Role-Playing: Making Your Formal Sales Training Programs More Effective

By Dave Stein, Commentary on Sales Effectiveness

Too often companies invest significantly in a major sales training program only to see little improvement.  Again and again sales managers say, “sales training programs are a waste; my people just do what they’ve always done sixty days later.”  Of course one mistake many companies make is to treat sales training as an event rather than a ongoing process.

There is one trend ESR is happy to see: the growing appreciation among sales managers that reinforcement is a critical part of learning.  It’s what extends the experience of learning long enough for new behaviors and habits to take hold.  One age-old reinforcement tool—role-playing—is making a real difference for some salespeople facing the challenge of adopting those new behaviors and building those new habits in the midst of their difficult selling environments. Role-playing with your sales teams shortly after the formal training has taken place can be a game changer.

If your sales training partner offers role-playing as part of their approach, you’re probably in good shape.  Avail yourself of what they have. If not, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands.

Even as competitive as they may be, peer pressure and performance anxiety can strike much more fear in some salespeople than presenting to customers.  For this reason alone, understand that strong performance in role playing situations generally translates well to customer situations.  Role-playing is not a simple undertaking but if you heed the following six principals, you’ll be encouraged by the results. (If you’ve adopted ESR’s approach to hiring salespeople, they will have gone through two role-playing/simulation exercises as a prerequisite for being hired into the position they now hold.)

  1. Be prepared to invest management time – Involve your sales management and marketing/brand teams in playing the role of the customer. This requires researching the customer so that your sales reps are challenged with realistic questions and objections.  Hopefully you’ve developed buyer personas to support this approach. Have your group develop a schedule that devotes at least two hours per week over three months after training has taken place.  Consider the customer preparation “homework” aside from regular responsibilities.
  2. Sales reps need to do some real homework – Since you don’t want to sacrifice valuable selling time, you’ll want to lay out at least three rounds of work all to be done outside of the normal work day:
  • Initial call role-play – Review web site and pertinent materials to conduct a customer needs assessment
  • Solution proposal role-play – develop a presentation (perhaps a PowerPoint) that aligns with needs
  • Negotiation/ Close role-play – At a minimum, be prepared to handle customer objections. Of course targeted negotiation skills training should have its own reinforcement including exercises and role-plays

3. Be prepared for multiple tries and multiple rounds – Some of your reps—the veterans and those with less self-confidence—may object to these exercises. It may not go smoothly in the beginning either.  Nonetheless, you’ll need to stress the importance of sharing best practices and how each team member can help each other. Reps get to be critics too. That may get the reluctant ones on board.

4. Be guided by your sales team in terms of pace of progress –  With a full commitment level, you’ll see that your reps have a  real desire to be successful.  Many sales managers indicated that it took two or three times before some reps felt comfortable and ready to move ahead.  Be patient and follow their lead.

5. Consider a third party coach only after reaching an initial comfort level in first round – These exercises are intimidating enough initially so there is no need to add additional pressure.  When comfortable though, a third party can often provide a needed objective point of view as those on the brand may be just “too close to it”.

6. Bolster your own observations with customer feedback – Keep embracing the new culture you are working to establish.  Employ your coaching process with your team when you’re on calls with them.  If the situation warrants, go the extra step and talk to your customers about the increasing effectiveness among members of your team.  Most sales managers we talk to leverage positive customer feedback to reinforce the value of role playing.

What employers look for in hiring salespeople

By Tom Searcy, CBS MoneyWatch

(MoneyWatch) Salespeople are hired to be fired. So when it comes time to find that next sales job, just what is the person doing the hiring looking for in a new salesperson?

Research suggests there are three key factors prospective employers look at to predict the success of an employee. If you hire salespeople, you should be looking for these factors. Shockingly, many sales job-seekers are unable to produce a shred of evidence that they possess any of these qualities:

Knowledge or ability to learn. Managers want proof that a potential salesperson has the necessary knowledge, training, and experience to do the job, or least the capacity to learn how to do it. Preferably, the prospective hire has both. What is important is not just the training and experience, but the demonstrated ability to learn.

Employers value certification of the ability to do the job, or certification of the knowledge and skills that would allow the new salesperson to learn how to do the job. A track record of success in similar jobs is preferred, but the key is to be able to point to evidence that demonstrates this ability to perform and learn.

Employers know that the nimbleness of their organization and the rapidly changing marketplace require them to have salespeople who can adapt and change with the marketplace. Direct experience, while relevant, is not as important as showing that you can adapt to new circumstances and perform well.

