Making sales learning stick: apprenticeships and the apprenticeship model

Making sales learning stick: apprenticeships and the apprenticeship model
Apprenticeships make learning stick and transfer classroom concepts into good workplace behaviour.
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Gaining skills and knowledge can change the way we live and work. Taking time to understand the way we think and behave can also transform our business interactions and our relationships. Frequently, though, the stumbling block is not our desire to learn, but the way we learn. There is a gap between what we want to achieve and how we can make it happen.

For many organisations, too little of their investment in training brings workplace results. In fact, more than 70% of initiatives to transform sales fail, with a number of studies suggesting that virtually all sales training (between 84% and 90%) is lost within just three months. The challenge is how to change this experience for salespeople to encourage them to learn, to remember, and to put that learning into practice.

Too often, salespeople are simply told what to learn, how to learn it and what to do next, but research by the Institute of Sales Professionals and Cranfield University suggests the apprenticeship model can help solve this issue. Apprenticeships are a way to make learning stick, and most importantly can transfer classroom concepts into good workplace behaviour.

Apprenticeships have been around for thousands of years. The model is simple and effective: learning-by-doing. It is an approach used in many fields, including vocational training, aviation, and medicine, so it is not surprising that it’s also been so successful in sales.

This article does not suggest formal apprenticeships in sales for everyone, but it does wish to point out that apprenticeships funded by the levy in the UK are possible in sales, and many employers use them and see benefits in sales performance as a consequence. What this article is exploring is how the concept of apprenticeships can be adopted into the sales learning process for all sellers in an organisation.

The three parts to effective apprenticeships and how they apply to learning and development.

1. Process: Effective apprenticeships are rooted in a reliable process: a coaching process, a selling process, an employee retention process, and a leadership mentoring process. Process gives structure for repeatable results.

2. Knowledge: Learners need a foundation of subject-matter expertise. This part can be covered with classroom or e-learning.

3. Skill: This is the ability to use the process and knowledge in real situations. We assume this is easy, but it’s not; and this is where apprenticeship principles shine. Expert behaviours are modelled then developed by each learner, with mentors providing feedback as the learners began to follow the model set out for them.

Benefits of training programmes based on apprenticeship principles

If we want behaviour change in sales we need a culture of learning that is based on apprenticeship processes. Putting training into practice is hard but it’s vital to improve performance because the ability to develop new skills is the difference between an average worker and a top performer.

These are some of the benefits of apprenticeship principles:

Safe practice, where the learner, like an apprentice, is coached and supported, encourages behaviour change which creates competence and confidence. Safe practice can involve trial-and-error in real situations with a mentor on hand for help and guidance, or unguided practice exercises (such as with peers).

Learning-by-doing creates personalised experiences that greatly improve retention.

Cognitive apprenticeship applies the apprenticeship model to thinking skills and is perfectly applicable to workplace learning and development. First, understand how experts make decisions, then have learners make decisions in realistic situations, and coach them to recognise the patterns that experts follow.

How to incorporate the apprenticeship model into your training

Most organisations have a system for teaching sales processes and products but don’t have a method to coach good sales skills. By focusing on skills, dramatic improvements in knowledge transfer can be achieved.

Just like apprentice stonemasons, salespeople need to practice with mentored coaching to achieve competence. Therefore, practice with coaching is how employees use the knowledge they have learnt to develop skills effectively.

Let’s consider three ways that are often tried when developing skills:

One-to-One: Everyone would love to learn new processes one-to-one with a 'master' like Yoda, but unfortunately, in the corporate world, the masters are often in short supply and expensive to scale.

Ineffective digital: Realising that one-to-one is not cost-effective, some companies capture the master on video so everyone can see how they perform. Or they conduct webinars, where the master can train the many. However, although videos and webinars can be excellent, they are passive and impersonal, and transferring what you see into what you do, takes more direct input.

Effective immersive digital: A digital solution must be an effective surrogate for one-to-one training. Therefore it needs to be engaging, interactive and personalised. For business processes, the goal is to immerse employees into realistic situations involving conversations where they make decisions and receive personalised, coaching feedback.

Attributes of immersive digital solutions to learn by doing

To make classroom concepts flourish in the real world, we need to create a safe environment for learners to practice and receive expert coaching. While one-to-one mentoring is ideal, a digital approach is far more scalable. An effective technology approach should contain the following attributes:

Realistic: The more the learner feels they are ‘ in’ the situation, the better. Most often, business training involves decision-making revolving around a conversation. Therefore, interacting in conversations is much more realistic than text, pictures or videos.

Coaching feedback: When learners make decisions, mentoring feedback on those decisions is critical so they can begin to recognise optimal decision patterns. Conversational feedback is far better than text.

Engaging: This goes beyond gamification, and includes putting the learner in meaningful situations with challenging decisions to make. Being challenged is fun.

Measurement: Measuring where learners struggled (and needed the most mentoring), and where they did well, provides valuable insights for the organisation.

Future modifications: A platform approach is ideal. With a platform, content can be modified and expanded over time, in an economical way.


The Institute of Sales Professionals is the trailblazer contact for the UK's sales apprenticeships and has created the Level 6 sales degree apprenticeship, the Level 4 sales diploma apprenticeship and will shortly be lobbying government to introduce a Level 3 sales apprenticeship.

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