How Purposeful Practice Leads to Sales Mastery

How Purposeful Practice Leads to Sales Mastery with role playing
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There’s an overall lack of respect for purposeful practice and the current state of sales mastery is appalling.

I don’t even understand why we have this problem.

In other professions, parallels between practice and success are cited all the time. Practice is recognized as a key tenet of success in sports. The requirement for practice in the music profession is well-known and accepted. (Remember the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall? The punchline was, “Practice, practice, practice!”) Professional ballet dancers practice their craft for endless hours, sometimes until their feet bleed.

In business, author Stephen R. Covey considered “Sharpening the Saw” to be one of his seven habits of highly effective people (and his book of the same title was named the most influential business book of the twentieth century).

There are over half a dozen books on deliberate practice and its tie to achieving mastery in multiple fields.

In the sales profession, specifically, role play has been a part of sales training efforts for many years (albeit often designed and executed poorly). There are many sales enablement tools on the market today that support virtual coaching, which involves a sales rep recording themselves and submitting their video for review and feedback. There are even professional service companies that design role plays to assess specific competencies, record the role plays, coach the reps, and provide the recording to the reps and their managers.

Despite all of this, the lack of purposeful practice in our profession is evident. Worse, the results are equally obvious. As just one of many data points, CSO Insights cites that sales rep quota attainment is under 60 percent and on a downward trend – a clear indication that sales mastery is lacking, in general.

What’s the Solution?

It’s time to get serious about the power of purposeful practice and the sincere pursuit of sales mastery.

The Sales Education Foundation offers one potential long-term fix, through their university education programs that foster skill development, practice, role play competitions, and more. I’m honored to be a member of the advisory board and to see the excellent work that member universities are doing in their sales curricula. The downside is that there are under 200 education programs today with a dedicated sales degree program and nearly 4,000 colleges and universities – and I don’t think we can afford to wait until these graduates work their way into sales leadership or sales enablement roles.

We need to do something sooner while we support these programs.

I’m not sure I have all the answers about how to influence current organizational and sales leaders to change their approach on a wide-scale level. In fact, I’d love to hear your opinions about how we can do better.

What I can do, is offer ideas about how to implement purposeful practice and create a culture that fosters sales mastery in your organization.

The Path to Purposeful Practice & Sales Mastery

There are multiple things you can do to start your path to purposeful practice, achieve sales mastery, and reap the benefits. For this post, I’ll share four ideas here and focus on two for the rest of this post:

  • Implement Role Play: The first is to institute role play and practice as an expectation for your sales force. There are multiple ways to do this, and there are things you can do to radically improve the effectiveness of your role plays.
  • Empower Managers: The second is to invest in your sales managers by removing the obstacles placed in their path to having time to coach, and committing to their development as sales coaches.
  • Foster a Coaching Culture: The third is to engage your sales training or sales enablement teams to help you create a culture of practice and coaching. As part of that, you can capitalize on the available technology to make it easier.
  • Guide Behavior Change and Foster Mastery: The fourth is to understand the logic of the 5 Stages of Sales Mastery & Behavior Change and use it to support your efforts to raise of level of sales mastery across your sales force.

Doing Role Play Right

There is a sliding scale of how to design and run role plays effectively. Context matters.

On one side of a sliding scale, you might have your sales reps role play with each other and observed by another rep (the classic role play triad: sales rep, customer, observer).

In the middle of the sliding scale, you might have “fishbowl” role plays where a sales rep role plays with his or her manager, in front of their teammates, who all observe and provide feedback.

On the other side of the scale, your team may role play for a certification. In this scenario, your sales reps might role play with a “customer” role partner who is an executive at your company. The observer/coach in this role-play scenario would be a sales manager, other expert coaches, or certifying team members.

Knowing that you will need both sides of this sliding scale and all options in-between to truly foster practice and create a practice/coaching culture, the remaining recommendations will be based on best practices.

Include Experts

Having some reps play the customer role and then role play with other reps in the seller role, will help you foster practice, so you should encourage it regularly.  

I once took over a low-performing branch sales office where I implemented a daily regimen of role play. We role played with each other at some point during every day and made a game out of tossing customer concerns at each other during breaks and lunch, to see who could stump whom. My team hated it at first, but over time, grew to love it. We made it fun, got competitive with it, became exceptionally good at it, and it showed in our sales results. At the end of that year, our branch delivered its best performance ever, in company history.

But during training, during critical post-training skill development efforts, or especially when it’s time to validate skills or certify someone, I recommend that you stop using other reps as observers and coaches.

