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In Sales, Practice is the Key to Better Conversations

Mar 11th, 2019

The following article originally appeared in Forbes on Feb. 7, 2019. 

It was the day before a high-stakes sales pitch. I was a consultant working with a sales rep, who was sweating it — literally. His manager and I watched him practice his presentation a final time — in the sweltering North Carolina summer and in a building where the air conditioning had failed!

“If you can practice delivering a perfect pitch under these conditions,” his manager and I quipped, “you’ll have no problem tomorrow.”

Indeed, the rep went in and sealed the seven-figure deal — the fruits of months of research and preparation. His day ended with high-fives in the buyer’s parking lot and an offer from the impressed buyer to be a salesperson at that company. (The offer was politely refused, but the high compliment was appreciated!)

A Sales Culture Of ‘Perfect Practice’

The rep’s company, a manufacturing consulting business, was in the midst of a sales transformation — shifting its target-buyer focus from operations-level employees to C-level executives. The aforementioned presentation was the rep’s first experience calling on a chief operations officer.

Underpinning that rep’s success — and that of his colleagues — was the strong culture of practice we implemented. It wasn’t just any kind of practice, but rather a culture of perfect practice. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi put it: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

So what is a “culture of perfect practice” as it applies to sales? For many, this may be a new term. For years, sales organizations have striven to implement a “coaching culture,” regularly providing and supporting manager-led coaching. It’s a laudable goal that is tied to improving rep productivity, performance and retention.

But for many companies, an immersive coaching culture may seem like too much of an undertaking, as it places the onus on managers to lead coaching — and they simply may not have the time, aptitude or inclination to do so. Instead, a more realizable goal can be to refocus on creating a culture of practice, or a “bottom-up” pursuit where it’s reps’ responsibility to improve their own performance.

Sales Reps Can’t Be Overprepared

A perfect practice culture can get to the heart of what helps reps deliver value to buyers and close more deals: sales readiness. When sales organizations achieve a state of perpetual readiness, their reps are prepared for each unique selling situation.

This cannot be achieved without perfect practice. In sales (and in life), you never hear people say, “I wish I had prepared less.” Instead, it’s more common to step into a meeting (or a piano lesson with that stern teacher) with a feeling of panic and guilt because you know you didn’t prepare as much as you could have.

Perfect practice inoculates sales reps against those anxiety-inducing moments. They can go into every call with well-earned confidence and be more effective than reps who are unsure of themselves. It’s only through practice that reps can truly become ready for the unexpected and develop the ability to improvise when calls take unexpected turns.

How to Implement ‘Perfect Practice’

To spur and maintain a sales culture of perfect practice, consider these tips:

1. Set expectations with reps. Before phone calls or face-to-face meetings with buyers, I believe it should be a given that reps will practice certain areas and spend at least 15 minutes rehearsing one or all of the following: the opening of the call, questions the rep wants to ask, how to handle anticipated objections, and how to close the call. However, mandating practice time isn’t enough. Reps should practice until they can execute flawlessly.

Back when I was a rep, my manager had great advice about questions I should consider during pre-call practice:

  • “If the call goes perfectly, what will your close sound like?” (Not only would this get me to practice my close, but it would also help me state my objectives.)
  • “What are two questions you don’t want to get asked? How would you answer them?”
  • “What insights are you going to share? How?”

2. Use technology. Practice can’t usually just take place within a rep’s head. Technology can help maximize the effectiveness of reps’ practice— even through simple acts such as leaving themselves a voicemail as they run through the latest messaging for subsequent self-review.

Because the camera doesn’t lie, video can also be an optimal way for reps to prepare. For example, reps can record themselves practicing a pitch, assess their performance and try again as needed.

3. Foster asynchronous mentoring. Encourage junior reps to share their video practice “takes” with more senior salespeople for review. Reps are often primed to learn when they’re hearing from peers who’ve experienced success. With an asynchronous-feedback model, senior reps can respond between calls or during off-hours rather than take time away from selling.

To support successful mentoring, it’s often helpful when sales organizations also offer training and materials on how to provide valuable peer-to-peer feedback.

4. Create a learning library of what “good” looks like. Senior reps can contribute their own videos to provide models others can peruse.

Why Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Practice isn’t glamorous or even fun. Most people, including sales reps, probably don’t like to do it. I grumble about it, too … and my wife is a presentation trainer and coach! But when I practice my presentations in front of her to get and incorporate her feedback, I’m infinitely more confident and prepared when I step on a stage.

Most importantly, perfect practice can have a material impact on the bottom line. The aforementioned manufacturing consulting company’s business grew significantly after implementing a perfect-practice culture.

It’s been years since Vince Lombardi would have uttered the memorable quote about perfect practice. He (along with Henry Russell Sanders) is also credited with saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” By creating a culture of perfect practice that blends preparation, self-reviews, peer and manager feedback, and the power of technology, organizations can drive new levels of confidence in their sales reps that lead directly to more winning and revenue. And in the world of sales, that’s perfect.

Learn why readiness can help your reps have better sales conversations – and close more deals – by downloading “The 4 Pillars of sales readiness.”