Improving sales skills and Improv comedy have more in common than you might think. As the popularity of Glengarry Glen Ross references demonstrates, B2B sales has its share of humor and drama. It is also true that professional selling is often far too extemporaneous and done with too little preparation. However, effective selling requires planning and authoritative execution.
I recently discovered this at a networking event centered around Improv, that also featured the more traditional draws of a speaker and panel discussion. While this wasn’t my first exposure to Improv, it was certainly the first time I had seen it in a business context.
I was skeptical and a bit wary. While humor can be useful as an icebreaker in networking, value typically comes from serious discussion about important, relevant topics. Why would I want to role play fictional scenarios with people who may have a lot to offer from their actual, real lives? How much can one really learn from that?
To my surprise, the answer was quite a lot. The speaker shared key points about Improv, and took us through a series of exercises that were fun and revealing—which coincidentally, are two words that can also describe great sales calls. The event reinforced my conviction that sales skills are intertwined with everyday life, and taught me four fundamental concepts of Improv.
These four concepts are also valuable lessons for sales people everywhere:
While it can sometimes seem nonsensical and freeform, Improv is actually governed by a set of rules (the same can also be said of sales). Depending on who you ask, there’s a varying number of rules, but some are universal. For example, every Improv scene is predicated on agreeing and saying “yes”. This allows the Improv team to extend the scenario and feed the storyline. The idea is to boost creativity, keep new possibilities open, and establish rapport.
Early in my sales career, I was taught to “agree with the customer” and just “say ‘yes’” for similar reasons. Saying ‘No, we can’t’ or disagreeing with prospects would stymie the momentum of the sales opportunity, and threaten the possibility of a closed deal. However, I quickly learned that if you’re unable to satisfy customers’ needs, but you ‘agree and say yes,’ at the appropriate points in a sales conversation the exchange will prove to be far more valuable to both buyer and seller..
When I heard “agree and say ‘yes’” during the Improv session, what struck me was how differently we view this today. If you truly believe you can help a customer, it’s important to agree and say “yes.” Maintaining the relationship and supporting their goals is one of the best ways to build rapport with prospects. However, taking this approach also underscores the supreme importance of understanding the root cause of our customers’ actions, challenges or aspirations. By agreeing, saying yes and working through your customers' frustrations, you may even help them realize a problem they weren’t aware of.
In Improv, the use of “and” extends the scene and supports whatever was previously said by another performer. Similarly, the use of “and” in sales is a positive way to support team members and customers.
The use of “and” can be a supportive way to build on another person’s proposal, suggestion or statement and certainly avoids a seemingly negative response focused on reasons we can’t do something. Sales is a profession where phrasing and word choice are paramount—using “and” is a great example.
Improv encourages participants to respond honestly and establish trust between team members in scenes. Being able to rely on and trust your Improv partner facilitates creativity. At Funnel Clarity, an important message we reiterate when prospecting, selling and negotiating is to avoid lying at all costs. Honesty and transparency are the tenets of professional selling. Without it, the relationship between buyer and seller, seller and manager, teams and organizations would all be at risk.
Listening is a critical component of establishing honesty and trust. Most often sellers miss opportunities to clarify their understanding of what the buyer is saying or trying to convey. If done well, a seller can establish rapport and gain the buyer’s confidence quickly strengthening the relationship and progressing the opportunity.
Another area of similarity between Improv and sales is the importance of practice. On-going improvement and skill development are strongly encouraged. Improv embraces the idea that there are no mistakes, only opportunities. This resonates heavily with my experiences in sales coaching.
Recently, after helping a new sales executive with a call plan, we discussed the likelihood that this upcoming call will include surprises. Rarely do calls occur exactly the way we plan. However, if we didn’t plan, there would be far more surprises than we could anticipate; and each call is a learning opportunity.
I’m eager to continue exploring Improv and its relationship with professional selling. As sales people, it’s in our best interest to develop awareness of the many ways that sales is connected with other professions and activities. It helps foster a holistic understanding of how to connect with people, and ultimately, sell better. Adopting elements from the science of Improv, coupled with appropriate preparation, allows sellers to build better connections, increases flexibility and to have the ability to think on their feet. And, doing so encourages continuous improvement—and there’s nothing funny about that.
Jill Ulvestad is the founder of Funnel Clarity. Jill applies her expertise in driving sales performance and results, developing sales strategy and streamlining skills development to the Funnel Clarity team. With nearly 20 years of business development and consulting experience, Jill provides valued sales performance insight to her roles as co-founder and managing partner of Funnel Clarity. Previously, Jill spent 8 years with the sales performance firm Huthwaite where she served as the Vice President of Sales. She most recently was co-founder of Business Performance Partners, a sales and strategy consulting firm and led the coaching practice.