Use Expert Coaches

When possible, use expert coaches who also understand the competencies you are assessing and how to certify or facilitate an effective role play debrief and feedback session. Using expert coaches who can effectively articulate changes the rep needs to make or tactics that he/she should try, is invaluable.

Use Actors and Employees

Also consider using actors, executives, or other employees that you can prep well in advance to represent a realistic customer. I’ve done this myself and I was very impressed to learn at a past Sales Enablement Society conference that my friend and sales enablement leader, Barb Mazziotti, once hired former executives through Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) to role play with her sales reps (she called them “real plays” – brilliant idea). Hiring actors or consultants/executives who have been in the role of your target buyers won’t always be possible but may be worth the cost and effort for high-value simulations, especially for certifications.

Consider On-Demand and Simulated Role Plays

In this vein, there are companies that develop role plays for you, and train their sales coaches to play your customers realistically. Some will set up phone lines or video web conferences for your reps to call and role play with these customers/coaches. These calls and coaching sessions can be recorded and shared with the sales rep and their manager. The number of companies providing simulations is on the rise, too, and with advancements in VR/AR technology and AI/ML bots, we will see an increase in the coming years.

Use Realistic Customer Scenarios

If you want the reps (and managers) to buy-in and get engaged, you must develop realistic customer scenarios for the role plays. Be sure to include details that will assess the skills and concepts you’re trying to reinforce.

You can enable your coaches to provide great feedback by having everyone work from the same simulated scenario for at least one role play. This simulation would be designed to ensure the role play assesses the skills that were taught. This way, the coaches can become experts in the scenario content and other learners can do an aligned group debrief afterwards. It helps when everyone completely understands the context and is focused on the same scenario.

If you want the reps (and managers) to buy-in and get engaged, you must develop realistic customer scenarios for the role plays.

After that shared experience with the simulated scenario, consider having your sales reps role play with real-life scenarios. Working with an opportunity that’s currently in their pipeline can help the rep prepare for an upcoming customer conversation and transfer their newly learned skills to a real situation.

Demonstrate Excellence

In classrooms or virtual sessions, consider doing at least one demonstration or even a “fishbowl” role play first, before everyone splits off into breakouts. The group debrief afterward can help get everyone on the same page about expectations (meaning, what good looks like and what to avoid). Just don’t do fishbowls exclusively unless everyone gets to play the sales rep role. If you require some reps to do it, while others sit and observe, it may be “learning” for the observers, but it doesn’t provide true skill practice for everyone. Every rep needs to practice in the sales role to sharpen their own skills. In addition, it’s a common response for uncomfortable reps to just want to talk about what they’ll say, rather than to fully immerse in the role play and say the words they’ll use with their buyers and customers. I encourage empathy and psychological safety, and at the same time, you must nudge your reps here and shape their behavior to say the words aloud as if they’re talking to their customer. This is the only way that they’ll maximize their practice opportunity and achieve mastery.

Allow “Re-runs” after Feedback

Want your role plays to add more value? Stop moving on to another role play or other activity immediately after the role play debrief. Provide the learner the opportunity to summarize and playback the feedback and give them time to prep and re-run the role play.

If reps can incorporate the feedback they receive soon after receiving it, they’re more likely to retain what they learned, improve their skill-level, and make a behavior change. If you develop a blended learning curriculum and flip the classroom, you will free up the time in the classroom to allow for this. I’ve seen the difference it makes firsthand. It’s worth it.

The 5 Stages of Sales Mastery & Behavior Change

This model is part of a larger sales training system and was designed to help organizations derive maximum benefit and ROI from sales training. The logic itself is simple. Execution is not particularly difficult, either, but it does require top-down support, organizational commitment, and some planning. The benefits are tremendous.

Click to Enlarge

As you can see, the stages are Learn (acquiring knowledge), Remember (purposely sustaining it), Practice (developing skills), Apply (transferring or applying those skills), and Master (achieving high levels of skill mastery over time). The Why row on the bottom clarifies the logic. Purposeful skill practice occurs in stages 3-5 and happens both during and after training.

Use this chart to think through the possibilities and how you can better support your sales force in maximizing what they learn to improve skills and get better sales results.

I believe we can elevate our sales profession to heights that are greater than anticipated and produce results even better than expected. Continued support for sales education helps. We strengthen the sales profession by joining forces to create opportunities for purposeful practice, and creating cultures, systems, processes and tools to foster the development of sales mastery.

Download our field guide “7 Types of Role Plays to Practice With Your Sales Team” to support and coach your team’s development. 

Field Guide: 7 Types of Role Plays to Practice With Your Sales Team

Support and coach your team's skill development.

Learn about different types of role plays and simulations to incorporate into your sales training. Done well, role play is one of the best ways to train, coach, and improve skill levels.

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