The world of B2B sales has changed profoundly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has hastened the shift to digital and remote sales interactions and dramatically reduced the popularity of face-to-face meetings. The rise of digital and remote sales has led to the need to hybridize sales roles with reps who can interact and sell with as much ease via phone, video, apps, or in-person interactions, thereby creating new responsibilities and means of engagement with customers for them.
Sales organizations have responded to these challenges by adopting enablement, automation, and training technologies to streamline and optimize sales performance. However, few sales teams have experienced a smooth transition, with an overwhelming 93% of sales reps experiencing significant challenges with virtual selling and only 23% believing they are equally effective selling virtually and physically.1
One of the reasons for this shortcoming is that organizations have not given much attention to one fundamental element of sales mastery: deliberate practice.
Why practice is important in sales
Practice, as a form of learning, enters into the picture because sales is a skill-based occupation and not purely knowledge-based. Hence, there is a need for sales reps to go beyond merely having cognitive knowledge of the domain to also having practical fluency with concepts and practices so that they can be applied during sales conversations.
For the highest levels of knowledge retention, experiential learning, or learning through practice, is key. Research shows that while lectures, reading, audiovisual presentations, and demonstrations result in retention levels of 5%-30%, experiential learning increases retention levels to as much as 75%!2 Without practice, even the most successful selling strategies imparted through cutting-edge training platforms will make little dent in the reps’ performance. Just because the sales reps have learned of a particular strategy or skill doesn’t mean they know how to use it, integrate it within their repertoire, and effectively deploy it at work every day.
While practice is key to effective learning, not all kinds of practice are equal.
The need for deliberate practice
Anyone who has read about skill development in the last decade is likely to have run into the 10,000 hours of practice rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers,3 based on research by Anders Ericsson.4 However, what got lost in translation as the concept captured the public imagination is that all kinds of practice are not equal.
According to Ericsson, if practice takes the form of repetitively performing the same tasks, then amassing greater hours does not automatically lead to skill development. Instead, practice must take the form of learning through continually refining newer skills and pushing boundaries with the specific goal of improving performance. This is often referred to as deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice involves breaking the overall process down into smaller activities, practicing the activities individually, identifying weaknesses, testing new approaches to each activity till you master it, and integrating the learning at each stage into the overall process.
Deliberate practice differs on multiple counts from traditional methods of practice. First, it has a specific, well-defined goal. For instance, in learning a new sales pitch, the goal might be defined as improving keyword coverage by 30%. Second, deliberate practice requires ongoing commitment. For instance, when it comes to mastering the sales pitch, it requires a process for reps to rehearse sales pitches on a regular cadence in order to ensure that they are constantly developing their skills, especially when organizations are releasing new products/features on an ongoing basis. Building this deliberate pitch practice as part of a daily routine and as an essential component of updating rep readiness before each scheduled sales call can help reps perform at their peak at all times. Finally, deliberate practice involves feedback. After all, there’s no point trying out different variations of skills if you don’t know what’s working and what’s not.
The vital role of feedback
Indeed, feedback is perhaps the most vital difference between simple and deliberate practice. Feedback prevents sales reps from either underestimating or overestimating their performance so that they can know exactly what they need to improve to nail their sales pitch. Without feedback, sales reps are left with no means to know what lessons they should draw from their practice and which possibilities they should pursue further.
Feedback is most effective when it is neutral, as this helps to overcome any bias that may distort the assessment results. Bias refers to conscious or unconscious prejudices that consistently skew assessments and feedback toward or away from certain practices or patterns without sufficient evidence to support the chosen trajectory. Overcoming bias requires formal rules of decision-making based on objective and quantifiable data. When we have clear activity-based metrics that correlate to task performance, we automatically have data points to drive our practice and improvement.
Further, feedback needs to be immediate, so the reps can more easily remember the specific details of their performance when they receive feedback on it and can modify their processes accordingly. If feedback is given after a long interval when the memory of the performance has faded, the reps are unlikely to remember the actions or behaviors being critiqued by their managers or coaches and so tend to reject it. For this reason, studies have found that 87% of team members actually prefer smaller but more frequent doses of feedback rather than occasional bouts of formal and comprehensive feedback.5
How an AI-enabled sales pitch intelligence platform can help
Sales organizations can make deliberate practice a central plank of their skill development strategy by deploying an AI-enabled sales pitch intelligence platform.
First, such a platform provides reps with easy ways to record practice sales pitches and demos and share them with their managers and teams. Second, the AI-enabled platform can analyze sales pitches on a variety of factors such as tone, topic coverage, keyword usage, clarity of speech, and speed of delivery. The AI-based algorithms that drive the application ensure that the feedback provided is both immediate and unbiased. This provides concrete, quantifiable information on skill gaps and areas for improvement that reps can act on immediately. Finally, the sales pitch intelligence platform can be made to scale up to analyze and assess hundreds of practice sales pitches simultaneously when required to meet the needs of a growing organization.
An AI-enabled sales pitch intelligence platform can be readily integrated into an organization’s existing LMS to quickly bring in the benefits of deliberate practice into the learning process.
According to research, buyers spend an average of just 5% of their buying journey with an individual rep,6 and among millennials, 44% of B2B buyers would prefer no interaction with sales reps throughout the buying journey.7 In such a landscape, it is vital that sales reps are confident and have complete mastery of their sales pitch before they come before a customer. Such confidence and mastery can only come with a system of deliberate practice informed by immediate and unbiased feedback. Thankfully, such a system is now easily accessible in the form of an AI-enabled sales pitch intelligence platform.
- Bill Eckstrom and Sarah Wirth. 2019. The coaching effect: What great leaders do to increase sales, enhance
performance, and sustain growth. Austin, Texas: Greenleaf Book Group Press.