If Your Sales Training Department Ran Your Church

What if your sales training department ran your church? (Or synagogue, or mosque; this is meant to be an equal-opportunity religious metaphor).

Suppose you move into a new community, and are looking for a place of worship. The minister (I’m just going to use the one metaphor from now on, please infer your preferred tradition) meets you, and says:

“Welcome. First we’d like you to fill out this spiritual needs-assessment instrument, so we can appropriately benchmark you for your level of sinfulness and spirituality potential.

"Part I evaluates your sinfulness; we prefer the so-called "Ten Commandments" instrument; Part II measures your level of mastery of the behaviors and habits of Highly Spiritual People (HSPs).

"You can fill it out over there in the cubicle; be sure to use only the Number 2 pencils provided.”

You do so. You take it back to the minister.

“Well, let’s see what we’ve got here, let’s pull the quick-scoring answer template. Hmm, only 5 out of 10 on the commandments. Well at least you go the biggies right, didn’t kill anyone lately, am I right, heh heh, sorry my little joke there…"

“You’re also scoring at a “meets expectations” level on your HSP. You probably know the Golden Rule, that sort of thing; but you probably don’t give alms to the poor, right? And tithing, fuggedaboudit! Am I right? Heh heh heh thought so, yup.

“OK, your achievement levels put you into the AIS group; Advanced Intermediate Spirituality. It’ll be a bit of a stretch, but we have some remedial online CBT programs that you can study up on. They meet at 11AM.

You sign up. Your kids are admitted to their own appropriate Sunday school classes. Embarrassingly, at higher levels than you.

You show up Sunday early, to be greeted at the door by a deacon.

“Please fill out this expectations document for today’s service. You can write in your own expectations if you want, but the multiple choice checkboxes are enough for most people.

You go in. You listen to the sermon.

“Today I’ll talk about Daniel and the lions. You will learn the skills and behaviors associated with Advanced Intermediate Spirituality with respect to faith. On leaving, you will be able to recognize faith when you hear it, identify the three main levels of faith, and to be reasonably faithful yourself. And we’ll do some faith role-plays (what we like to call “praying”) to make it realistic. So now let’s get started, shall we?

You sit through the sermon. It concludes with:

“The sermon today has been about Daniel and the lions. You should have learned the skills and behaviors associated with Advanced Intermediate Spirituality with respect to faith. You should now be able to recognize faith when you hear it, identify the three main types of faith, and to be reasonably faithful. And, you’ve experienced the behaviors of faith through role-play (“praying”).

“Please take a moment now to complete your evaluation document that the deacon handed you on the way in.

You read the document. It asks:

“The sermon for today met my expectations" (1 definitely, 2 mostly, 3 sort of, 4 not really, 5 not at all)

“I am now able to recognize basic faith” (1 definitely, 2 mostly, 3 sort of, 4 not really, 5 not at all)

“I now have a moderately high faith level” (1 definitely, 2 mostly, 3 sort of, 4 not really, 5 not at all)

“The minister trained well today" (1 definitely, 2 mostly, 3 sort of, 4 not really, 5 not at all)

You leave the church; the minister greets you on the way out the door. “How’d you like the service?” he asks, sneaking a glance at your evaluation document.

“Well, I’m still not sure I feel like I really have faith,” you say apologetically.

“That’s OK,” says the minister. “Just fake it ‘til you make it. You’ll get the hang of it. Continue to meet your metrics, and everything will work out—just have faith in the process.”


Hopefully you enjoyed that. In case it’s not clear, I’m trying to suggest that when it comes to certain "soft" subjects, the traditional management-by-numbers and train-by-behaviors can feel inadequate to the task.

How is this relevant? In training, I hope it’s clear. Different techniques suit different subjects.

But I think it speaks to issues of management and leadership too. Do you believe in values, missions and belief systems? If you’re trying to manage a values-based organization, what approaches work?

Managing through behavioral metrics doesn’t quite do the job when it comes to motivating people to higher-order beliefs.

