Table of contents
- 1 The evolution of sales conversions
- 1.1 The problem with one-day sales skills training
- 1.2 The essence of sales conversations in classroom trainings
- 2 Improvisation skills used in sales
- 2.1 Enabling improvisation in sales training
- 2.2 Effects of Improvisation on sales performance
- 3 Implementing sales improvisation framework
- 3.1 Improvisation exercises used in the sales workshop
- 3.2 Sales skill training during improvisation exercises
- 4 Summary and reflections on practical implementation
- List of tables and Figures
1 The evolution of sales conversions
How has sales developed from a product-centric to customer-centric approach? A traditional or transactional sales principle is described by Rosso and Whalen as an exchange of two parties at which a win or a loss can result. In this situation, a salesperson uses his or her persuasive tactics to convince by arguments a customer to buy a product, service or solution. In cases where demand outperforms supply, this principle will most probably work. If demand is not high, then the typical outcome of such an imperative sales process would be that a customer would resist or object to the reasoning of a salesperson. A purchase by the customer in this sales situation is regarded as a win for the salesperson. In contrast, a “no” represents a loss in sale and a “lose” for a salesperson (Rocco & Whalen, 2014). Situations, where there is only one winner, are short term focused. Because the cost to acquire a new customer is greater than retaining a customer, businesses today look to create a long-lasting relationship with its customers (Lapré, 2011). The evolution from traditional sales principles to consultative sales principles is due to market conditions, fast-paced businesses and supply outperforming demand. At the core of consultative selling are customer needs. Dubinsky has laid out in a sales process called the seven steps of selling where customer needs are at the centre (Dubinsky, 1981). In a consultative sales conversation, an investment is placed into future sales with a potential customer. The relationship with a customer is, therefore, the essence of the sales process. To achieve such a long-lasting relationship, a more preferable “win/win” situation is looked-for. A win/win objective means that the sales communication needs to deliver a product or service that fulfils the needs of the buyer, with a benefit to the seller (Rocco & Whalen, 2014).
Making a sales conversation relevant to a buyer, adaptive selling techniques were developed. As Hunter & Perreault point out, salespeople adapt their behaviours to best address specific buyer situations. At the core of adaptive selling, a salesperson acquires, analyses and uses customer information to enhance the effectiveness of their sale (Hunter & Perreault, 2006). According to Rocco and Whalen, adaptive selling is a dynamic approach to sales wherein the salesperson adjusts their sales conversation while it evolves. Thus, a buyer’s perception and needs have an effect on the communication and sales tactics used by a salesperson. In the preparation of a sales call using the adaptive sales model the salesperson first will anticipate the communication with a buyer. The salesperson combines elements from a sales training or previous sales experience and a corporate and product sales strategy into one single communication strategy. The salesperson will also research the customer and anticipate objections during a discussion. As an introduction to a sales call the salesperson can probe a message and adapt the communication strategy based on the customer’s response. Figure 1 provides a visualization of an adaptive sales model by Rocco and Whalen.
In an adaptive model, for example, a salesperson can use a generic statement with an external subjective point of view and ask the customer for their opinion. From this moment on a discussion is started. A salesperson will try to navigate the following conversation into a win/win desired outcome (Rocco & Whalen, 2014). Moncrief and Marshall indicate that increased buyer knowledge, through readily available information, has led to buyers being more sophisticated and thus more difficult to guide and consult. A transformation in the organizational philosophy toward selling has also led to further evolution of the sales process. Primarily, due to a shift towards a customer orientation and importance towards a relationship between buyer and seller, the original seven-step model by Dubinsky has since been reworked to a new seven-step approach (Moncrief & Marshall, 2005).
It can be concluded that sales processes will evolve further, but focus will remain on the importance of a relationship between a seller and buyer. Wotruba’s point of view is that sales are evolving at different speeds in different industries. He continues that sales process regardless of industry is evolving and that it is inevitable to evolve in favour of business success opposed to survival or failure (Wotruba, 1991). The adaptive sales model provides a structure for a complex situation and thus a solution to manage each iteration or different situation. Over time, however, patterns do unfold and thus styles of various sales approaches become apparent. For this reason, skilled salespeople can identify patterns and adapt or modify the conversation to their advantage.
