L&D Best Practices: Strategies for Success (Nov.-Dec. 2020)

Training magazine taps 2020 Training Top 125 winners and Top 10 Hall of Famers to provide their learning and development best practices in each issue. Here, we look at AAA Northeast’s sales training and United Wholesale Mortgage’s 7 plays to create a learning culture.


By Jacob Belaknois, CPCU, CPLP, Organizational Development Trainer, Human Resources, AAA Northeast

Historically in its sales training, AAA Northeast focused primarily on its Five Diamond service standards. This mindset is evolving, and we have implemented a Club-wide sales training program to expand and improve our sales capabilities across all business lines. This program started with the creation of a new position—corporate sales trainer—and has grown to impact all our revenue-generating business lines with specific, customized sales training since its inception in second quarter 2018.

The program aims to design, develop, and deliver customized sales training to our diverse business lines. This is no easy task as our business lines include: Automotive Services, Insurance, Travel, Financial Services, Membership, Membership Retention, Driving School, and Glass. As part of the needs analysis, our corporate sales trainer met with senior leadership from each business line to gain insight into the current and future state of sales training. This was a critical first step to ensure the training program aligned with key goals for the Club.

Program Details

The initial training sessions within each business line are all instructor-led classroom sessions. The classroom environment allows us to create an in-person foundation for the shift from service-only to sales as an extension of service. It also provides a more engaging and interactive environment. This format allows our corporate sales trainer to gauge the current skill level of our participants, which fosters more effective customized sessions in the future. Performance is tracked through key performance indicators (KPIs), and we utilize additional training sessions to reinforce specific skill areas such as presenting the product, overcoming objections, cross-selling, and closing. We also conduct workshops for specific products to ensure our counselors have excellent product knowledge. The duration of the customized courses and subsequent sessions and performance management vary by business line.

Challenges and Solutions

One of the challenges of this program has been with consistent performance management to ensure the content covered in each session is applied and helps improve performance. The most effective approach is partnering with the leadership team within the specific business line to incorporate the key action items from the session into daily practice. Our level of success with this has varied by business line, but in all cases, the more collaboration between business line leaders and our corporate sales trainer, the more effective the results.

For a specific example, our Outbound Call Center - Member Retention team, which is responsible for proactively reaching out to our members to inform them their membership is past their renewal date, has seen a great improvement in their sales performance. Every member of our Member Retention team went through a full-day, in-person foundational sales course customized specifically to their role. This course required practical application of the concepts through roleplays in front of the class. Our Level 3 evaluation noted that “100 percent of participants were able to display the ability to follow our sales process and proactively inform members of our membership levels.” Additionally, each member of the team went through a Personal Accountability course tailored toward their own job performance in relation to obtaining their key performance metrics.

These courses were effective, but in addition, there was strong collaboration between Member Retention leadership, Training, and the Member Retention Quality analyst to ensure the new behaviors would be reinforced. The collaboration consisted of reviewing the quality evaluation form used to provide feedback to counselors on the level of service they provide. We were able to incorporate specific evaluation questions relating directly to sales skills such as product knowledge, listening, questioning, positioning, and overcoming objections. Every counselor receives multiple evaluations monthly, which allows for consistent feedback relative to job performance. In addition to the quality evaluations, each counselor receives structured monthly coaching sessions with leaders and the Quality analyst to review performance. There are also consistent team meetings and real-time feedback related to job performance. Ongoing sales reinforcement training sessions further enhance the overall effectiveness of our Member Retention team.


The success of this program is captured by the improvement in our total number of membership upgrades. As a membership organization, we exist for our members and need to do everything possible to retain the members we have. One way we do this is by ensuring our members have the appropriate membership level to meet their needs. Additionally, members enrolled at a higher membership level renew at a higher rate, making membership upgrade a critical focus for our organization.

Prior to this training program in 2018, the Member Retention team upgraded 1,992 memberships. Since implementing this structured approach to sales training, quality monitoring, and leadership coaching, we obtained 4,293 upgrades in 2019, which is a 150 percent increase. Continued reinforcement of this program has resulted in 2,862 membership upgrades through August 2020, putting us on track to meet or exceed the number upgraded in 2019—all while in the midst of a pandemic during which many people are moving away from upgraded coverages.


By Matt Boschi, Vice President, Training, United Wholesale Mortgage

To most clients (internal or external), the word, “training,” represents a graveyard of learning theory, acronyms, systems, processes, and cliché buzzwords that must be endured before they ever see results. Every client will tell you how much they value training, but most clients won’t tell you that Learning and Development (L&D) professionals usually overwhelm them with what they perceive as useless information. Simply put, when L&D gurus start “talking training,” their clients start “tuning out” them out.

