Deliberate Practice in Retail Sales

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

I’ve spent years studying and writing about deliberate practice, and even I am still surprised every now and then by just how powerful it can be. Most recently this happened when I learned about the results of using deliberate practice in a business setting — specifically, in training some of Verizon’s retail store employees in selling the company’s products. And what was perhaps even more impressive to me was just how solid the evidence was for this success story, since most of the evidence for the usefulness of deliberate practice in business tends to be anecdotal rather than based on real data.

Darik Volpa

The story comes courtesy of Darik Volpa, the founder of Rehearsal, which is the company that Verizon selected to bring deliberate practice into its employee training. Rehearsal is an interesting company. It doesn’t provide training itself. Instead it provides tools that make training more effective, and it does this by shaping the training in a way that brings it more in line with deliberate practice.

Suppose, for example, that a company has an expensive new product, and a sales manager wants his team to be able to deal effectively with objections about the high price. (This is a scenario that Rehearsal describes on its website.) Using Rehearsal’s software, the manager uses a webcam to create a video scenario of a “client” expressing concerns about the price and sends it out to his team. The team in turn practices their answers to those concerns using their webcams, and when they are happy with their responses, they submit them to their manager. The manager then reviews the responses and provides video feedback about what was done well and what needs improvement. This can go through multiple iterations if desired. The manager can post the best responses so that others can look at them and learn from them.

The system is beautifully designed to reshape typical business training into something much closer to deliberate practice. It starts with having a specific goal: in this case, not to be a better salesperson (which is far too general to be a useful goal) but rather to be able to deal with price objections for a particular product. Now the employee engages in focused practice, working to improve that one specific skill and records his or her best effort. Already the employee will have been engaging in self-feedback, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t because no one wants to look bad to the manager, and now the manager (or possibly some other mentor or coach) reviews that best effort and then identifies what is done well and offers suggestions for what to improve. With this feedback in hand, the employee can practice more. The posting of various employees’ efforts for everyone to see provides a different sort of feedback — the employees can see what has worked well for others, and they can discuss among themselves how to improve in various ways. Specific goals, focused practice, targeted feedback, repeat — that is deliberate practice in a nutshell.

It would be a surprise if that approach to training were not superior to more traditional approaches, which have less focused practice and little or no feedback, but I’m not sure that anyone would have predicted just how much difference it would make.

Observing a performance.

Verizon was looking for a better way to train its retail store employees on how to explain and sell new products to customers, so it brought in Rehearsal to set up its system, but the company also wanted to determine exactly what it was getting from that system. Thus Verizon set up a little experiment. It took nearly more than 1,000 in-store retail sales employees who were going to be working with new Verizon products and split them into three groups. The first group — 423 employees — was given no new training at all. The rest were given Verizon’s usual training and were offered the chance to use the Rehearsal system or not. Of those, 440 chose to receive just the usual training, and 515 chose to use the Rehearsal system in addition to the usual training and completed two or more video role plays. Verizon then compared the before and after sales figures for each group.

The sales performance of the first group  actually went down, with an average drop of $871 in new revenue per employee. The group that received the normal training improved substantially, with an average increase of $3,802 in new revenue per employee. And the group that got the usual training and at least two video role plays on the Rehearsal system improved much more than that, with a jump of $6,494 in new revenue per employee. Those workers who had practice with Rehearsal saw a 71 percent increase in orders, and Verizon calculated that its return on investment for using the Rehearsal system was 749 percent.

These are dramatic results, and the study was the closest thing I’ve seen to a controlled test of the use of deliberate practice in training people in a business setting. From a scientific point of view it was not a perfect test because the company allowed its employees to choose whether they wanted to use the Rehearsal system. Thus the ones using Rehearsal may have been the more motivated and ambitious employees, and they might well have gotten more out of the usual training than the other group, so the benefits of the Rehearsal system might not be quite as great as they seem from this study. The only way to know for sure will be to do a similar study but assign employees randomly to the three groups so that there is no way for self-selection to play a role. But self-selection or no self-selection, it seems that the benefits of using this Rehearsal system are real and are substantial.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure I need to note that Darik Volpa has approached me (and Anders) about serving in some sort of consultant role in order to help him and his company improve their use of deliberate practice principles in a business setting. As I write this, nothing has been agreed to, and I am writing about these results because I find them truly impressive and worth spreading the word about. Still, I did not want to hide the possibility that I may have some connection with the company at some point in the future.

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