Dependability. Employers want evidence that the prospective salesperson will be dependable at work, including that the person report for work every day. Surprisingly, few prospects mention their attendance record at school, at work, or in the training/certification program they may have just completed.

There have been instances of a job candidate being selected after a lengthy interviewing process, but having minor attendance problem during the company orientation. Despite the time and energy invested in finding the salesperson, many companies perceive even minor attendance problems as early indicators of future problems and swiftly fire the lackadaisical new hire. They would not spend any more time, effort, or money on someone who was casual about showing up for work.

Punctuality. Similarly, employers want to know that a potential hire will come to work, as well as internal and client meetings, on time. Punctuality is another key attribute companies are looking for in salespeople. Face it, employers think that good attendance is not good enough; the prospective sales person should have a track record of being on time.

Habitual lateness, even just for meetings, is viewed as disrespectful. Many meetings are now virtual meetings, with remote attendees. The need to be on time becomes more critical with virtual meetings. Tying up several employees waiting for another is more than rude; this lateness becomes increasingly expensive and decreases productivity.

Being a few minutes late may not seem like a big deal, but employers view from the perspective of what it costs the business. Chronic lateness has been shown to cost employers billions of dollars.

Employers have many options in the current marketplace for recruiting salespeople. They can hire someone from within. They can hire no one and fill the position with an outside contractor. Hiring a salesperson is a big investment for most companies, and even more so for small and midsize companies.

Remember, a salesperson’s ability to do the job, as well as learn and adapt to the job, are viewed as necessary, but not sufficient. Employers want salespeople who show up on time every day for every meeting or assignment. These basic guidelines can make or break a new hire.

Tom Searcy is a nationally recognized author, speaker, and the foremost expert in large account sales. Tom is the author of RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business and the co-author of Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company. 


The Emotional Side of B2B Buying

By Jeb Brooks, The Brooks Group,

We’ve always believed that “Buying is an emotional event.”

Science, it turns out, backs up that statement. In his book, “You Are Not So Smart,” blogger David McRaney shares a couple of anecdotes that are useful to salespeople…

“Elliot” was a successful man by most measures. He was an excellent student who met with a great deal of success in his career as an accountant. Then he developed a brain tumor. Even though it was removed, the procedure left his Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) damaged.

After the surgery, “Elliot” spiraled out of control. He divorced his wife, quit his job, and had trouble holding a new one. He succumbed to a scam artist who took most of his money, he drifted away from his friends and family, and remarried a prostitute. All of this happened because he would become completely debilitated when making even the simplest decisions like what to eat or wear. He suffered from extreme “paralysis of analysis.”

The Orbitofrontal Cortex

The reason? The OFC is critical to decision-making. When it becomes damaged, you might swear excessively, compulsively gamble, abuse drugs, or become unable to empathize.

In Elliot’s case, he froze-up. His emotions (the OFC) couldn’t communicate with the more logical parts of his brain.

“Elliot’s” experience is evidence of just how critical emotions are to making decisions.

An experiment in 1990 made it even more clear.

Professor Tim Wilson (of the University of Virginia) presented two groups of students with a free gift. Students in group 1 were allowed to select a poster from among several and keep it. Members of group 2 were also given the opportunity to select a poster, but they had to justify their choice by writing about why they liked it. Most of the members of Group 1 selected an attractive poster. Group 2, on the other hand, tended to choose a poster with meaning (like one of those with an inspirational quote overlaying a picture of an eagle). So, that’s kind of interesting. If buyers are forced to justify a selection, they’ll make choices that seem more socially acceptable.

But, it became much more interesting (at least to those of us in sales) about six months later when the students were asked how they felt about their choices. Group 1 overwhelmingly loved their choice. Group 2 overwhelmingly hated it.

The sales lesson? When your prospects and customers are asked to think about a decision (like when procurement gets involved or they have to present a case to management), you pay less attention to emotions and more attention to logic. And when people are denied access to the emotional part of decision-making, they not only freeze up, but they might also suffer from buyer’s remorse. This is so fundamental that it’s hard-wired into our brains.

But, buying – choosing – is an emotional action. When organizations attempt to place boundaries on the emotions (Formal RFPs, Procurement Departments, etc.), the emotion is drained. Your job is to find the emotion and sell to it.

When has emotion in a sales interaction impacted you?

What do customers want now?

