Why Sales Scripts are a Waste of Time

Last Updated Oct 28, 2011 5:03 PM EDT

I just heard an interesting horror story from a seasoned sales professional. She was presenting to a prospect, the prospect interrupted her and said: "you must have been a real star at your Sandler training." In other words, the customer not only knew he was being "sold" but could identify the sales training firm that had trained the sales rep to sell.

This is not a good thing to happen, but it happens more than you think. The reason is that many sales training firms continue to be invested in the mistaken notion that successful selling behavior is as reproducible as an assembly line. As a result, they promote a set of highly ritualized behaviors that are supposed to work, but which often just make the sales rep look silly.

The concept of scripted "ritual selling" goes back to the 1930s. Early sales training (particularly in the automobile industry) was designed to ensure that everyone on the sales team spoke, acted, looked and even moved in the exact same manner, in the mistaken belief that customers would react identically to the same stimuli. Sales reps were even told how to hold the pen when they handed it to the customer to sign on the dotted line.

Sales rituals (i.e. sales scripts) are mostly absurd.

They're not based upon any real research but rather upon speculation about what "ought" to work or what worked for the individual who's selling the training. As such, they're a crap shoot anyway. To make matters worse, most prospects and customer see sales rituals as fakey, manipulative, sleazy and unethical.

More importantly, sales rituals have a habit of slipping into the lexicon of popular popular culture. As a result, customers are often able to identify the standard sales techniques -- and there goes your credibility right down the drain.

This process of popularization of sales rituals has been going on for decades. For example, the actor W.C. Fields, in movies like "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" (1939) and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" (1941) lampoons the stock character of the carnival pitchman.

While Field's "sales pitches" in those films seem, to a modern viewer, to be ridiculously "over the top," they are in fact nearly identical to ritualized sales pitches given as examples in serious sales training films of the period, such as those by early sales trainer Elmer Wheeler.

The continued failure of these sales rituals to produce sales results (in anything more than a haphazard fashion) had a horrific impact on sales culture.

One of the unintentional byproducts of these rituals is to the public at large a career in sales has often been considered futile and depressing, as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Death of a Salesman," which holds suicide as a better fate than being a salesman.

And, in fact, sales rituals ARE depressing, because they inevitably create massive amounts of rejection. I suspect that primary reason that motivational training has become part of the sales training regimen is simply that sales rituals create so much failure, producing an almost infinite need to "cheer up" the sales force.

Another byproduct of sales rituals is the injection of magical thinking into the mix.

Since sales professionals are being asked, from the start, to take a leap of faith that sales rituals will work, it's not surprising that some expect divine intervention as well. You see this tendency towards the supernatural in the motivational writings Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale.

Finally, sales rituals have resulted in a certain amount of employee abuse. I've heard sales trainers -- big names, mind you -- explain that the reason their rituals weren't working was that the sales reps were "stupid" and "lazy." Sales managers pick up this way of thinking, needless to say.

In the 1992 movie of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, a hot-shot sales trainer (memorably played by Alec Baldwin) is brought in by top management to "motivate" the discouraged troops.

In a much-quoted speech, the character provides both the ritualized bromides (e.g. "A.B.C. - Always Be Closing") along with crude and abusive motivational training (e.g. "Coffee is for closers!") The film admirably illustrates the insanity of this kind of training.

More importantly, the movie illustrates the exact tendency of customers to get wise to the ritual scripts, as when the character played by Jack Lemmon finds that his smooth patter, once effective, no longer works.

What's the alternative to sales rituals? Well, you can start by throwing out the "sales scripts" you've been using. About the only time a sales script works is in cold-calling situations, where you're playing a numbers game. The rest of the time, the scripts are probably getting in your way.

For almost all sales situations, you're much better off entering into a real conversation and behaving like a genuine human being rather than a devotee of some sales religion who's determined to follow a ritualized script.

This requires knowing what your selling, understanding the customer's business model, and actually caring about them as something more than somebody who's supposed to play their role in some weird little play that you're trying to create.

READERS: Anyone care to argue this point with me?

BTW: You'll find plenty of similar tips and techniques in my new book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling now available for pre-sale here:

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