1.1 The problem with one-day sales skills trainings
Since selling is not taught scientifically at institutions, companies invest substantial time and resources in developing sales training for their sales staff. As a business coach to the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) sales training are catered towards start-ups and small-medium business. In the first part of these sales training we ask participants to reflect on a good and bad experience of a sales situation. From the response of the participants, it becomes clear that selling has generally a negative connotation to it. In most cases, people will remember bad sales situations (pushy salespeople, pestering and bad advice) more frequently and reflect on these memories more expressively. In contrast, it seems to be more difficult for participants to remember a positive sales experience. Research by Nass and Yen have identified that people who criticize or comment on negative things, to be smarter than those who only state positive facts. It is according to Nass therefore understandable, that people will be more likely to give greater weight to critical comments than positive reviews. Negative emotions make people think harder and negative things are generally processed more thoroughly. We tend to spend more time reflecting on negative incidents and thus find it easier to articulate and recall them (Nass & Yen, 2010). Thus, reflecting negatively on a sales incident might not be a good start to a sales workshop.
After the discussion about sales experiences, an exercise is done in which participants are asked to sell a random item of their preference to one of their counterparts. It should be no surprise to see that each participant automatically starts selling in the same way that they consider to be an annoying sales behaviour. The participants become exactly those salespeople who are pushy, persuasive and do not engage into a conversation with the buyer. The easiest and most simple way for a participant to sell a random item, would be to ask a few open questions to the potential buyer: “Where have you seen such a product already?” and “What did you dislike about that product you’ve seen?” and “What do you like about this product?”.The focus of the workshop lies in teaching sales tools and participants to gain skills in managing a sales call, asking the right questions and bringing a buyer to a close and ultimately achieve a sale. The feedback from participants has been very positive and workshops that run over a three to six-month period are delivering sales results and considerable improvements in overall sales performance. However, in one-day sales workshops geared towards start-ups, little change in behaviour of participants has been noticed. Also, novice salespeople make too many assumptions, they ask to few questions and thus create a mismatch between their proposal and their buyers need.
1.2 The essence of sales conversations in classroom trainings
The need for a structure in sales becomes obvious for the fact that sales conversations are getting more complex and thus, how to transfer skills and knowledge to novice salespersons is becoming more critical. The paradigm shift in the sales process taught in classrooms is to propose a solution by understanding buyers needs first. Although this is a very obvious structured approach with a pattern, the complexity remains high. Sales training to date have copied the adaptive sales approach. However, why is it that novice salespeople are pushy? It could be the pressure to perform, the need to make a sale. Steven Porges provides the 5 adaptive psychological situations to explain such behaviour. External pressure typically places us into a situation that is close to an optimum level or stress, but if the pressure is too high or the challenge too hard, we will overload and after multiple events even burnout. Also, Porges definition in mobilization and immobilization would explain why novice people trying to sell something would first rush into a mobilization state, which is flight or fight by trying to persuade a sale. However, if the desired sale is not achieved, the increase in stress would result in an immobilization or freeze mode (Porges, 2011). Experienced salespeople know that not every lead can convert into a sale and that such an understanding would help novice salespeople to perform better under less stress. Hultman et al. point out that actions of salespersons are conditioned by the pressure of companies for them to achieve goals and to be successful (Hultman, Yeboah-Banin, & Boso, 2019). Further research shows that salespeople presenting solutions in more complex business situations tend to do more listening than talking. According to a publication by Marshall et al., listening and asking questions are the essential skills in a modern sales presentation. Listening skills were found to be the most important sales attribute in a survey conducted of 215 cross-industry sales managers (Moncrief & Marshall, 2005).
