The Art of Sales Improvisation – Your Competitive Advantage
Posted on February 21st, 2016

Reprint from Focus Magazine — Spring 2016 Digital Edition

Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network 






By Randy Sabourin

There’s a moment every Sciences Sales Rep knows and many dread. It’s the moment during the sales call with a Health Care Provider when you know nothing is going to happen. It’s not a disaster, because you have a relationship, but you know, and likely they do as well, that you’re wasting your time, nothing is going to happen today. The moment manifests itself several ways: it could be in the lobby as the Doctor walks between examining rooms notices you and says “Hey Joanne, what’s new?” It could take place after you get invited into the office and the conversation starts with “So why are you here today?” or maybe even it’s the awkward transition from the small talk over the lunch you carried in as everyone around the table is waiting to pay you for lunch with their attention. OK go! Be interesting, tell them all why your product/drug/therapy/device is better than anyone else’s and a lot more interesting than you, or even your colleague, articulated last week.sales improv

Every Rep has been in that situation and if they are still a Rep they know the answer to this dilemma is the reason they are good at their job, they improvise. By improvise I don’t mean they told jokes that made everyone laugh or made stuff up, the meaning of improvisation is much deeper and more meaningful. The ability to improvise is to combine being creative and delivering that creativity in real time; it’s thinking and doing simultaneously. It’s the skill of working with what you have around you and leveraging it to meet your objectives. It’s not winging it or BS-ing or being unprepared. You’ve seen people who are naturally good at improvisation but like most useful skills it can be taught. It is taught to Firefighters when they’re learning to use the Jaws-of-Life, to athletes who need to save a play gone wrong, to jazz musicians, and to actors for both serious and comedic purposes.  

Preparation is a key factor for successful Sales Improvisation. The process steps of improvisation are attention, accept, adapt and advance. The most important aspect of the process, however, is preparation. Preparation comes in two forms. The first is having a grasp of the content and skills required for the situation. In a sporting analogy, learning how to skate would be a great skill to have mastered before you attempt to improvise during a hockey game. For a Rep, this applies to understanding product information, your customer, competition, and the improvisation process itself. Knowing this information allows you to access this knowledge easily and keep brain power available for the creativity of improvisation.

The four process steps for Sales Improvisation are simple and really mimic on a simple level the give and take of a conversation. Attention—or as a subset, listening—is the simplest, most important step, and unfortunately the one most often neglected. Listening without distraction, judgment and “mind chatter” is very difficult. One factor that makes listening difficult is that we can comprehend speech at a rate between 300 to 500 words per minute while the average speaker talks to us at a speed of 150 to 200 words per minute. In the gap between what we hear and what we process, our mind wanders. This step is essential to gathering information about the situation in which you find yourself and being aware of what potentially useful information is in the conversation, in the room, or gathered from the Doctor.

Acceptance is the next step in the process. It can be difficult for some business people because it requires us to let go of judgment and control. This is counter-intuitive for many people, particularly those who tend to be “take charge” individuals and have been taught to take control of the conversation. Be that as it may, accepting a situation for what it is—not attempting to control or judge it—and using the new information as an input into the revised decision-making process is essential to effective improvisation. In theatrical improvisation this concept is called ‘Yes, and’, in musical improvisation it’s known as ‘staying inside the moment’.

Adaptation is the next step in the Sales Improvisation process. Now is your chance to apply your cognitive and creative skills in order to achieve the objectives, in spite of the changes engendered by the current situation. By paying attention, listening and accepting the situational realities, we are now in a position to blend salient facts with creativity and adapt to the new situation. Holding onto your account strategy in the face of new challenges is counter-productive; letting go and adapting to the situation is the key to a great conversation.

The last process step, advancement, is about effective communication. It is offering something that moves the situation forward. A suggestion, an idea, or a change in body language can all advance the solutions created in the adaptive step of the process. The message is “I’ve listened, I understand and I accept. I’ve thought about it and here is what I think.” This is also the opportunity to move the situation into a new direction.

Leveraging the Sales Improvisation process will help you in that important moment when you have that feeling of dread and what you say next makes all the difference to the success of the sales call. In theatrical and jazz improvisation there is often an idea that we start with; with theatrical improv it’s a suggestion from the audience, with jazz it’s starting the solo with the melody. For a sales improvisation it’s good to start with a statement or question that evokes a response and breaks the pattern of expectation the Doctor is conditioned to. A guideline opening statement is to combine two facts, either from a previous conversation or a relevant industry trend, add your opinion and then ask for a response. The key is to start a conversation with an interesting opening statement and use the Improvisation process (attention, accept, adapt, advance) to move the conversation forward. This approach will set you apart because it’s not product driven and focuses back on the Doctor with authentic curiosity. The hardest part for most Sales People is truly giving up control and accepting (and working with) the response you get from your opening statement.

Like any new skill it takes practice to perfect. I suggest creating two or three opening statements and practicing them with a manager, peer, or professional roleplayer.


One response to “The Art of Sales Improvisation – Your Competitive Advantage”

  1. […] In addition, being empathetic helps to remove the ego from exerting control. The less ego you bring to your sales conversations, the better. For salespeople especially, the need for control helps to drive competition, but it can also block curiosity and empathy. The ability to manipulate your status, decreasing it when listening/increasing it when you become a ‘trusted adviser’ – can help open up the conversation (more on status as a communication tool). Being empathetic helps you check your ego and opens you to accept objections more willingly and therefore improvise more effectively (more on sales improvisation).  […]

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