By Michael D. Maginn

As the Great Recession continues to abate, there are signals companies finally are shrugging off the siege mentality of 2009 and cautiously looking ahead for opportunities to cultivate markets with new products and services. According to a McKinsey global survey (Economic Conditions Snapshot, December 2009: McKinsey Global Survey results,, executives are looking for external funding and actively returning to planning medium- and long-term initiatives. This is in stark contrast to the “cut-and-cover” tactics of the last two years.

What do these hopeful signs mean for sales teams working with these companies? One implication is that it is also time for sales teams to switch gears. Calling on customers can be more rewarding and productive for everyone if sales teams are in touch with what customers want from them as they plan for growth.

So, what exactly do customers want from the sales relationship as signs of growth return?

A recent study conducted for an industrial distributor (C-Lens Index, Redacted Proprietary Report, Singularity Group, Inc., January 2010) provides some answers. Distributors and dealers were asked to rate what was important to them in the buying process, and the frequency with which they saw sales teams demonstrating sales actions that delivered value. The results from 410 respondents paint a picture of customers looking for both basic efficiencies in getting things done, as well as stimulating ideas and creativity. On the other hand, the data also reveals that many customers in the sample felt a significant percentage of sales teams weren’t delivering value beyond product and service transactions.

When asked to rate what was important to them in the sales relationship, a set of sales actions that had a theme of “getting things done” percolated to the top of the list. The highest-rated of these reflected taking steps within the vendor company to fulfill customer requests, solving problems effectively, making sure the customer was getting the benefits of the product or service, and knowing enough about the customer’s business to understand its needs. Straight talk about the products and services and how different they were from the competition was also highly important.

The customers seem to be saying that what is important to them, first and foremost, is a sales process that matches a need to the right product or service and gets it efficiently delivered and installed. This is a more or less transactional set of expectations that view the sales process as an ends to a means. Why is that so important to customers? One possibility is that this narrow focus serves a hunkered-down economy where expectations are lowered across the board to completing basic functions. Also, it could be that customers don’t expect much more than that from sales teams. Have sales teams literally trained customers to view them as “order-takers,” that old nemesis label? There is additional data to suspect that might be the case. When customers were asked how frequently these “get-it-done” sales actions were demonstrated, most of these were highly rated. That is, sales teams were responding to the transaction urgency of customers by performing sales actions that do, in fact, get it done. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is it appears salespeople are doing the obvious, the relatively easy, and not much more for customers. Other important sales actions are seen less frequently; this is a red flag for sales teams, especially now. While still rated relatively important, this set of sales actions reflects a more consultative selling approach. What customers see less than transactional skills—in some cases significantly less—are sales actions that revolve around offering unique and fresh ideas and advice, finding other resources, creating alternative approaches to problems, providing business advice, and exploring the future. These and other similar consultative sales actions require more skill; more sophisticated knowledge and business acumen; and perhaps most importantly, an attitude about the sales team’s role as a customer’s ally. The data suggests that at least half or more of the sales teams in the sample infrequently demonstrate these kinds of consultative sales actions. Bear in mind: these actions were still viewed as important to customers, only slightly less so than the “get-it-done”-oriented sales actions.

The risk for sales teams, especially in this fragile market environment, is to be absent from the planning table when those mid- and longer-range plans mentioned earlier are being contemplated, and the opportunity to influence decisions passes by. If that is the case, the challenge for sales teams is to re-brand themselves as resources, not just vendors. If sales teams can position themselves as sources of advice and ideas, act as liaisons to experts and valuable resources that are connected to industry networks and stimulate thinking about not only product application ideas, but future business solutions, then their immediate value and the value of the sales process goes up astronomically.

Do salespeople know they need to improve on these more idea-, resource-, and network-oriented aspects of the sales process? In three separate studies (C-Lens Index Sales Self-Assessment, Proprietary Research, Singularity Group, Inc., Sept., 2009), a total of 99 salespeople were asked to rate themselves on the importance of sales actions to customers and whether they rated themselves as “Do It Well” or “Need to Improve” on each. Ironically, the highest Need To Improve scores provided by these self-ratings were given to many of the same sales actions that reflected a consulting orientation. So, salespeople know there is room for growing into a bigger role.

What can sales management do to close this gap? Salespeople have to be both excellent facilitators, ensuring customers get what they need, but at the same time, they have to offer more than just a delivery service, providing additional value to customers and differentiating both themselves and their products. There are three routes to the re-branding process.

First, training has to go beyond pitching, questioning, objection-handling, product knowledge, and order-fulfillment activities. Specifically, sales teams need industry-oriented education where salespeople are taught to think like customers, understand a customer’s business priorities and concerns, and evaluate decisions from the other side of the table.

