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What’s The Half-Life of Sales Training?

At one point during one of the workshops I facilitated in Ireland two weeks ago, a CEO said, matter-of-factly, “… and you know what the half-life of sales training is…”  He was discussing how his company took a more formal approach to sales effectiveness than just sales training, and the benefits that structure and process was delivering to his company.  I had never heard the term “half-life” applied to sales training.  Brilliant!

Just the other day I finally got around to googling, “half-life of sales training.”  Most of the hits I got back were related to an original article in the January 2004 issue of American Salesman.

The subject of the article was a study commissioned by SPI (Sales Performance International) which found, among other things, that the half-life of sales training is just 5.1 weeks without post-program reinforcement.  For 44% of the participants in the study the half-life is less than a month. 

In the article, SPI Senior Consultant Bob McGarrah said, “According to our findings, without immediate reinforcement the greatest loss in the training investment occurs almost as soon as the training is over.”

Although this research was done more than four years ago, I couldn’t agree more.  ESR has found that post-program reinforcement is the single factor with the most impact on long-term value of a sales training intervention.  There are certainly others, such as management support and matching training to an accurate assessment of needs.  But it’s post-program reinforcement—coaching, follow-up materials, tools, refreshers, etc.—that extends the value of training.

There is a vicious cycle taking place here: 

  1. A sales training “event” is held, but it isn’t part of a strategic sales performance improvement approach.
  2. Since there is no post-program reinforcement, most of what is learned is forgotten or not used.
  3. No measurable improvement is the result. 
  4. That investment in the sales training event is seen as a waste of money by senior executives.
  5. Due to a failure to deliver any benefits, investment for sales training for the next year is again severely curtailed.  No funds are allocated for requirements definition, process improvement and post-program “extras” like management training, coaching, refresher programs, technology support, etc.
  6. Go to #1

The solution to this challenge isn’t a secret.  We’ve certainly written extensively about it and so have the training companies we cover.  What will it take for business leaders and senior executives to break this cycle?


4 Responses

  1. Thanks, Dave — this is an issue about which I have been particularly passionate about, having seen the cycle you describe at first hand in dozens of companies. I think that many sales executives simply don’t understand (or worse, don’t *want* to understand) that sales performance improvement is a human behavior change management process, not just a training event. Leading change is hard — hosting training events is easy. It’s as simple as that. And yet, for those executives that understand the difference, the potential for lasting competitive advantage is significant — we’ve seen multi-year, double-digit sales performance improvement in organizations that understand that it’s not just about training alone. We published a white paper about this recently – it includes a summary of the research you cited, and some ideas for effective sales performance change management. You can download it for free from this address: http://tinyurl.com/4hdrdf

  2. Dave,

    My research and experience echo your own. The climate – work environment – for turning new skills into gold on the job matters both before and after the class. Your points are excellent, not just for sales training, but for all development.

    In a prior role with Motorola, I looked at training effectiveness in 80 countries with 120,000 employees and the “transfer climate” was the single biggest predictor of whether job performance improved within 3 months of the class.

    I’m curious, though, the degree to which the “half-life’ of sales can be improved by ensuring that influence science is included (e.g. Robert Cialdini’s methods). These are well studied, timeless, and likely to payoff, with the right nurturing, for a long time.

  3. Dave – while I completely agree with the findings of SPI and what you have written about, I also wonder what those of us in the profession could do differently to make our sales training more memorable to begin with?

  4. Could it be that most people selling training would rather take the money for the ‘event’ rather than sell the programme.

    In my experience is middle managers can just about sell the ‘event’ internally, but they don’t have the skills/will to sell a more expensive program to management. They want the quick win, the low hanging fruit, the shortcut.

    How many client companies have you come across that are dedicated to Sales Mastery.

    Perhaps we need to stop selling training and start selling mastery. It’s our fault!


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