Most clients and learners are not L&D experts; they’re just people who want people to perform better as a result of the training (instruction) provided in the workplace. Yet when clients reach out to us as “experts” for training help, they’re bombarded with a litany of training phrases and terms that don’t mean anything to them. This language barrier between business and training is killing team member performance (production). It’s also why training often fails and why our training teams have such a hard time getting buy-in from clients and learners alike.

The big dig against training is that it’s expensive and it usually doesn’t work. To be fair, the critics aren’t entirely wrong. The reason training “usually doesn’t work” is because training is being done in environments that are not advantageous to training success. At most companies, team member development is an afterthought and something they “have to do,” not something they “want” to do. Most companies simply go through the motions and check the proverbial box to remain in compliance or to get their people into production as quickly as possible for business results. The real reason training fails is because learning is not part of the company culture. Poor learning cultures and production/profit-first approaches to team member development is not only short-sighted, it costs companies billions of dollars every calendar year (in retention, retraining, and production cost).

We know this firsthand at United Wholesale Mortgage because we used to be one of those companies. Fortunately, we had big, audacious goals, and knew we had to make a change if we wanted to become the largest wholesale lender in the United States. So in 2012, we started by examining and redefining our culture to reset performance expectations for all. Working with our team members, we created six new core values (our Pillars) that defined who we are, while also speaking to the type of company we wanted to be. Two of those values focused on team member development: “People Are Our Greatest Asset” and “Continuous Improvement Is Essential for Long-Term Success.”

The Strategy

Our strategy was to “be different” by creating an environment where the company focused on team member development first and results second. We decided to become a “training and coaching company that also did mortgages.” The reason we changed our approach was simple: Most company learning cultures aren’t great, and people’s performance (and growth) suffer because of it.

Here is how we created a world-class training culture at United Wholesale Mortgage: First, we identified that a problem existed (no company culture; a culture in need of improvement; no way forward for learners/team members to develop, etc.). Then we determined what we wanted training to achieve for our company and our team members (learners). Once you define success and identify what you’re trying to solve for at your company, you then have to watch out for learning culture roadblocks. The two primary roadblocks to establishing and maintaining an engaging learning culture are:

1. The communication gap between company leadership, the company’s Learning and Development professionals, and the company’s learners/team members/ students (people in the same place not on the same page and not speaking the same language).

2 .The focus/approach to learner (employee/team member) development is absent or not effective. Once you’ve identified your opportunities to improve, here are seven plays you and your company can use to build a foundation for an elite learning culture that helps people PERFORM:

P = Put People First (PLAY 1)

  • Remember that results follow genuine interest. People can tell when a company and its trainers don’t care about their development. If you want people to care about results and improvement, you have to tell and show them how much you (the company) actually care about them. This builds trust and creates company buy-in.
  • Develop a servant mentality. The learners in your company contribute to your success; put their needs first! Everything—numbers, key performance indicators (KPIs), dollars—follows that. It’s never about the company “being right”; it’s always about making our people better. Better people produce better results.

E = Execute Values Daily (PLAY 2)

  • Belief powers behavior (actions)! Your company culture (the words on the walls) has to include learning and development. Improvement has to “be a thing” at your company if you want BIG-TIME results. Make development “a value” and part of the company lexicon. Make sure it’s present (inside and outside of the classroom) everywhere, every day, and talked about often.
  • Learning is social. Create opportunities to recognize/ reward learning throughout the culture and to talk/chat about “improvement” with other team members. Most learning is done on the job and through social interaction. A company’s values and culture give permission to acceptable/unacceptable behaviors. Make sure trainers and company leaders set a learning tone and an expectation for the application of skill and performance post-training. This way, training and the business align and help with the transference of skill to on-the-job behavior.

R = Really Love Design and Development (PLAY 3)

  • Establish a company training plan, set goals, and start building. It doesn’t need to be a perfect plan (it will change), but a plan does need to be present (written) to get everyone on the same page.
  • Every training needs to have a skill-based, participant-centered course design, visual aid, and job aid. Yes, it’s more work up front, but it makes the training replicable and scalable, and is easier to update/ maintain in the end. This standard improves training quality, while ensuring instruction and skill consistency.
  • Staff your L&D team with people who are passionate and know something about training and people development. ADDIE, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation, and Gagne’s 9 Instructional Events need to be common knowledge if you want people who can design/deliver great training. You wouldn’t hire a plumber to do electrical work around the house—the same rules apply when it comes to training and making your people better.

F = Find Time to Practice (PLAY 4)

  • Create opportunities for people to practice (everything). Repeat after me: Proper preparation and practice promotes positive performance. If you want results from training, repetition is essential for team member performance—what gets repeated gets retained! Facilitators need to pilot and practice instruction to ensure training quality, and learners (people) must be provided opportunities to practice core skills, in and out of the training environment (especially if they’re higher-level skills; those require more repetitions). Having a sustained coaching and mentoring program is essential for long-term success and sustainable results.