2 Improvisation skills used in sales
The difference between adaptive selling and sales improvisation is that adaptation is planned and also allows for a delay in response and action. Whereas sales improvisation is a real-time response or response and action at the same time (Moorman & Miner, 1998). As Rocco and Whalen point out for sales improvisation, salespeople think and act with a customer on the spot to match needs and demands. They continue to state that improvisation can closely be related to and impact customer satisfaction (Rocco & Whalen, 2014). Using improvisation skills as responses to urgent customer problems becomes attractive and salespeople can focus on ensuring customer satisfaction and strong customer relationship (Ashok, Day, & Narula, 2018). Although adaptive selling has proven to be successful, Yeboah Banin et al., state in today’s pressured markets and increased sophistication of buyer’s improvisation in sales conversations enhance responsiveness to customers and is becoming a more relevant and critical skill to maintain high customer satisfaction levels. Additionally, improvisation skills can help salespeople to navigate sales conversations with buyers better and keep in reach of a win/win sales outcome. Yeboah Banin not only shows correlations between sales improvisation and customer relationships but also continues to identify that a salespersons improvisation is influenced positively by his or her understanding of resource availability and sales support (Yeboah Banin et al., 2016). From our experience with salespersons, the difficulty in a sales conversation is to avoid asking a question where the answer from a buyer could be a “no”. For this reason, “Yes, and…” is a simple technique to guide the customer in a positive direction and potentially to also ask open questions, where the customer recites positive attributes about the product and explains his needs that this product would fulfil. Hultman continues elaborating additional improvisational techniques useful to salespeople. Making the other person look good as improvisation technique provides a salesperson with a tool to impact the cordial relationship with a buyer. Hultman also stresses that salesperson should build on customer ideas and comments that positively relate to customer satisfaction. Finally, building rapport lays the foundation for further improvisation and positive sales conversation (Hultman et al., 2019). In a qualitative research, Hill found out that buyers consider improvisation as an important tool to understand how salespeople and teams will handle obstacles during the rollout of a project they would be buying into. Hill also found out that buyers see improvisation as an important factor for success in sales as well as for the salespeople to be able to manage emotions (Hill, Bush, Vorhies, & King, 2017). As Sinek describes in his book that empathy is the ability to understand and relate to other people’s feelings and it is the most important tool a leader has (Sinek, 2014). Empathy and improvisation are very useful tools in a sales situation and thus building a framework around a sales process and allowing improvisation and empathy to be free the make most sense. The outcome of the study by Hill et al., shows that emotional intelligence fosters improvisation and that the skill of improvisation is a critical success factor in sales. In figure 2, Hill visualizes how improvisation combined with emotional intelligence can impact satisfaction, performance and trust during a sales presentation (Hill et al., 2017).
2.1 Enabling improvisation in sales training
On the one hand, we can conclude that listening skills, keeping a conversation flow trying to achieve a win/win are essential skills for sales. These skills are similar to the skills found in improvisation. From training in business improvisation and conducted research it can be drawn that skills in improvisation would be beneficial to a successful sales process and thus beneficial in an introductory class to learn how to sell. On the other hand, novice salespeople find difficulty in managing to guide a conversation in a sales structure. As an example, novice salespeople do not notice a buying signal from a buyer and tend to miss the opportunity and situation in which to propose a win/win solution. It is apparent that from the outcome of the one-day sales training to start-ups, teaching sales skills along with a sales structure is too much content for one day. The skill to think on your feet and respond intuitively is a skill of improvisation that could be more beneficial in a one-day sales workshop. Sales and improvisation have a large intersection of shared skills and interesting to identify which lessons can be drawn from improvisation classes to implement into sales training. Figure 3, provided by Rocco and Whalen exemplifies how classroom training can be supported with exercises in improvisation. The adaptive sales process includes the element of improvisation into the process. In contrast to an adaptive process where the preparation of messages helps to guide a conversation. In this modified sales process, the art of improvisation helps the salesperson to think on his/her feet. If the customer responds differently to a message that was prepared, the salesperson is equipped to use improvisation skills for a better response. The “Yes, and…” skill will allow the salesperson to stay focused on the conversation rather than try to force a previously planned message.
2.2 Effects of Improvisation on sales performance
The authors Ashok et al., refer to improvisation being disruptive and lacking predictable result meaning that salespeople can risk frustrating customers and thus creating a conflict on an organizational level (Ashok, Day, & Narula, 2018). In contrast to this Yeboah Banin have performed a study that shows the positive effects of improvisation in sales. The two factors that have an influence on sales performance are resource availability and customer demandingness. In figure 4 the sales performance is measured by the level of customer demandingness compared with the level of improvisation applied. Low customer demandingness and high levels of sales improvisation have a positive effect on sales performance. High levels of customer demandingness show no impact on sales performance when combined with either low or high levels of improvisation. Figure 5 illustrates that high improvisation levels by salespeople combined with high levels of resource availability have a positive impact on sales performance. Low resource availability reduces sales performance if applied with high levels of improvisation. Thus a negative effect on sales performance have high levels of improvisation when lack of resources are apparent (Yeboah Banin et al., 2016).
