updates more easily than traditional material delivered under the control of a Learning Management System (LMS)
  • acts as effective content structures, so that the connected sales rep with just 15 minutes before a meeting can find a set of industry-relevant bullet points to use
  • has the potential to be customized and connected to a seller company’s own product information

So, in combining on-demand learning with higher-level context, Wikis are a fantastic learning resource, offering new ways to help mobile, connected sellers meet and exceed the expectations of increasingly demanding buyers.

Comments please

Are your sales team experts in all the industries they cover? Or do you think they’d benefit from a refresher course? If they need some training, what format would work best for them, or for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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