A different kind of sales script
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A different kind of sales script

Say “sales script” to most salespeople and watch their eyes roll. Everyone associates “script” with the singsong voice of a bored telemarketer trying to sell you something while you’re trying to make dinner.

But there’s a different kind of sales script. It’s called a “cognitive” script, and studies show that it can be an enormously effective training tool, especially for new hires. It’s a good way to capture the knowledge of your most successful salespeople and transfer it to others.

The cognitive script

Here’s how it works:

  1. You present a situation to one of more of your top salespeople – for example, the first face-to-face meeting with a new prospect.
  2. Ask them to write down, step by step, everything that happens in the scenario. It’s not a “script” in the sense that they write out all the dialogue; it’s more like a “script” that a computer program uses to figure out what to do next.

Here’s a real-world example of an initial industrial sales call:

Buyer: Looks up and notices you
Seller: Smile
Seller: Extend greeting
Seller: Extend handshake
Seller: Introduce myself

That’s pretty dull stuff. But deeper in this script, the interactions got more interesting:

Seller: Ask buyer what he perceives as best mode of action
Buyer: States his plan
Seller: Agree with him
Seller: Stress his plan as positive
Seller: Offer him additional actions
Seller: Suggest he contact persons involved

Now, new reps could use such a step-by-step breakdown to rehearse their own actions. But where these scripts can get really powerful is by identifying best practices. Ask several of your top salespeople to create scripts independently. Then look at the steps and actions that the different scripts have in common. Those are the key interactions that other salespeople should learn and master.

Notice that these scripts reflect what actually works for top salespeople. They’re not based on a particular theory of selling. That means you’re likely to get more buy-in from learners. You don’t have to “sell” them on a sales methodology.

An added bonus

They give sales managers deeper insights into the selling process as well. That means they can be used not only for training, but also for other sales-management functions, such as evaluating prospective hires and designing incentive and compensation plans.

Vicarious learning

This kind of sales script — one that essentially captures the behavior of a knowledgeable expert — is just one example of what researchers call “vicarious” learning.

That’s the sort of learning that happens through observation and modeling, versus through direct experience. And according to one researcher, “vicarious learning may be the most effective way to learn” complex social skills such as sales.

Drawbacks to traditional training approaches

You’d think that direct experience would be the best teacher — and in many cases it probably is. But it has significant drawbacks. For one thing, it’s extraordinarily costly to the organization to have inexperienced salespeople practicing their skills on actual prospects and customers. They’re costing you current and future sales and potentially damaging long-standing relationships. It’s like telling major-league baseball players to take their batting practice in the middle of a game.

What’s more, this approach can result in serious knowledge gaps.  Salespeople have relatively few opportunities to practice any given skill in a live sales call. And those opportunities are unpredictable: Buyers won’t oblige you by serving up the precise problem you need to reinforce your training.

Unfortunately, traditional practice also has drawbacks. It does have its place — it helps reps develop cognitive “muscle memory” so they’re less likely to fumble around in a real-life situation. But no matter how carefully you construct role plays or simulations, they’re not reality and salespeople know it.

Another way to role-play

Vicarious learning gives you another tool in your training toolbox. And it can be surprisingly effective. In one study, for example, medical students learned more from watching a patient-physician simulation (i.e., a role play) than from participating in it. That’s another twist on vicarious learning that’s easily adaptable to sales. Instead of a traditional role-play  where everybody lines up to take a couple of whacks at a sales call, you might want to set up your next role play differently: Use one of your most successful salespeople and have everyone else just sit and watch. Afterwards, run a discussion where people can talk about what they observed and why it works.

Sources: Leigh TW (1987). Cognitive selling scripts and sales training. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, vol. 7, pp. 39-48. Stegman, K. et al. (2012). Vicarious learning during simulations. Medical Education 46(10), 1001-8.


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