Some sayings are right on the money; some are just plain misleading; and some are partial truths. When it comes to changing sales performance “practice makes perfect” is a partial truth. Practice + feedback makes perfect is more accurate. This small difference yields a huge dividend in sales training.
We’ve all attended countless sales training programs – as participants, facilitators, and observers. Inevitably there were one or more role-plays, often customized to the challenges the company is facing. Role-plays are a critical piece of the performance change puzzle.
What does it take for the role-play to be effective? There are three criteria for effective role-plays: real-world content, realistic buyers, and good feedback. Let’s assume the role-plays are well written – so let’s drill down on the other two criteria: who plays the buyer and who leads the feedback discussion?
Who does play the buyer and lead the feedback session? More frequently than not, the answer is – “one of the five participants at the table.” So, Pat plays the customer and leads the feedback session for the first role-play and Lee does the same for the second role-play. Feedback consists of comments from the person playing the customer, then the seller, and then others at the table who observed the role-play – often ending with a class-level summary. If you eavesdrop at the tables you usually hear the customer and observers congratulating the seller on “doing a good job” – but providing little tough, constructive feedback.
There are two potential risks when executing role-plays this way. First, can Pat and Lee realistically play the customer? Sometimes they can, but not always. For example, sales reps often lack the knowledge and demeanor necessary to play a senior person in an organization. The second and somewhat more telling risk is that 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, best practice level feedback is lacking.
Now picture this … a top performer at each table plays the customer role, orchestrates the feedback session and shares best practices. Who are these top performers? Let’s start with the idea of using front-line sales managers. But, could you justify taking a group of front-line managers out of the field to spend time in the classroom realistically playing the customer roles and providing feedback to a group of sales reps during training?
The short answer to the question is – yes, under many situations it’s actually a bargain. The first consideration is the type of sale and associated revenue. When the sales force is engaged in complex sales, like high tech, medical equipment, or global supply chain for example, it is easier to make the business case for sales manager participation. Front-line sales managers are able to incorporate into the role-plays both the complexity of the sale, as well as, the nuances customers present during the buying cycle.
However, it’s certainly not justifiable to have sales managers participate in just any type of sales training program. But, the more experiential the program, the more critical their participation becomes. For example, 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.
Front-line sales manager participation is justifiable in a training program design like this one because of the high potential revenue and the benefits obtained by having a front-line sales manager at each table vs. a program participant at each table playing the role and providing feedback. After all, if every sales rep was able to sell even one or two solutions they might not have closed prior to attending the program, then the increased sales easily can justify the sales managers’ commitment.
And the benefit to front-line managers? In most cases, the front-line managers will do more coaching during the two days than most do in six months in the field. And, the training program usually can be structured so the front-line sales managers get feedback on their coaching; so when they do it in the field, they are a little bit better at it.
For organizations that don’t have enough front-line sales managers to participate in training programs, look to others in the organization – top performing sales people, national account executives, or field-based trainers with past sales experience are all good candidates.
Sales gains occur because when front-line sales managers actively engage in the training, company best practices and institutional knowledge are shared – providing the 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 in sales training by actively involving their sales management teams and top sales performers. The model has been tested – it works to change behavior – it’s worth trying. As the program progresses, you actually see the performance change happen!
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©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC