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Why Mastery-Based Learning is Critical to Sales Success

Feb 03rd, 2017


I recently listened to a TED talk by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, who advocates for mastery-based learning models. I couldn’t help but apply his reasoning to salespeople’s learning, particularly when Forrester reports that only 22% of salespeople understand executive buyers’ issues and how they can help.

Moving from traditional learning to mastery-based learning

Khan used the following example to illustrate how traditional learning models create learning gaps.

“Let’s say we’re in a middle school pre-algebra class, and the current unit is on exponents, the teacher will give a lecture on exponents, then we’ll go home, do some homework. The next morning, we’ll review the homework, then another lecture, homework, lecture, homework. That will continue for about two or three weeks, and then we get a test. On that test, maybe I get a 75 percent, maybe you get a 90 percent, maybe you get a 95 percent. And even though the test identified gaps in our knowledge, I didn’t know 25 percent of the material. Even the A student, what was the five percent they didn’t know?”

Let’s compare this to mastery-based learning, as Khan explains:

“In a martial art, you would practice the white belt skills as long as necessary, and only when you’ve mastered it you would move on to become a yellow belt. It’s the way you learn a musical instrument: you practice the basic piece over and over again, and only when you’ve mastered it, you go on to the more advanced one.”

This makes a ton of sense. Truly mastering something takes time. For some people it will take longer than others. Whether it’s math, science or sales, mastering your message and honing your skills is key to achieving success.

Leading companies excel at providing consistent sales messaging, according to Forbes Insights. In fact, 7 in 10 of top performing companies are able to provide a consistent sales message, compared with just 4 in 10 for those with less sales success.

Mastery-based learning in sales

As the B2B sales process has become more complex and competitive, mastery-based learning has become a must for sales organizations. And the stakes are high: if salespeople haven’t mastered the required messaging and competencies, there’s no telling how many winnable deals are slipping through their fingers. Of course, many companies still have work to do in this area; according to Forrester Research, 70% of salespeople are not prepared for executive buyer questions.

Khan says “And this [teaching to mastery] isn’t even just a ‘nice to have.’ I think it’s a social imperative. We’re exiting what you could call the industrial age and we’re going into this information revolution.”

Top-performing salespeople are likely to have extensive product and industry knowledge. They understand their needs and pain points of different buyers, and can speak their language. This is what it takes to become true masters their craft. But how do they reach that level of mastery?

For sales organizations, simply completing training isn’t enough. Reps need to be able to demonstrate that they’ve absorbed and retained critical information, and can execute what they’ve learned in the field. This starts with onboarding – but that’s only the beginning. Mastery-based learning also requires continuous reinforcement, coaching and validation.

This is one reason why sales enablement and readiness have become critical functions at B2B organizations. The people in these roles are responsible for onboarding new reps and ensuring they are continuously trained on new products, competitive intelligence and company positioning. But most importantly, they need to make sure reps have mastered their message and can effectively communicate it with buyers.

And because today’s buyers are more informed than ever, it’s even more critical that your reps are educated and prepared to make the most of their sales opportunities.

Want to learn more? Check out:

1. Why Sales Readiness is Critical to Growth in 2017

2. Using the ROAM Method for Sales Training and Coaching

3. Step Aside, Sales Product Training. Enter: Scenario-Based Solution Training