Next, sales coaches have to step up to a critical development role. They have to be focused on developing customer-focused business skills in the sales team. Sales meetings can include customer application stories, cost justification models, product configuration examples that demonstrate how solutions can be more tailored to customer needs, and discussion of problems actual customers are facing in their businesses. The task is to get sales teams to think through all these like a customer, sorting through what fits and what doesn’t. Consistently practiced over the long haul, this customer focus will become a sales priority for all sales teams, not just a pocket of engaged salespeople who have learned the importance of this point of view.

Finally, sales and marketing must work together to create materials and processes that can be built into and delivered through the sales team. While not every salesperson will be quick to learn and apply analytic skills, he or she can learn to use an analytic checklist or deliver industry news, present documented application stories, and provide access to technical experts and resources. The combined focus of both sales and marketing on enriching the sales experience can be vital in giving ongoing value to customers in ideas, education, and connections to industry networks.

If the sales team finds itself stuck in the role of facilitator of deliveries and order fulfillment, then it is only providing a portion of what customers want. What customers also want now are salespeople to help them engage with the problems and challenges of growing their businesses out of the Great Recession.

The Politics of Sales Success

By Tony Cole

Normally, one would not connect politics with sales success, but if we allow ourselves to think about it, politicians are always selling.  They are either trying to sell us or sell each other on their ideas, programs or interests.  Please ignore the politics of the individual I am about to discuss because his specific politics are not important to the discussion.  I would like to focus on a comment in his book.  

I am in the middle of reading Decision Points – The Presidential Memoir of George W. Bush. In the chapter Leading, he discusses his decisions that led to the “No Child Left Behind” legislation and he makes the following statement:

“You cannot solve a problem until you diagnose it.  Accountability would serve as a catalyst for reform.”

I read this, stopped, and thought about the dozens of sales organizations we have worked with in the past and those we are talking to today as prospects.  In almost every instance, the chief executive’s objective is to achieve some variation of reform.  The clients we work with are not broken, but they universally realize that they are perfectly designed for the results that they are getting today.  They realize that, for various reasons, they need a different set of results or outcomes.  And, they realize that in order to get a different outcome, they need to change or reform.

In his book, the former president goes on to discuss, in education, everyone knew the symptoms; the fact that the USA finished 3rd to the bottom only above Cyprus and South Africa in mathematics.  There were not any standard accountability measures in place to help schools and school reformers determine how to duplicate success or fix failure. Accountability was needed as the catalyst for reform in education.

So, let’s get back to the business of selling. If there is anything in your company, specifically with your sales team, that you can no longer accept or have to change, then you must get beyond treating the symptoms (for example new CRM or new sales process).  You must diagnose the root cause of the problem.  Our company helps other sales companies with this very critical “diagnosis”.

Traditionally, this is what we find out when we help companies with the diagnostics:

  • Crucial Elements of Success are strengths or weaknesses that impact growth and the ability to be coached.  These include desire, commitment, responsibility and outlook.
  • Major Performance Factor deficits impact execution of ANY sales system. These factors are need for approval, money issues, poor record collection, and non-supportive buy cycle.
  • Strategies and priorities for the business are not aligned between senior management and sales management, therefore creating a disconnect between what should be executed and what is executed.
  • Hiring – the population that is supposed to execute the strategies and priorities are incapable of doing so because the wrong hiring criteria has been used and there is normally a lack of a consistent process to keep the candidate pipeline full.
  • On-boarding – Accountability standards to execute sales activities to drive early success are missing.  New hires exhibit slow starts and are either fired too early or kept too long.

These are just some of the major issues we uncover and then deliver training to help companies with their ‘reform’ efforts.  But these few issues have a dramatic impact on the results they are getting.  As you think about the “problems” that exist in your sales team today, clearly you know the symptoms and chances are, you’ve been attempting to treat the symptoms with some success.  However, long term change, improvement and growth will eventually require deep diagnosis and accountability.

To get you started, take advantage of these free assessment tools.

Never say “Thank you for your business”

By S. Trunkett,

Every sales rep appreciates winning a big order from a key customer; but it’s rarely appropriate for him or her to say so to the customer.  Saying ‘Thank you for your business’ is bush league, and can significantly weaken your position.

Top performing sales executives recognize that customers buy their solutions because to do so makes good business sense for the customer’s organization.

