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Four Factors for Determining Optimal Sales Training Classroom Size

By Marlaina Capes

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Whenever we start a sales training project, our client inevitably asks, ”How many sales reps should we have in each class?” This is a straightforward question that is unfortunately difficult to answer. The reason is that optimal classroom size for a sales training program depends on numerous factors, so our answer is generally, “It depends.” 

Here are the four factors that I believe are the most important: how the training was designed, what and how it’s being taught, the kind of experience you want for your participants, and, finally, what training modality are you using. Let’s look at each of these factors and see how they each affect the optimal classroom size.

1) How the training was designed

Like any form of design, when Instructional Design is done well, no one notices it but in reality any truly great class that you have ever taken represents hours upon hours of thoughtful Instructional Design. One of the first constructs for effective Instructional Design is the number of participants assumed to be in the class. After that, all activities are based on that assumption which affects class timing.

For example, if I assume that I have 15 participants in a class and I want each person to introduce themselves in one minute, then I would allow 20 minutes for that activity (building in a buffer in case some people run over their allotted time and time for a debrief). Now, if I have 30 people in attendance for that class, I’ll need at least 40 minutes, and perhaps up to 45 minutes, for the very same activity. Now imagine how doubling your class size can affect your schedule for a typical two day sales training program with 20-25 participant activities.

2) What and how it’s being taught

Next, what is being taught and how is it taught must be considered. Let’s consider two of our core classes: Comprehensive Selling Skills and Professional Sales Presentation Skills.

Both classes are skill based and are very experiential in nature. Both classes have numerous participant activities. But class size is dramatically different because of content and how we can best develop the skills for the participants. In Comprehensive Selling Skills many of the activities are done in small groups, where people have an opportunity to work with small teams to perform role plays that will develop for instance their questioning skills or their call opening skills. Because we hope to simulate a “real-life” environment and a sales call is most often comprised of a just buyer and a seller, a role play can be simulated with two individuals and one or two observers. This activity can be happening at five tables where everyone is practicing simultaneously. In this case you can imagine a class of up to 20 participants, all engaged and all learning. 

Contrast this with Professional Sales Presentation Skills where the “real-life” environment is one individual presenting to a large group. To develop the necessary skills in Professional Sales Presentation Skills, our participants spend almost 80% of their time either presenting to the large group or observing their peers presenting to a large group. This skill practice in front of a large group helps them develop confidence they will need to be effective in front of larger audiences. Presenting to a small group around a table would simply not prepare them effectively. In the case of Professional Sales Presentation Skills, 10 participants is a good maximum number because of what and how it is being taught.

3) What kind of experience you want for your participants

The next consideration is what training outcome you want for your participants. Many times our clients are so excited about the upcoming training that they pull in as many relevant participants as they can find. While we appreciate this enthusiasm, we also know that when class size gets to large there are diminishing returns. Because a good facilitator will work to engage all participants a large class size takes longer - sometimes too long. In experiential classes the debriefs for learning activities alone can take a significant amount of time. This has the impact of slowing down the learning pace for all of the participants.

Recently, I delivered a class to 48 participants that was designed for 20 participants. One consequence of such a large class size was that the pace was slower than I would have liked. Instead of getting feedback from five tables, I had 10 tables all weighing in after every exercise. Of course it would have been a facilitation malpractice not to let every group share their learnings, but this lead repetition causing some participants to tune out or become less engaged. Skill development takes place more effectively with smaller groups getting more opportunities to practice with more direct feedback from the facilitator.

4) What training modality are you using

The final consideration is modality. Is this an Instructor Led Training class (ILT) or is this a Virtual Instructor Led Training (VILT) class?  Many people hold the misconception that if we are teaching virtual classes they can bring as many people into the training as they like. Their rationale, I believe is that they are confusing webinars (one to many presentations that focus on direct “knowledge transfer”) with actual training where participants will be engaged and performing learning activities.

If I’m truly going to engage participants on a VILT session, I must be able to get to know each participant individually. While I can do that effectively in ILT with groups of up to 30 (depending on content), in VILT it becomes much more challenging with such large numbers of participants. If I’m going to engage 12 people that means that I hear different viewpoints, allow them to ask questions as they arise and provide opportunities for all participants to practice the skills that I’m teaching. In the VILT modality a maximum of 12 participants is realistic.

As we move beyond that, I find that the down time sets up an environment for participants to multi-task (i.e., check email) and once that happens in a VILT, you may lose them for the duration. So while I can accommodate a class of up to 20 for Comprehensive Selling Skills in ILT, in VILT for the same content, I believe that 12 is really the optimal class size.

The bottom line for how many participants can “fit” in a class then should be a result of considering these questions:

1)     How many participants was the class designed for?

2)     What skills are being taught and how are the skills taught?

3)     What outcome do I want for my learners? 

4)     What is the delivery modality?

Your training provider should be able to answer these questions for you and help you come up with the optimal number of participants for your training.

Learn how to ensure sales success and reduce turnover

About Marlaina Capes

Marlaina Capes
Marlaina Capes is a Senior Director of Client Services at the Sales Readiness Group (SRG). She has over 20 years of experience helping organizations improve performance in the areas of sales skills and leadership development. At SRG, Marlaina has worked with industry leading clients including Abbott, AdRoll, Alcon, Catalina Marketing, FactSet, Johnson Financial Group, Maritz, RingCentral, Univision, and Valmont Industries.

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