In a study performed by Rocco and Whalen salespeople were trained improvisation techniques such as “Yes, and…”. The objective for the training was to have salespeople be better equipped in responding to unforeseen events or situations with customers. The objective of the study was to understand the effect improvisation had on sales performance and further tested improvisation in actual sales calls as well as what level of satisfaction could be derived from teaching improvisation in a classroom training. Rocco and Whalen draw upon the psychological effects that improvisation has towards a customer in gaining agreement and finding consensus. In a sales situation supported by improvisation skills, people tend to seek agreement. In the study, an undergraduate sales class was selected to teach and test the impact of “Yes, and…” technique as part of an exercise. One group received the training and a control group received conventual sales training. To test what impact improvisation would have on the salespeople both groups had to sell tickets to customers. A salesperson from the improvisation group sold on average 50% more tickets than a salesperson from the non-improvisation group. They observed that conversations enriched through “Yes, and…” techniques and were on average longer. Salespeople from the control group experienced more call terminations than the improvisation group. Furthermore, the group trained in improvisation was also more experienced in managing customer objections and therefore their calls were more successful than calls from the control group (Rocco & Whalen, 2014). A similar research was performed on three hypermarkets by Parhizgar with comparable results (Parhizgar, Elhami, & Gheysari, n.d.).
3 Implementing sales improvisation framework
First of all, changing the one-day workshop objective for novice salespeople to have a simple conversation with a buyer. The change in objection meant that novice salespeople could try a sales conversation, share their experience and build on the performed sales call with practical tips. Secondly, reducing the pressure for salespeople by using the improvisation rule of “embrace to fail” or in sales terms to “embrace not to sell”. Thirdly, reducing the amount of sales techniques trained, meant that more importance was placed on having a good conversation with a customer and to reflect on sales conversations. Sales techniques and tools were only shared if novice salespeople encountered challenges in their conversation and thus training only specific needs. Each sales technique can be reduced to a 30-minute session and if a topic needs to be revisited, a more practical explanation can be made with the actual experience and outcome from the sales call performed during the training day.
Simplifying the sales structure also would help novice salespeople to apply sales improvisation in each forthcoming situation. The sales structure was reduced to 3 parts:
- Gather information
- Build on ideas
3.1 Improvisation exercises used in the sales workshop
The three theoretical sales conversation parts were covered in an open discussion dialogue form and then complemented with exercises that built on techniques for improvisation. All exercises were prepared in advance, but apart from the first exercise, the order was decided on the spot.
Make the other person look good
The “Chair” exercise. While the instructor tries to sit down on a chair, the group has to occupy the chair before the instructor can sit down. Multiple sessions were played, and strategies formed to stop the instructor from sitting down. This exercise was a useful introduction game to the workshop because the group is playing against the instructor and thus teaming among the participants is strengthened and creativity is increased.
On the spot acting
The “Tossing a ball and clapping” exercise. Trying to clap simultaneously with another person without saying their name and thus participants need to alert and make themselves available. To increase complexity a ball is added to the game, that is tossed around in the circle by stating a participant’s name.
Building on comments from others
“Yes, that’s right Bob, and…”. This exercise was helpful for salespeople to build on the other people comments and to add something new. Salespeople were trained to short term speaking and listening to the producers for clues. Producers are trained to look at the body language of the audience and for clues to improve the interaction of the salespeople.
What’s in Your Box or Basket? This exercise helped to build on other people’s ideas. In this exercise, the salesperson needs to tell a feature about an imaginative thing and finish his sentence by saying “which means, …” in order to try to bridge the feature with a benefit. The conversation is continued with “Yes, and…” and followed by “which means…”.
Storytelling – participants sit in a circle and one person starts with a sentence. The following person needs to build on the sentence and continue the story. The participants were given the story structure with beginning sentences. This exercise helped salespeople to embrace uncertainty and think on their feet.
Class room sales exercise
Sell me something – salesperson validating an assumption with an open question and following the comment from the buyer with “What I like about your idea, …” and keeping a conversation flow.
3.2 Sales skill training during improvisation exercises
To build confidence with the novice salespeople neurolinguistics programming is used during the sales workshop. This is done by laying out the improvisation framework and stating that selling is all about having a good conversation. For a successful sales training, the following skills are essential.
- Open questions to validate assumptions of customer needs
- Bridging features to benefits with “which means…”
- 2-way proposals to provide a choice
Once the salespeople finished their conversation with a buyer, they reflected on their sales call and shared the impressions they had. After understanding what skills would help the novice salesperson, the sales skills were then covered to help them achieve better results. By bringing the sales skills at the end of the workshop made it easier for salespeople to relate and understand the impact of these sales skills to their conversations.
4 Summary and reflections on practical implementation
Previous experience has shown that a one-day workshop is not sufficient to teach all sales skills that are essential to an experienced salesperson. However, there is a high demand for start-ups to learn about sales quickly and easily. Findings from publications made clear that sales conversations are closely linked to emotional intelligence and thus it would be sensible to reduce the amount of sales skills covered in training and to introduce improvisation skills instead. Additionally, very relevant skills of a sales conversation are listening skills and building on your buyers’ ideas. These skills can be trained from improvisation or a sales point of view. With the new structure of the training, there was more time to cover less content and rather to focus on sales improvisation. Furthermore, to change the objective for the one-day workshop to practising improvisation skills in exercises and how to have a good conversation with a buyer was well accepted.
