Redesigning #sales training – interview with Mike Kunkle

It’s a little long, but it’s worth it.

Today’s guest interview is with Mike Kunkle (@MikeKunkle), sales effectiveness wizard and creator of the Performance Levers, a six-project methodology for aligning sales performance and radically transforming results. We’ve left the organization anonymous since they believe sales effectiveness is core to their competitive differentiation.

Mike Kunkle, creator of Sales Performance LeversMike, what was the situation when you first joined “the company?”

Roger, sales training was one full week of classroom-based “death by PowerPoint.” It was a revolving door of “speakers,” all of whom who were subject matter experts, but none of whom were professional trainers.

The original sales team was doing very well, and the top 9% were delivering over 92% of production. New hires, however, were struggling. Ramp-up was non-existent or slow, and annualized new-hire turnover was 78% and growing.

78%? You don’t sound like you’re kidding.

Sadly, no. Reps were hired based on gut-feel, there was no training reinforcement, no planned transfer, and no training evaluation. The best sales people were promoted into management, but there was no management training and managers each managed their own way. Sales coaching was rare and performance management was, “You did X last month. You need to do Y next month or you’ll be fired.”

So what is your approach?

I break it down into a six key elements. I do a performance analysis which puts producers into various segments, I review and update how hiring and promoting are handled, I analyze the performance levers to build training around them and what the top producers do, I ensure sales management is trained and can coach to close performance gaps, and I ensure that the rest of the organization is supporting the sales and buying processes, rather than getting in the way.

Refresh me, what are performance levers?

Performance levers are the critical competencies, knowledge, skills, behaviors and conditions which must be present for ethical, sustained high-performance to occur. In plain English, this is the stuff that drives or enables sales results in that specific company.

In this case, after the performance analysis, I built a profile of the top producers and implemented psychometric assessments and behavioral interviewing, to improve selection. You need the right people in the seats to get great results. Then I identified the performance levers, especially the differentiating top-producer practices.

After your analysis for “the company,” what did you find, from a training perspective?

That’s a long answer, but the short story is that I needed to completely redesign the new-hire onboarding, the training for current sales reps and build a specialized sales coaching program for sales managers.

And you had complete support for that?

From the top? Yes. But not at first from middle sales management. We started by redesigning the content for the onboarding training for new reps, but then trained incumbent sales managers on what their reps would be learning.

We also put all newly-hired or promoted sales managers through the same program as their reps. Once managers were all trained, saw the logic and solid content, and had the shared experience and common language, they got onboard as huge supporters.

I guess if you earned their trust, who’s going to argue with someone helping them make their number. And then?

Next I designed a sales coaching program to teach the managers how to diagnose performance gaps and coach to close them effectively. Then, sales managers not only truly understood what their reps were learning, but also had the tools and skills to coach effectively.

Then we redesigned the performance management system to encourage performance discussions and coaching interactions that were focused on performance levers and the specific knowledge, skills and behaviors needed to drive results. These were monthly, and early on, sometimes they were more frequent, until everybody got into a regular cadence.

Now you’re tracking numbers, I presume we’re talking about a good outcome?

In terms of personnel, the program reduced average ramp-up time to minimum acceptable performance for newly-hired/trained reps from 6 months to 3, reduced new-hire turnover from 78% to 24%, and increased the percentage of “top producer” performers from 9% to 14%.

Most importantly, sales revenue increased by an accretive $398 million year over year. The average purchase price went up, the new customer “stick rate” went up, the order “pull-through” went up, etc. I have all the stats…but you get the idea.

The dollars are important, but I know many organizations find the people as big a part of the equation, too. So where did the move to virtual classrooms happen?

Well, the new curriculum was centered around the eight position-level performance levers and the accompanying tasks, based on the differentiating and replicable practices of top producers. That was a lot more to teach, so training was increased from one to three weeks, total.


Yes. If we wanted a change in ramp-up and performance, we needed a change in approach. We wanted to take advantage of “spaced repetition effect,” the chance to include a mentor, and a blended-learning approach that we felt would truly improve performance. This is where the virtual classroom came in.

Tell me what you did.

The first 2 weeks were conducted remotely, using a variety of methods. We include self-study methods, like e-learning, reading, video, workbook exercises and homework assignments that were tracked, tested and assessed. We also included 1-2 virtual instructor-led training sessions, or vILT, per day, as well as ride-along field assignments with a mentor. The vILT sessions were facilitated through web conferencing.

When learners progressed successfully through courses and assignments, passed assessments with a minimum score of 80%, and attended and performed well during the mandatory daily vILT sessions, then they were invited to an intense 4 1/2 day classroom (in-person)  course, where instructors led them through application of what they learned during the first 2 weeks.

Since the knowledge portions of the curriculum had been chunked, sequenced and layered over the first two weeks, they knew the content cold. The ILT class, then, could focus on skills. It included very little lecture but was full of exercises, activities, and especially role plays, where participants received feedback, were given a chance to apply that feedback, and even receive additional coaching. We really worked on building habits and changing behaviors while they were with us.

Very little lecture? Sounds like a big change.

It was, but it was also a natural progression of how we designed the curriculum. More surprising to me was the effectiveness of the virtual training. The vILT sessions were an integral part of the overall program, and I doubt it would have been successful or even possible to accomplish the impressive outcomes without them. These touch points allowed instructors to validate the learning that was occurring, troubleshoot, support, teach content that was better supported through voice-to-voice interaction with visuals, and provide needed demonstrations of skills or behaviors… all of which helped learners truly “connect the dots,” and also – and this is important – provided a human element and “high-touch” to the high-tech training process learners were navigating. It would have been so easy for remote learners, working from their homes, to feel disconnected from the company, rather than embraced.

I’ll also add that reducing costs with the vILT format was a real enabler for this program. I don’t believe I could have sold extending the program from one week to three, without it.

So you got results. But did they LIKE it?

Depends on who you’re talking about, of course, but the short answer is yes.

Executives were already worried about “lost opportunity cost” by extending the training by two weeks… fortunately the facts helped sell the need for change, since the one week of death by PowerPoint obviously wasn’t working. The additional costs of three weeks of travel, however, would never have been approved. So, virtual training enabled us to extend the training period affordably.

It also helped us embrace our new hires and make them feel important, by allowing for the human interactions, support, teaching and coaching that guided them successfully through the program. And even with the extended training, new hires ramped up faster and got far better results than before. And in the end, who wouldn’t like THAT?

4 thoughts on “Redesigning #sales training – interview with Mike Kunkle

  1. Mike Kunkle

    Roger, you regularly pump out great content here, so I consider my self fortunate to have a chance to tell this story on your blog. Thanks for that!

    The real hero here, though, is the virtual training delivery vehicle and that it allowed us to create a learning system that could – in conjunction with the other changes we made – improve real-world results.

    I’m always “pleased but not satisfied” with my own work. Today, a few years later, having been influenced by things I’ve learned since, and with some of the advances in virtual technology, I think this blended approach with virtual training could be even more effective.

    Thanks again for sharing this story, Roger. Stay the course! (Bad pun intended.)


  2. Sales Coaching

    Thanks for posting this blog…….It is very helpful for us.
    It gives lots of information.

  3. Focus Less on Learning Innovation and More on Business Outcomes

    […] Use virtual classrooms for information that requires voice-to-voice engagement for demonstrations, more complex concepts, or for preparation for upcoming classroom exercises or activities. […]

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