Or, to put it nakedly, if still metaphorically: what’s the ROI on believing in a God? And what’s wrong with that question?

Stop Measuring ROI on Soft Skills Training

Let’s tackle a garden variety corporate orthodoxy: the one that says your company shouldn’t do training without a measurable return on your training investment.

Variations on the theme: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; all training must be defined in terms of behavioral objectives; each objective must link to behavioral milestones, each quantifiable and financially ratable.

Let me speak plainly: Subjecting soft-skills training to pure skills-mastery financial analytics is intellectually dishonest, foolish, wrong-headed, useless at best and counter-productive at worst.

There, I said it.

Now let me explain—and offer an alternative.

There are are sprinklings of truth in the rush to measure soft-skills ROI—but they are surrounding a germ of crap, like a Bizarro oyster and anti-pearl. Worse yet, the ones who buy and propagate this dogma are those who buy training, and those who sell and deliver it.

The ROI-behavioral view of training is fine for pure cognitive or pure behavioral skills. If your focus is on teaching Mandarin to oil company execs, mastering the report generation functions of CRM systems, or teaching XML programming, you can stop reading this now.

But if you’re talking about communications skills, trust, customer relationships, listening, negotiation, speaking, giving and receiving feedback, consultative thinking, influencing, persuasion, team-building and collaboration, then read on.  There are at least four problems with measuring "return" on these kinds of programs.

First problem: definitions. We evaluate golf coaching by lowered golf scores—neat, clean, unarguable. But try defining “good communication.” Or trust. Or negotiation. You might as well define the taste of water, or the quality of love. To accept behavioral indicators (“she smiles, she touches me”) is to miss an essence.

Second: causality. All causality is unprovable, though we know when to accept it anyway. “I had 3 lessons with a golf coach, and cut my score by 8 strokes. It was the coaching—you can quote me!”

But what if I take one course in trust, and another in listening. Suppose my sales go up next year by 50%. Which course did it? Or did my company’s 70% growth have something to do with it? Or my happy new marriage? Too many variables.

Third: the Hawthorne effect. (Or, the Heisenberg Principle in physics). Sometimes the act of measuring alters the measurement of the thing being measured. If I know I’m being graded on listening, I’ll do whatever it is I think that you think makes me look like I’m listening. Which destroys real listening.

If you hype net-promoter scores, many will game the scoring—thus reducing the genuineness that underlay the original idea.

Fourth: the perversion of individual measurement. Most soft skills deal with our relationships to others. The drive to individually behavioralize, then metricize, has the effect of killing relationships—an ironic outcome for relationship-targeting training.

Suppose a course teaches focusing more on the customer, listening, helping others achieve their goals, helping teammates grow—worthy objectives, found in many programs.

The only reason to define those results financially is to evaluate them financially. Thus someone—somewhere between the CEO and the person getting trained—is responsible for deciding to do more, or less, relationship-building programs—by using short-term individual measurements, usually with short-term incentives.

Hence the perversity: training people to focus on relationships, by measuring and rewarding them individually.

“The more unselfish you are, the more money we’ll give you for being unselfish.
“The more you get rated as providing ‘excellent customer service,’ the more we’ll pay you” (which leads to pathetic begging by CSRs)
“The more you focus on others, the more we’ll pay you.
“Quick, get over here, I want to genuinely listen to you so I can raise my quarterly bonus and get promoted.”

Raise this perversity to the level of an industry over decades, and you can understand why pharmaceutical and brokerage companies have accrued such low ratings on trust.

So what’s the answer? Simple. And you don’t even have to give up your addiction to metrics.

Just measure subjective rankings.

Ask people these simple questions, over time:

1. Would you do that training again?
2. Would you recommend others attend?
3. Would you include it in your budget?
4. How do you rate that training compared to these other five programs?

You can run regressions, chi-squares and segmentations on that data to your heart’s content—as long as it’s measuring subjective data in ranking terms. Just stop trying to monetize interpersonal relationships by measuring ROI on soft skills training.