The Perils of Passive Learning: Why Retail Needs Active Training and Impactful Coaching

Difference between learning, training, and coaching

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Managers, have you ever shown an employee a training video or document and considered them “trained”? As convenient as this passive approach may seem, it limits performance and sales potential. 

Why? Because the brain simply doesn’t learn that way. 

Failure is the only way the brain truly learns. 

Let me tell you a story that reveals why...The Only Way the Brain Learns is Through Failure 

I remember back when I was working in the coffee business, and an employee called the manager at 5:30 am on a Monday. The espresso machine wasn’t working. 

“Is everything else dead?” asked the manager.  

“No,” replied the barista, “everything else is on.” 

“Did you check the fuses?” 

“Yes, and they’re all on. You must come down here because we have a line out front.”

Now, here comes the pivotal coaching moment. The manager could have easily just told the barista what to fix. But that would have deprived the barista of a learning experience and saddled the manager with the task of continuing to think for the barista.

Instead, she guided the discovery process:

"Sometimes, we check boxes in our heads and miss things. If there is no power, what could that mean?"

"Maybe the fuses aren't working?"

"Maybe you did something else instead of clicking each fuse and listening for the click."

The barista replied, "Well, I usually just grab a handful at a time - but they're all on."

"What do you think you should do?"

“Go back to the fuse panel and switch each one on and off.” 

The barista went back while holding the phone. The manager heard click, click, CLICK, “Ugh-o,” said the barista. "I hadn’t turned on the espresso machine. Bye.”

That’s how the brain learns - through active engagement, not passive observation. The barista knew where the fuse panel was but hadn’t been tasked to correlate switching all of them on to being able to make coffee. His brain had some knowledge but hadn’t been forced to make the connection between grabbing a handful of switches to "get it done" and making sure each was on.

Like that barista, associates need opportunities to make connections themselves, not just be told what to do. In many ways, it follows the old saw: Tell, Show, Do, Review.

Understanding Brain Dynamics

With this story as a backdrop, let’s explore the key dynamics of basic learning, training, and observational coaching required for associates to thrive. They each have a supporting role in the mastery of tasks and skills.

1. Learning is more passively focused on awareness. This begins creating neural pathways.

2. Training then develops capacity through hands-on practice. This expands the pathways in the brain that will anchor that knowledge through repetition. 

3. Finally, coaching reinforces consistency in applying skills. This instills mastery as behaviors become automatic.

But you can’t coach learning. There’s no foundation. As my father would have said, that's putting the cart before the horse.

Without this progression of learning and training, and onto coaching, associates lose interest, become helpless, disengage, and ultimately leave.

They became a burden to manage as they were not self-sufficient. Your customer experiences suffer as a result, costing you money. 

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The Problem with Passive Learning Alone 

Like that barista, most retail associates receive an initial deluge of policies and product information. Maybe some videos or manuals to review. The goal is to get them trained quickly by binge-watching videos and shadowing someone so they can be considered “trained.” Worse is a book or pdf of instruction written by someone who already knows the system. 

But as that morning meltdown revealed, passive learning alone backfires. Here’s why:

•    No connections are formed
•    No reason to care
•    No feedback and no reward 
•    No repetition

For these reasons, passive learning yields poor skill application and wastes resources. Employees resign themselves to compliance rather than excelling.

Now, let’s contrast passive with active learning strategies...

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The Power of Active Training  

Effective training balances knowledge consumption with skill activation through rich role-playing, as we rely upon in my online retail sales training program, SalesRX

This form of experiential learning provides several benefits:

  • Brain Engagement: Actively stimulates brain processes, enhancing memory retention and understanding.
  • Relevance Realized: Helps associates see the practical application of skills in real-world scenarios.
  • Constructive Iteration: Encourages continuous refinement and improvement of skills through repeated practice, failure, and repeated success.
  • Habit Instillation: Aids in developing consistent, effective behaviors and routines in a work setting.

But skills decay without continual coaching. It's like if I ask you what you had for dinner last night, you can easily remember it. But what about a week ago? Doubtful.

Like that barista’s newly gained capability of turning on fuses, associates need continual reinforcement after initial training to sustain excellence. This prevents backsliding.

Let’s explore why coaching matters...

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The Nuances of Impactful Coaching

Great coaches like that coffee house manager move associates from basic - helpless really - competency to an empowered initiative in applying skills, including:

  • Personalization: Tailoring coaching to each associate's unique strengths and learning style enhances their engagement and effectiveness.
  • Proactive Provocation: Actively challenging associates to think critically and creatively, encouraging them to step out of their comfort zones. Just answering a question thwarts the anchoring of any learning.
  • Human Support: Providing empathetic and understanding guidance fosters a supportive environment that values personal well-being and professional development.

With passive learning alone, execution suffers. It comes from a mindset that "they just have to get through it." However, an integrated system fostering passive to active learning incorporating microlearning cultivates mastery and sales success.

Now, let’s examine common obstacles before exploring solutions...

Overcoming Resistance 

Many managers resist going beyond passive learning even though it's proven effective to do so. Why? Assumptions like:

The Compliance Illusion 

  • Explanation: Managers often believe that effective learning occurs if employees comply with basic training requirements. This assumption is an illusion because mere completion does not guarantee understanding or the ability to apply knowledge effectively.
  • Impact: This mindset leads to a checkbox approach to training, focusing on meeting minimum standards rather than fostering genuine skill development and engagement. All the manager should care about is if they can do what was trained, not if they completed it.

The Efficiency Mirage

  • Explanation: There's a common misconception that dumping a lot of information at once is efficient regarding time and resources. Managers might assume that quicker, less interactive training methods are sufficient.
  • Impact: This approach is a mirage because it overlooks the long-term inefficiency of undertrained staff. While it may seem efficient initially, it often leads to gaps in knowledge and skills, requiring additional training and support later. That is particularly costly because you don't know what skills were missed, and trying to backfill is a time suck for the manager. 

To transition from stagnant to stellar, organizations must recognize that effective learning is not just about completion, efficiency, or "we've always done it this way" in the traditional sense.

It's about engaging employees, adapting to diverse needs, and focusing on the quality and applicability of training. This requires a shift in mindset from checking boxes to actively developing skills and fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Installing High-Impact Learning Systems

Smart managers tailor integrated systems for each phase:

•    For passive learning...
•    For active training...
•    For impactful coaching...

With this blended learning system, sales mastery compounds over time through each associate’s cultivated capabilities. In fact, 83% of our SalesRX users report a double-digit increase within six months. 

From one of our customers, "We have had another incredible year….our third record year in a row! That is in line with how long we have been subscribing to SalesRX! Fun correlation! Not to brag, but we are up another 23% in sales, and we have also had gains in margin. Thank you again for having your sales training platform. I do believe it has had such a positive impact on our business in making sure we delight each person who walks through our door! And the sales follow from there."

The Growth Curve Ahead 

Rather than just tweaking training, transform it across passive, active, and coaching modalities. Doing so pays exponential dividends for years via expanded associate expertise and customer wallet share.

Wake up! Passive learning alone squanders your resources and sales.

Making the right choices in training and development is crucial for immediate outcomes and shaping future leaders in retail. This commitment to a culture of excellence is a strategic investment in your team's growth and the long-term success of your business.

Learn more about how to grow your sales, attract new customers, and train your crew in my new Shopper's Magnet Playbook.