Sales Training – The Whirlpool Way

by in Sales

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Many sales training programs today are riddled with flaws. The programs do not lead to results; only 30% of sales reps believe traditional training techniques improve sales performance. As well, the programs are antiquated; 47% of sales reps believe that training and sales enablement videos are outdated and/or unhelpful. And, to add insult to injury, training is perceived as a waste of valuable time; 96% of sales managers and reps subscribe to the opinion that the sales training process at their organization is ineffective. Money, it would seem, is being tossed down the drain. Each year, U.S. companies spend approximately $5,000 per sales member on training.

Don’t despair. All hope is not lost. Implementing an effective sales training program has the potential to propel sales organizations to new levels of prosperity. Whirlpool, the popular manufacturer of household appliances is a standout organization that has prioritized sales training – and has seen positive results as a result. The Whirlpool sales program was inspired by the acclaimed MTV reality TV show “Real World,” which offers audience members a glimpse into the unscripted interactions of a cohort of roughly eight people living together in a house.

In the Whirlpool rendition, aptly called “Real Whirled,” eight recent hires are selected to partake in a unique sales training program. The new hires temporarily live together in a house in Michigan (close to Whirlpool’s headquarters). The house is fully equipped with a comprehensive suite of Whirlpool kitchen and laundry appliances, as well as similar appliances from competitors. Over the span of ten weeks, the “contestants” spend their days engaging in a series of experiential training activities, including trips to appliance testing labs, trips to customer call centers, and hands-on experimentation with numerous Whirlpool products.

Although Whirlpool’s sales training program has evolved since its inception in 1999, it has remained largely unchanged in concept. The results speak for themselves. According to Josh Gitlin, who previously served as national director of sales operations, “I don’t know how we survived before this program.” The program also favorably impacts retention rates. From 2009 -2014, Whirlpool retained 80% of all “Real Whirled” participants.

The success of the “Real Whirled” program boils down to three important elements, elements that all organizations should pay heed to when designing and revamping sales training programs.

  1. Camaraderie

The best sales teams operate as a team. HBR has found that network performance (defined as how much employees contribute to and take from their coworkers) has about a 44% impact on organizational profitability. Effective sales teams work together, discuss sales playbooks, practice pitches, share best practices, and celebrate each other’s successes.

With only so many hours in a day, it can be a struggle to prioritize relationship building amongst sales teams. For “Real Whirled” participants, the momentum is orchestrated for them. New hires are obliged to reside in common quarters for ten weeks, in an environment akin to a fraternity or sorority house. Participants in one of the “seasons” in 2000 even drafted a list of house rules, including: “Say what you feel,” “Don’t let problems simmer,” and “If you make a mess, clean it up.” It’s thanks to the “Real Whirled” experience that new hires are indoctrinated with an undeniable “we’re in this together” mentality.

The “Real Whirled” experience also helps new hires establish a sense of psychological safety (defined as the degree of freedom employees have in terms of taking risks in front of team members). Psychological safety has been found to be an important predictor of team success. In fact, Google has found it to be the most important predictor; employees exhibiting high levels of psychological safety are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and be rated as more effective by executives. In many cases, new Whirlpool hires are straight out of college and have never even cooked for themselves. They’re “thrown into the fire” and inevitably make mistakes in front of their new team. As part of one exercise, participants have been asked to bake a cake and then promptly run it through the dishwasher to determine whether dishes still come out clean. They also smear white bags with stain-generating condiments so they can try their hands out at bleaching them out. When these new hires are forced to step out of their comfort zone and then return to the “real world,” they’re more apt to share out-of-the-box ideas, partake in side projects, and defend their beliefs.

  1. Experiential learning

One of the common flaws of traditional sales training programs is that there is little focus on experiential learning. Reams of papers, meticulously collated in teaching binders and material delivered in a classroom-type format do not make for effective learning. At the very least, this method of teaching is at odds with the ways in which one learns best. The Center for Creative Leadership has determined that people learn about 70% of their job skills informally, through experience. Taking this into account, it’s not that surprising that, according to RAIN Group, between 85 and 90% of sales training has no lasting impact after 120 days.

For “Real Whirled” participants, sales training is experiential and immersive. Employees are not merely surrounded by Whirlpool products, but also by a wide selection of competitors’ products. They’re able to engage in hands-on-learning, and become experts in the appliances that they ultimately will be tasked to sell. It’s very deliberate that, during training, new hires are expected to prepare plate upon plate of pasta to compare the taste of the starch prepared in the microwave, convection oven, and traditional oven. Strategically, participants find themselves spending most of their evenings entertaining and hosting dinners for Whirlpool executives and customers (of course, preparing the meals using Whirlpool appliances and cleaning up using Whirlpool appliances). Experience teaches.

While the focus of sales training is primarily on experiential learning, there’s also some of the traditional learning practices embedded in Whirlpool’s “Real Whirled” program. To complement the experiential learning, participants complete written tests, oral presentations, and quizzes that test on-the-job knowledge, including the attributes of Whirlpool washers, dryers, and microwave ovens. The payback is monumental.

  1. Empathy

Empathy is arguably one of the most important traits for salespeople to possess. Yet, according to the book “How to Hire & Develop your Next Top Performer”, 55% of salespeople lack sufficient empathy. Customers want to feel as though they matter. When you don’t develop rapport with your customer, the outcome will be less than favorable.

Empathy is difficult to teach – and even more difficult to learn. The “Real Whirled” program covers the bases. The hands-on experience forces participants to step inside the shoes of the customer – over and over again. According to The New York Times, one “season” saw new hires prepare more than 900 plates of food and wash at least 120 bags of laundry.”

Participants learn to appreciate and empathize with customers’ daily household struggles. The program goes a long way in sparking meaningful future customer conversations. While living at the Whirlpool house, one past participant made a blueberry crisp in the microwave and, contrary to his expectations, learned that microwaves really can produce crispy food. On the job, this top employee can now recount his baking experience, convincing customers that they, too, can make a scrumptious blueberry crisp in a Whirlpool microwave. The ability to share real-world experiences that manifest during Whirlpool’s training program proves much more effective than citing statistics about product specs and features.

In the post home-economics era, the “Real Whirled” program goes a long way in preparing new hires to succeed as sellers at Whirlpool. While the “Real World” approach isn’t relevant for every type of organization, it should inspire you when you’re designing and/or tweaking your own program. Uber may mandate that sales reps partake in ride-alongs with drivers, Airbnb may mandate that reps sleep in customers’ houses, or Instacart may mandate that reps go on shopping trips with drivers. Regardless of the ultimate sales training program adopted, it’s important to consider how your sales training program can help develop camaraderie, incorporate experiential learning, and teach empathy.  The results will speak for themselves. According to Sue Withers, every dollar invested in sales training returns $29 in incremental revenues. By investing in the right sales training, you’ll ensure your sales organization is ready for prime time.

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About The Author

Rebecca Hinds
Rebecca Hinds - View more articles

Rebecca Hinds graduated from Stanford University in 2014 with a M.S. in Management Science and Engineering. In 2013, Rebecca co-founded Stratio, a semi-conductor company developing infrared sensors. The company was selected by the Kairos Society as one of the 50 most innovative student-run businesses in the world.