A questionnaire was provided to 8 participants to receive feedback on the workshop, and 8 responses were received. The score for the workshop in overall satisfaction was 3.75 out of a possible 4.0. On the question of how likely you would recommend this training to a friend or colleague scored 3,75 out of 4.0. Overall it can be concluded that the majority of participants found the workshop useful and the possibility of calling a buyer during the training was achieved, an experience shared and valuable to participants.
An increase in exercises for the one-day workshop seemed to show positive effects on reducing the stress levels of participants. There were more playful participation and laughter throughout the whole day. The previously held workshops used mainly role-play exercises simulating sales conversation. Participants seemed to be glued to a sales process and structure rather than combining the sale structure with their instinct and intuition. Therefore, bringing novice salespeople to consciously use improvisation skills in uncertain situations and apply them with sales skills was more effective in the outcome of the training.
At first I was sceptical about the possibility of improvisation existing in my field of work. My method concerning work has been influenced over the course of my career to prepare for the unexpected and thus to plan ahead and control a situation. However, I have been amazed by the amount of research performed on improvisation for sales and also amazed at how many similarities exist to every day working life. I was also under the impression that agile working would be the art of improvisation in a business context. Now understanding the big difference between agile and improvisation it is captivating how often I have improvised unknowingly. And since I have learned how to set a framework to improvise as well as knowing the fundamental rules by which to improvise, I have embraced improvisation on a daily level. Instead of planning and trying to control work and business, I have now started to let go and embrace uncertainty instead. By being confident to know how to manage many situations, I have become more impactful in what I do and also more attentive about my surrounding.
Literature and References
Ashok, M., Day, M., & Narula, R. (2018). Buyer (dis) satisfaction and process innovation: the case of information technology services provision. Industrial Marketing Management, 68, 132–144.
Dubinsky, A. J. (1981). A factor analytic study of the personal selling process. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 1(1), 26–33.
Hill, K. E., Bush, V. D., Vorhies, D., & King, R. A. (2017). Performing Under Pressure: Winning Customers Through Improvisation in Team Selling. Journal of Relationship Marketing, 16(4), 227–244. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332667.2017.1349554
Hultman, M., Yeboah-Banin, A. A., & Boso, N. (2019). Linking improvisational behavior to customer satisfaction: the relational dynamics. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing. https://doi.org/10.1108/JBIM-11-2017-0298
Lapré, M. A. (2011). Reducing Customer Dissatisfaction: How Important is Learning to Reduce Service Failure? Production and Operations Management; Muncie, 20(4), 491–VII.
Moncrief, W. C., & Marshall, G. W. (2005). The evolution of the seven steps of selling. Industrial Marketing Management, 34(1), 13–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indmarman.2004.06.001
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698–723.
Nass, C., & Yen, C. (2010). The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines. Penguin.
Parhizgar, M. M., Elhami, S., & Gheysari, K. (n.d.). The Effect of Salesperson Improvisation on Sales Performance in 3 Hypermarkets. Education and Training, 11.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company.
Rocco, R. A., & Whalen, D. J. (2014). Teaching Yes, And … Improv in Sales Classes: Enhancing Student Adaptive Selling Skills, Sales Performance, and Teaching Evaluations. Journal of Marketing Education, 36(2), 197–208. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475314537278
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
Wotruba, T. R. (1991). The Evolution of Personal Selling. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 11(3), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/08853134.1991.10753874
Yeboah Banin, A., Boso, N., Hultman, M., Souchon, A. L., Hughes, P., & Nemkova, E. (2016). Salesperson improvisation: Antecedents, performance outcomes, and boundary conditions. Industrial Marketing Management, 59, 120–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indmarman.2016.02.007
List of figures
- Figure 1: Adaptive Selling Process by Rocco and Whalen, 2014
- Figure 2: Selling team emotional intelligence and improvisation frame work by Hill et al., 2017
- Figure 3: Improvisation in sales trainings and implementation in real world by Rocco, R. A., & Whalen, D. J., 2014
- Figure 4: Demandingness and improvisation by Yeboah Banin et al., 2016
- Figure 5: Resources and improvisation by Yeboah Banin et al., 2016