Virtual Training Can Outperform the Classroom

Tim Riesterer

When it comes to creating lasting behavior change in salespeople, the assumption is that virtual sales skills training is a pale imitation of in-person classroom training. In a recent survey, 65% of companies told us they plan to spend more on virtual training, despite only 10% believing it was as good as classroom training.

But what if an online training alternative could be proven as effective — or even more effective — than classroom training? Well, it’s happened.

A Fortune 250 software company recently conducted a highly controlled field experiment where the only difference between the participants was whether they received training or not, and what modality the training was delivered. Everything else, including the participants, segment and timing, was the same, providing a high degree of confidence in determining causation.

Control groups

The reps were randomly selected to be part of one of three groups:

  • No training
  • Live classroom training
  • Online-only training

A before- and after-confidence survey was conducted to measure qualitative changes. And a group of data scientists reviewed their CRM data to determine the quantitative impact in key performance indicators.

Here are the results:

Participants in the online training expressed a confidence increase after the training that was two times higher than those who went through the two-day, live classroom training. Specifically, the questions related to their confidence in conducting a selling conversation with an executive decision-maker. An important outcome for salespeople is feeling more confident having those important but often difficult business discussions.

The online participants showed a 23.2 percent increase in their actual pipeline creation — as measured in their CRM — over those who took the live classroom training, and a 45.2 percent increase over the control group, whose members did not go through training.

The online participants showed a slightly lower annual contract value (6.1%) than the live, classroom-trained reps. But, still a significantly higher (85.2%) improvement over those who received no training at all.

A better approach to online

The breakthroughs that make it possible for online training to be as good as, and even better than live include key differences from classroom options:

Multi-touch spaced learning — The strength of classroom-based events, whether virtual or live, is that they create a fast-paced, immersive learning experience, powered by energy, engagement and rapport between talented consultants and sales reps. Their weakness is that this high-octane environment is confined to a relatively short interval of time. When behavior change and skills acquisition are at stake, that weakness can’t be overlooked. Because events, no matter how outstanding in the moment, carry an inherent risk of diminishing returns. The impact of a life-changing training experience might be powerfully felt in the immediate aftermath of the event. But how much does that positive impact degrade over time? A better approach uses spaced learning, which unfolds in stages over multiple weeks, designed to enable reps to gradually acquire and retain critical skills. Best of all, this model doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day workflow. Following this approach, reps acquire knowledge in chunks, engage in exercises, and review examples before moving on to a new concept.

Recorded practice and coaching — Observable practice, detailed coaching and demonstrated proficiency are absolute musts for behavior change. But, as we discussed earlier, there are limits to the classroom practice environment made worse in the virtual classroom. Online assignments, such as recording yourself delivering a new message or demonstrating a new skill in a recorded environment is the difference-maker. Salespeople practice, record and submit their assignments. They receive coaching feedback (red/yellow/green scoring across multiple variables) and get tailored recommendations for improvement.

Here are some noteworthy advantages:

  • More practice – Analysis shows that salespeople typically practice six times before submitting their mission, which, arguably, is significantly more practice than you get in a live or virtual classroom.
  • More complete assignments – Often, participants in live events are part of teams and only get to experience part of a role play. Or, they miss a chance entirely when time is up in the room. In the online recording approach, everyone must do a complete assignment to demonstrate proficiency.
  • More useful coaching – In the live or virtual classroom environment, the instructor is hard-pressed to give instant, meaningful feedback on the participants’ incomplete performances. Also, no one is taking notes to capture the coaching. Online recorded assignments, on the other hand, receive scoring against a documented rubric and detailed, written coaching notes with explicit recommendations for how to improve.
  • Better peer examples – Watching your peers in a live or virtual classroom can be a painful exercise. Everyone is fumbling through their practice sessions with only the occasional star performance. In the online recorded environment, however, you can see and learn from only

the best of the best examples among your colleagues.

Online training with recorded assignments may seem like a radical departure from the in-person classroom model that’s been the de facto standard of the training world for decades, but it’s actually a doubling down on what sales training has always been about: practice, coaching and demonstrated proficiency.  

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy officer at Corporate Visions, a sales training and marketing consultant.