This is guest post on “unlearning” is by Martiey Miller, Sales Training Consultant at Thomson Reuters.

In November of 2016 The Harvard Business Review published an excellent article titled “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning.” The problem of unlearning plagues sales training departments more than most.

In January of 2016, I had just finished facilitating an exciting two day workshop designed to help our sales professionals. The goal? To understand how and why to have new and different conversations with customers. There were ways to research the customer’s challenges, develop a point of view, educate their customer about the business landscape and environmental changes, and provide unique capabilities to solve customer problems. We aimed to change the way our salespeople went to market in their customer conversations. Learners were engaged. There were high fives all around until someone asked a question. “But when am I supposed to ask these 27 discovery questions to uncover my customer needs so I can demo the right product?”

My heart sank in that moment. I remembered what a friend of mine said though: “You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. The harder part is teaching them to UNLEARN the old tricks.”

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Unlearning isn’t a new challenge for anyone. Consequently, there are some things your sales training organization can do to significantly cut adoption time, unlearning time, and learning time. Here are three of the techniques that have been successful at Thomson Reuters.

Managers first.

We’ve proven it to ourselves time and again. In order to change sales habits we must train the managers. They should learn both the sales skills and coaching to support those skills BEFORE they go through the normal training with their team members. That’s right. Our managers go through rep training sometimes 2, 3 or 4 times. Every time a manager goes through a training program, their comfort with change and ability to help their teams go up significantly.

One third/two thirds.

When launching a change in sales skills, the rule of “one third change/two thirds stay the same” is key. In my example of the sales training above we should have clearly connected the dots between how these new customer conversations built on and improved the old fashioned “20 questions” sales interaction. The SPIN Selling, Consultative Selling, and Needs Based Selling have been preaching the “ask questions first” approach for decades. It’s only logical that there is ingrained and embedded behavior. The human brain needs reason and a clear and logical path to move away from the status quo of comfortable customer conversations.

Organizational capability.

When sales organizations want to improve sales skills and customer conversations, it can’t be JUST a sales initiative. Or JUST a training initiative. Or JUST a marketing initiative. Thomson Reuters has learned this lesson the hard way. You have to break down silos, present new information, present outside research, build executive sponsors, and rally across segments, marketing, and sales. Only then will you get traction from new skills training and application in the field.

Put managers first, remember the one third/two thirds rule, and work toward organizational capability. Then you should be able to help your sales training organization tackle the problem of unlearning.

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