That isn’t to say that personal relationships don’t play an important role in the process.  Strong relationships throughout the complex network of buying influences can play a significant strategic role in the sales rep’s ability to understand and communicate the relevant value that their solutions offer their customers’ organizations, to the exclusion of the competitors.

World class sales organizations train, coach, and provide the tools necessary to enable their sales reps to systematically investigate, identify, quantify, and prioritize customers’ specific value drivers, and enable them to formulate and communicate high value solutions across the buyer’s organization in order to clearly differentiate their offering against the competition.

Receiving a big order is confirmation that the sales team has successfully established its solution as offering superior value versus the alternative competive options.  This is no time to weaken your value proposition with bush league ‘thank yous’.  Receipt of the order means that it’s time to proactively manage your customer’s post purchase evaluation phase.  A strong competitor is not going to go down without a fight, and purchase orders have been known to be withdrawn after their award for a variety of reasons.  Receipt of the purchase order means it’s time to reconfirm to all of the important buying influencers that their decision was the correct one.  Saying ‘thank you’ serves virtually no purpose towards this objective, and will more likely plant seeds of doubt about their decision.

Send your customer a message that successful execution of this project is a top priority to your organization, and that it will be planned and executed in a manner that exceeds the expectations of the customer.  Be careful not to open any cans of worms that may potentially cause doubt, but be thorough in communicating that your organization has a solid plan to execute and deliver.

While it is certainly acceptable – and generally expected – to send an order confirmation, the confirmation should be oriented around the message of “We look forward to working together with you to ensure the successful execution of this very important project,” versus “We would like to thank you for your business.”  Below is a sample listing of some key activities you can initiate to solidy your position and competitor-proof your Purchase Order.

  • Provide your custmer with a Point/Counterpoint Table illustrating the customer’s key issues and how your offering will successfully address each;
  • Initiate an internal project kickoff meeting to ensure that your organisation is prepared to deliver 100% customer satisfaction;
  • Submit a detailed production, service, installation schedule that illustrates how your solution will meet the customer’s key milestones;
  • Initiate a joint production kickoff meeting with your  customer and the key influencers in the decision;
  • Develop a joint project communication protocol and milestone update schedule that highlights the collaborative teaming nature of the project;

Yes, receiving a 6, 7, or even an 8-figure purchase order is a milestone that deserves celebration.  It may have taken you and your team months – or even years – to secure such an order.  But don’t put such a huge win at risk by letting down your guard.  In today’s highly competitive business environment, receipt of the PO doesn’t signify the end of the race.  It represents the beginning of a joint collaboration between your company and your customer’s team to successfully execute and deliver a complex high value solution that will solidify your long-range organizational relationship.

You Lost Me After Hello

By Kelley RobertsonThe Robertson Training Group

The other day I received a prospecting email that caught my attention. That’s rare because most emails lose my attention in a few short moments (15 seconds or less).

The sales person’s first two paragraphs were,

“We have yet to connect and the reason I am reaching out to you is that my company specializes in finding top performing sales people for sales leaders who are faced with the daunting task of building or rebuilding the sales function within an organization – no small challenge.

“We recognize that you are in the business of helping business and sales leaders get more performance out of their sales teams. We are interested in having a discussion around how we could potentially partner together as we have clients who could use your services just as I am sure you have clients who would benefit from our level of specialization and expertise.”

As I read her message, I thought, “Hmmm, I should probably talk to her; I know some people who might benefit from her service.”

However, as I continued reading, I changed my mind.

Here’s why…

After explaining why she contacted me, she wrote,

“If you can spare 5 to 10 minutes, I’d like to arrange a meeting with my company’s CEO (author, speaker and sales management expert, Name was inserted here) who can discuss your goals and how our Program Name (followed by the acronym) helps new VP’s achieve accelerated results and sales growth.”

I was initially interested in what SHE had to say but I really didn’t want to listen to someone else talk incessantly about their company, their history, their successes, etc. and I suspected that the “5 to 10 minute” conversation would be much longer than that.

If your email correspondence, telephone communication or face-to-face meeting focuses on anything besides the problem at hand, you run the risk of the prospect losing interest.

Anything else just wastes their time and yours.

You see, people don’t want—or need—to know everything about your company. All they want to know is how you can help them solve them a problem they might be facing.

If she had concluded her email with, “I’d like to schedule a quick chat to outline some of the results our sales training clients have achieved…” I probably would have responded with a positive reply.

Remember, your goal in any type of sale conversation (written or verbal) is to keep your attention focused on your customer or prospect. The more successful you are at this, the more likely it is that they will listen and eventually buy from you.