Product Knowledge, Hermann Ebbinghaus and the ‘Forgetting Curve”
Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who fought in the Franco Prussian war briefly. After acquiring his PhD from University of Bonn, he traveled across France and England teaching school children. In an old bookstore in London, he came across Gustav Fechner’s book “Elements of Psychophysics”, which motivated him to conduct memory experiments — an interest which would in later years lead to his most seminal work — and make the world remember him as the man who coined the term ‘the learning curve’ and by extention — ‘the forgetting curve’.
The forgetting curve supports one of the seven kinds of memory failures: transience — the process of forgetting that occurs with the passage of time.
Ebbinghaus used stuff that would later be called “nonsense syllables”. A nonsense syllable is a consonant-vowel-consonant combination, where the consonant does not repeat and the syllable does not have prior meaning. E.g syllables such as DAX, BOK, YAT etc He repeatedly tested himself on such syllables and plotted his research over time to create what would later be called ‘the forgetting curve’.
Fast Forward to 2017, India — and imagine you are the Chief Sales Officer of a Manufacturing Enterprise. You have one/some products that are the cash cow, bringing in 70% of the sales. But you know the market is shifting — competition massive, cheap alternates, all resulting in margins getting crunched. But let’s say there is still some juice in the market, but you know that this market is going to plateau in a few years and you gotta run to stay at the same place. So the management puts its head together and realizes that the profitability would come from new products, better products, products that are sold at a premium, so either you invest in R&D yourself, or get into an alliance with a Principal and bring their hi-end product in the country.
The marketing department gets activated, they create advertising and communication, release product notes and builds a whole bunch of sales collaterals around such products. Combination of Documents, PDFs, PPTs and Video’s. Everyone agrees that the sales rep has to really articulate value and explain differentiation that makes X cost more than Y. The sales training or sales capability building department takes off from here and trainers are dispatched all over the country. They come back and report that stipulated training hours are completed, and the field has filled the ‘happy sheets’ — those feedback form that says did they like the training or not. Everyone did, job well done!
So far so good, and management expects great results next quarter, but after the next 90 days nothing much has changed, and the premium products are gathering dust and profitability margins aren’t increasing. So, what happened?
What happened is what Ebbinghaus explained in 1905, and after 100 years, we still haven’t learnt. That a ‘human mind is designed to forget information if not reinforced in quick succession”. That in 7 days post product knowledge training, if it is not reinforced, 75% of the training is lost.
How do you do it? Its not practical from a time and money point of view to recruit sales trainers or deploy them everywhere. And even if you did so, sales managers hate to have their people off the field and classrooms. So, what’s the solution?
The Solution is Sales Enablement. Now Forrester defines sales enablement as “a strategic, ongoing process that equips sales reps with the ability to consistently have a valuable conversation with various customer stakeholders at each stage of the customers buying journey”. If you break this out it essentially means, delivering Sales Coaching, Content and Communication, powered by Technology. Deliver it right at the moment of truth, when a rep is in a meeting with a prospect. Let him not articulate value of a hi value product from memory, let him actually demonstrate it to the client.
So, its time you take Ebbinghaus seriously and decide to enable your reps so they are better at their jobs, not leave training’s only to classroom, and deliver knowledge where it is required most — at the client meeting.