To win more sales, teach salespeople how to wing it
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To win more sales, teach salespeople how to wing it

At first glance, it would seem that the last thing you’d want is for salespeople to be winging it. After all, isn’t the whole point of sales training to teach them what to do — to provide a clear path from the initial approach to the final signature?

If only life were that simple.

In the real world, customers haven’t seen your sales script, so they don’t respond the way they’re supposed to. Instead of asking the questions your reps are prepared to answer, they ask new ones that nobody could have anticipated. They don’t know which objections you’ve trained your salespeople to counter, so they throw loopy curveballs instead. Oh, and by the way, they don’t play fair. They say yes when they mean no, and no when they could have said yes. They’ll tell you they’re not in the market, and buy from your competitor two weeks later. How are you supposed to cover all that in your sales training?

Unfortunately, a lot of traditional sales training is built around a rigid methodology or system that assumes buyers will play their part. When buyers don’t behave as predicted, the system falls apart. Then one of two things happens: Lesser salespeople freeze up, not knowing what to do next; smart salespeople toss aside the playbook and start winging it.

According to a new research study, that’s precisely the skill you should be teaching in your sales training.

The study, involving 150 insurance agents, found that high performers “have more elaborate, contingent and context-specific procedural knowledge than that of less effective agents. Moreover, higher performing sales personnel’s contingent knowledge is shown to be more relevant to the sales call and more adaptive or responsive to the specific contingency than lower performers.”

Let me see if I can render that into plain English.

The “contingent and context-specific procedural knowledge” part means that top reps are better at thinking on their feet. They know how to handle any situation that comes up. The “adaptive or responsive” part means they can adjust their approach on the fly, as the situation changes. In other words, they’re better at winging it.

Which means if you want your salespeople to sell better, you can’t just give them a script. You need to teach them how to go off script.

Train them for whatever comes

Here are some implications for sales trainers:

Be wary of rigid sales “systems.” There are lot of “my way or the highway” systems out there, which promise sales success as long as reps follow the rules and work the program. Teaching a strict methodology can work — up to a point. If you’re onboarding new reps or tackling new markets, for example, you need to offer clear direction. But when you try to fit everything into a step-by-step system, it’s likely to fall short. There are too many variables in the real world.

Rethink how you approach curricula. A traditional curriculum is nothing more than a system for training, and it suffers from the same ills. It creates a single pathway through the knowledge, starting with the basics and methodically building up to more advanced concepts. That’s great if you’re learning trigonometry, but sales doesn’t work that way. Brand-new salespeople are just as likely to encounter a gnarly sales problem as a veteran, and they need to solve it right now. They can’t tell the buyer, “Sorry, we haven’t covered that in our training yet.”

Train in the moment of need. In place of a traditional curriculum, where concepts are linked together in a chain, think of how you can deconstruct your sales training into standalone tools that salespeople can use when they need them. Help them solve the problems they’re facing right now.

Teach principles, not process. When it comes to objection handling, for example, the goal shouldn’t be to come up with a response for every possible objection. Sure, you want to address the most common ones. But beyond that, you want to teach heuristically — to give salespeople rules of thumb that will help them handle unforeseen objections. (An example of one such heuristic: turn an objection into a shared objective).

Source: Leigha, T.W., et al. (2014). Salesperson knowledge distinctions and sales performance. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 34(2).

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