What do pilots, musicians, lawyers, firefighters and athletes all have in common? Each spends time practicing their skills. In fact, in many professions, ongoing skills training is mandatory. And then there’s sales.

Salespeople stereotypically practice their golf swing more than their selling skills. Traditional sales training methods are deeply embedded within the sales education of most organizations. But all of those hours of instructor-led training and role-playing aren’t practice at all. Much like mastering the piano takes both instructor-led lessons and individual practice, sales reps need both sales education and time spent practicing their craft and individual sales skill set. But they rarely do.

Instead, reps practice during real sales situations with real customers and real deals on the line, costing organizations real money.

Professional athletes rely on repetitive practice to get out of or avoid slumps. They practice to regain their form, approach and confidence. Salespeople go into sales slumps, and – because they don’t practice – they often don’t realize it right away. Lagging indicators take at least a quarter to observe as opposed to missing a string of free throws or tallying too many consecutive strikeouts.

Practice creates new habits through routine, muscle memory, cadence, focus and feedback.

While inside sales reps may be used to selling remotely, most aren’t. Even for confident salespeople, prior experiences may not apply in the new world of Zoom meetings. While giving demos via GoToMeeting isn’t new, managing the entire sales process from discovery to close 100% remotely is new to everyone. Complicating matters further are the distractions that come with working from home, such as spouses, kids “in school,” pets and repairmen.

Good judgment in selling situations is more in demand now than ever before. As a result, practice is critical.

The Consequences of Not Practicing Sales

A common trait of struggling sales organizations is lack of rigorous sales processes, leaving sales stuck in the pipeline. What does this have to do with practice? A rigorous sales process can only be put into place through rigorous practice.

Through rigorous practice, sales skills become reflexes. Practice offers reps the opportunity to hone skills. Without that, they will experiment in live selling situations. Furthermore, in most cases, you have less time, increasing pressure and risk.

Maintaining Focus. Reps must be able to adapt and adjust to fluid selling situations due to frequent distractions and interruptions. Salespeople forget to ask things. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a conversation veers in an unexpected direction, and you fail to get back on track. As a result, reps miss out on receiving or communicating vital information.

Selling Judgment. Another consequence is not knowing how or when to push hard enough to move a deal forward, applying finesse without becoming pushy. Sales judgment is a soft skill that takes time to develop, which sales reps mistakenly attribute to instinct.

Reps need to master the skill of understanding when to push and when to step back. When reps become too aggressive, potential customers tune out. A Harvard Business Review study found that customers despise and disengage when sales reps become “pushy.” In the safe space of practice, the rep receives honest feedback. In the risky space of live selling situations, the lead goes cold.

Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses. Visible practice can be a form of assessment for sales leaders. However, lack of adequate practice and data on sales behavior makes it tough for management to know if new reps are ready to enter the field. Even if all new hires receive identical training, there will be reps who need more and less training in specific skills. The same is true of tenured sales reps.

Discipline. It takes considerable repetition to move from practice to habit. It’s true of everything in life. Developing sales skills and judgment are no different. The average time it takes to get new hires to the same performance level as tenured sales reps is 381 days.

Everyone has areas in which they can grow. And, without a direct line of sight to selling behaviors, sales management can only measure sales effectiveness when deals are closed or lost. Rigorous practice time in a safe environment means management can observe, engage and measure selling behavior, and know if sales reps are following the organization’s sales process.

Barriers to Changing Sales Behaviors

There’s usually resistance to building routine and changing habits. People default to comfort zones, reflexively relying on what they do well and avoiding the hard stuff. It’s true of most things in life.

One-size-fits-all Training. It’s easy for sales management to say, “My reps have no interest in sales training,” or, “I schedule sales training once a year and they hate it!” In truth, sales management often shares the blame for their team’s lack of practice due to forcing one-size-fits-all training. It’s too broad, rarely memorable and fails to pinpoint reps’ areas of weakness.

Management herds salespeople into a classroom, pumps them full of information from videos or facilitators, then calls each rep to role-play the new skills they were just taught in front of their peers. It’s no wonder so many reps hate sales training. The reps are relieved when training ends and revert back to their regular day-to-day behaviors.

Managers Aren’t Effective Coaches. Managers have their own reasons for resisting more sales practice, training and development. Perhaps they:

  • Don’t have time to coach.
  • Don’t know how to coach.
  • Default to broad strokes rather pinpointing specific areas of improvement.

One-size-fits-all sales training is just not effective. Yet, management repeats this sales training pattern.

The Opportunity to “Level Up” the Entire Team’s Sales Skills

High-performing sales reps get the vast majority of sales management’s attention. Harvard Business Review reported that 17% of a leader’s time (nearly one day per week) is wholly dedicated to poor performers.

Most sales reps aren’t categorized as top or poor performers. Most fall somewhere in the middle, where they are easily overlooked. Without a sales development platform in place, this leaves a whole lot of folks to fend for themselves without sales coaching and development. Imagine if reps who are just doing okay could focus and dedicate practice time to their key selling deficiencies?

If all the middle-performing sales reps upped their skills even a small bit, it would have a huge impact on the sales organization overall.

With Sales Technology, It’s Absolutely Possible

Technology allows a new and modern approach to developing and reinforcing sales behaviors. Putting reps in virtual sales situations offers an opportunity to experiment with different approaches to customer interactions without risking sales.

Engaging. Simulations are good for habit building because they’re engaging. People have a desire to win. Competition gets dopamine and serotonin flowing. In research conducted by the National Training Laboratory, retention rates for lecture-style learning were at 5% and reading rates were at 10% with PowerPoints. In contrast, virtual, immersive learning was measured at a retention rate of 75%.

Personalized Learning Paths. Sales training technology simplifies assessing and prescribing specialized learning tracks based on the individual needs of each member of a sales organization. Personalized learning paths prioritize the sales training that matters most for each rep. For instance, sales reps accustomed to face-to-face selling can cultivate remote selling skills.

Risk-free Practice Environment. Because reps work within private simulations, experimentation is encouraged without fear of embarrassment. This technology also encourages repetition through gamified features, like points, leaderboard positioning and virtual awards. Through repetitive practice, training and development becomes a process of continuous improvement. Practicing within realistic sales training simulations gives reps the opportunity to practice scenarios over and over until they achieve the desired level of confidence and mastery.

Deep Scoring. Metrics are another benefit of sales training simulations. A scan of faces sitting in a sales training classroom may be the closest you get to measuring engagement in traditional sales training. Sales training simulations offer sales management a wealth of data.

Through deep scoring, all interactions are measured as reps work through sales simulations. These sales skills and selling behavior data are available to management at both the individual and team level, making tough management decisions regarding sales readiness easier.

Sales Managers Have Nothing to Lose, Except Risk

Learning to sell well takes practice, and it’s up to sales management to grant sales reps the time, space and tools to get their practice in. Sales training simulations offer all of that and are simple to deploy across a remote workforce. The only thing sales management has to lose is the risk of sending unpracticed sales reps into live selling situations without the experience to effectively navigate them.