O = Own the Activities; Control the Room (PLAY 5)

  • Engaged learners learn and produce faster. Put yourself in the learner’s shoes: Do you want to be “talked at” to learn? Telling is not training, and content lecture-based approaches do not work. Make training something people in your company look forward to. Create buzz; use learning activities to inject some fun, action, and competition into your training environments. The results will astonish you and your clients. Keep team members so busy and engaged that they have no choice but to learn. Also, learning activities help facilitators control the room; keep the learners engaged, and training focused on the learning outcomes/objectives.

R = Rinse and Repeat (PLAY 6)

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. When it comes to learning and development, there are a ton of “tried-and-true” methods and content out there that you can use to build and establish great training programs for your company (or team). Take advantage of the resources available, apply those methods consistently (which is key), then rinse and repeat until you and your teams can create tailored training methods of your own that suit your business model.
  • Learn from the best in L&D. Subscribe to Training magazine and join TrainingMagazineNetwork.com, join ATD, attend workshops, join communities, and read materials to apply that knowledge back to your business. Nearly everything you will ever need to know about building a great L&D program can be found in four books: “Telling Ain’t Training” by Harold Stolovich; “The Art & Science of Training” by Elaine Biech; “The Master Trainer Handbook” by Bob Pike; and “Creative Training: A Train-the-Trainer Field Guide” by Becky Pluth.

M = Make Follow-Up a Mission (PLAY 7)

  • Training team members is only half the battle. On-the-job follow-up is just as (or more) important. L&D professionals alone cannot get team members to perform; we need leaders to coach our people up after the formal training has ended. Constant communication and collaboration with company leaders/mentors on applied skills is essential if you want team members to perform.
  • Create a partnership. Involve leaders in the design and development of training. Engage, empower, and educate leaders to mentor/develop their own and you will not only have a pool of subject matter experts (SMEs), you will have training advocates (coaches) throughout your organization.


Ultimately, the most important step to implementing an elite learning culture is making the decision to have a learning culture at all. Many companies and schools don’t; they’re too focused on headcounts and ROI to truly invest the time to develop their greatest assets—which, ironically, costs them billions of dollars in the end.

Since implementing the PERFORM strategy, here are some of United Wholesale Mortgage’s results:

  • We had one eight-hour training program for 336 team members in 2011. We now have 32 participant-centered, skill-based training programs that run concurrently each day for 6,573 team members in 2020.
  • In 2011, our 336 team members received eight hours of annual training. By the end of 2019, our 4,300 team members received a total of 712,107 hours of training— nearly 236 hours of annual training per team member (19.7 hours per month; 4.93 hours of training per week). This is five times the national average of 47.6 hours of employee training.
  • In 2012, we set a goal to become one of the Top 5 ranked training organizations in the world as ranked by Training magazine. We applied, and failed, to make the Top 125 list for two consecutive years. By implementing the expert feedback we received, our training exponentially improved and we finally made the Top 125 cut in 2016 at #92. For the next four years, we placed (2017-2020) in the Top 125, and finished as the #5 ranked training organization in the world in 2020.
  • Due to training and our learning culture, United Wholesale Mortgage went from less than 4 percent market share and $500 million in closed loan volume in 2012 to a 32 percent market share and $135 billion in closed loan volume in 2020. Over the last eight years, this has led to an annual 3.5 percent market share increase (28 percent overall market share increase).
  • As a result of training, loan origination and closed loan volume has increased by 145 percent year-over-year for the last three years ($42 billion in 2018, $103 billion in 2019, $135 billion in 2020).
  • We went from a virtually unranked and unknown wholesale mortgage lender in 2012 to the #1 wholesale mortgage lender in the United States by 2015. We’ve held the #1 wholesale ranking for five straight years. Last year, we also became the second largest overall lender in the country (both retail and wholesale lending combined) in 2019 and 2020, by surpassing big banks such as Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo.

These accomplishments couldn’t have happened without investing in our people and creating a true learning and development culture. Changing gears to create and apply a learning culture to our business wasn’t easy, but as you can see, the journey has been worth the investment. Our learning culture is the not-so-secret sauce that continues to keep us ahead of our competition, and what ultimately will make us the top mortgage lender in the United States.

We’re not going to win because of products, technology, or headcount (we have fewer people than the big banks, and everyone in our industry has similar products and technologies). We’re going to win because our people are more skilled and they work in an environment that challenges them to learn more and do more every day. We’re going to win because of our people and because of our culture. We’re going to win because our people perform better and produce bigger, better results. We’re going to win because we PERFORM.


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