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The role of practice in sales rep performance and productivity: Part 2

In part one of this article we introduced a basic framework for how to optimize sales force productivity that included three essential pieces: alignment, content and continuous learning. Part one covered alignment and content. Now it’s time to dive deeper into learning, specifically the role of practice.

Who hasn’t heard, “Practice makes perfect.” Well, perfection may be a stretch, but brain science does support the idea of performance improvement through practice. That’s why coaches, no matter what the game, drill players on the fundamentals.

The goal is to reach a point where the execution of basic skills becomes ingrained, even automatic. Legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, always stressed fundamentals before creativity. He also made a habit of covering new material in the first half of practice. That gave players the chance to apply the new material through practice in the second half.

Left-brain and right-brain discussions are familiar to most people. The left (logical) side of the brain is the home of rational thought, reasoning, calculating and thinking through decisions. The right (intuitive) brain is where intuition resides. It is all about emotions, senses and creative thought.

During practice the intuitive part of the brain gets exercised. The goal of practice in the learning process is to move the execution of basic skills along the path to mastery—from the logical brain in the direction of the intuitive brain.

This is where skills and knowledge learned are actually applied. According to some sources, the ability to apply skills and call into play relevant knowledge on the job are embarrassingly absent from today’s workforce. Findings from a 2013 study by McKinsey indicate that, while 72% of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work, only 42% of employers agree.

While we are conditioned from the time we enter school to memorize and gain understanding of topics, we are seldom afforded the opportunity to actually apply this knowledge and become skillful before entering the workforce. Sales reps have a lot to learn, and what they are expected to know keeps changing because it is continually expanding. Hence the crying need for practice of the fundamental skills and knowledge they will use again and again.

Confidence begins with competence. Providing opportunities for sales reps to continuously practice what they learn in training encourages long-term comprehension. And with comprehension and competence come the confidence, poise and polish to succeed in the field. But how does this happen and what is the science behind practice?

In an article on Artificial Intuition, Monica Anderson makes it clear that intuition-based skills can be improved with practice. While that may lead some to conclude that the intuitive part of the brain is better than the logical part, it’s important to remember that one isn’t necessarily better than the other, just different. The brain uses both to do its work.

What about the argument that we are either right-brained or left-brained—in other words that one side or the other dominates? Just not so according to expert Kendra Cherry, who says the idea of left or right brain dominance is a myth. Again, one is not better than the other. They are just different and provide different categories of service.

According to Jason Shen in his piece, “The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill", learning rewires our brains. To accomplish any task, it’s necessary to activate portions of the brain.

“Our brains coordinate a complex set of actions involving motor function, visual and audio processing, verbal language skills, and more. At first, the new skill might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for this set of coordinated activities...”

So once more—does practice really make perfect? Perfection in the absolute sense is probably unattainable, but it’s clear that the human brain maintains its plasticity and therefore the ability to change itself and improve performance. How much practice is enough? According to Malcolm Gladwell it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

Here’s an obviously less precise but far more practical guideline: “The Takeaway: practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison... To improve your performance, you need to practice frequently, and get lots of feedback so you practice correctly.

Practice doesn’t guarantee your sales reps will perform flawlessly on every call. But the following exercises will help move along them the path toward greater confidence and productivity.

Experiential learning provides realistic opportunities for sales reps to immerse themselves in their clients’ worlds to fully experience their roles. They get to see and feel firsthand the tasks, challenges and duties of the people they serve.

Role play offers opportunities for sales reps to practice scenarios they are likely to encounter in the field. Such exercises involve practice sales pitches, conversations and calls with a facilitator followed by immediate one-on-one feedback.

Scenario-based simulations are true-to-life virtual replications of a real-work environment and allow learners to practice common tasks within it. This provides a safe place to make decisions about what tactics to use and which strategic paths to follow. Decisions made can be measured against best practices and feedback can be provided to help the learners make better decisions and fewer mistakes in the real world.

Experiential learning, simulations and role playing are all components of practice. While the techniques are not new, the recognition of how well they all play together in a cohesive technology-enabled practice environment is new—and exciting.

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