After lunch at our favor Chinese restaurant yesterday, my fortune cookie reminded that continued success would be ours if we remembered that – “practice makes perfect.” We chuckled – since “practice makes perfect” is really only a partial truth.
Practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Feedback is missing. If feedback is lacking or poor in quality, performance is unlikely to improve. The more complete proposition is “Practice + Feedback Makes Perfect.”
Applying this proposition to sales training, let’s use role-plays as an example, recognizing that the points apply to other types of exercises, too.
Practice. There’s a difference between simply doing a series of activities and practice. If practice is going to work it needs to be well designed and structured. For example, a well-designed role-play must meet the following design criteria:
- Relevant Context. If you are selling high-end IT services to major corporations, little is to be learned by role-playing selling widgets to mom and pop stores. Role-plays must be customized so the practice replicates the real world. Generic role-plays don’t provide relevant practice – that’s why they don’t work.
- Safe Environment. When the goal is to help learners get better at something, you want them to try new ideas – do what they are not doing – take risks. This goal requires being sensitive to the safety index in the learning environment. A good example of what not to do is everyone’s old favor the “fish bowl” role-play done in front of the room. It was a bad idea 20 years ago; it is even a worse idea today.
- Targeted Behaviors. You can’t practice everything, at the same time, all at once. Role-plays need to be designed for the salesperson to practice a maximum of three or four correlated behaviors. Practicing everything leads to practicing nothing.
Feedback. When it comes to getting feedback right for role-plays a few fundamentals deserve note. First, ample time must be set-aside for the feedback session. Second, it should be done in small groups of 4-6 with everyone participating. But let’s examine an all to frequent and significant problem that tends to degrade the effectiveness of feedback in role-plays.
- Problem. Often the person playing the customer during a role-play is a program participant. The responsibility rotates among participants from one role-play to the next. Feedback usually first comes from the salesperson playing the customer role, then the seller, and then others sitting at the table that were observing. Eavesdrop at the tables and you will usually hear the customer and observers congratulating the seller – it sounds like this “Good job, Lee.”
Sure this is feedback – but will it lead to performance improvement? The first problem is salespeople often cannot realistically play the customer. They often lack the knowledge and demeanor needed to play a senior person in an organization. Second, frequently no one at the table has mastered the best practices for handling the opportunities and challenges in the role-play. The result? Due to lack of expertise, or in some cases willingness, the feedback is often useless from a performance change perspective. Add in a third factor – those sitting at the table start thinking that their chance to “do” the role-play and hear feedback is coming up shortly, so saying positive things works. Combine these reasons and that’s why you hear, “Good job, Lee” so often!
- Alternative. Sales managers or selected top sales performers play the customer role, orchestrate the feedback session and share best practices. For discussion let’s pick sales managers.
First, can you justify taking a group of front-line sales managers out of the field to spend time in the classroom playing the customer roles and providing feedback to a group of sales reps during training? Absolutely – and under most circumstances it’s a bargain. In complex sales that generate substantial revenue, like high tech, medtech, or global supply chain, it’s easy to make the business case for front-line sales manager participation.
Front-line sales managers can incorporate the complexity of the sale, as well as, the nuances customers present during the buying cycle. It’s certainly not justifiable to have sales managers participate in just any type of sales training program. However, imagine a sales simulation where the entire program is devoted to participants crafting sales strategy, planning sales calls, conducting sales calls, and getting feedback on customized scenarios representing strategic challenges faced by the sales force. After all, if every sales rep was able to sell even one or two solutions they might not have closed, then the increased sales easily can justify the sales managers’ commitment.
Are there benefits to front-line sales managers? In most cases, the front-line managers will do more coaching during the two days than in six months in the field. Plus, the program can be structured so the front-line sales managers get feedback on their coaching. Sales gains occur because when front-line sales managers engage in the training, because best practices and institutional knowledge are shared – providing sales reps with feedback that can immediately be applied in the field.
Leading-edge companies have made this commitment to improve the results of their investment. The model has been tested – it works to change behavior – it’s worth trying. As the program progresses, you can actually see the performance change happen!
Summary. To bring the point about practice + feedback home, last year we were doing a simulation for a company in the oil and gas industry. The VP of Sales had assigned his top managers to attend the program to play the buyers and he sat in at various tables to help in the feedback. The VP was able to create a safe environment and the level of feedback he and the managers provided increased the performance change by an order of magnitude.
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