Corporate team building no longer means trust falls and personality tests. Instead, organizations are leaning on non-traditional forms of professional development to deepen bonds within a team and further cement sales skills.
One burgeoning form of professional development is improv training. Yes, improv has the power to do far more than just tickle your funny bone — more troupes are demonstrating that this spontaneous form of comedy is applicable to business environments as well.
As a result, companies like the Vancouver Whitecaps, BC Hydro, Lululemon and many more are relying on improv to help boost their sales team’s confidence, build stronger rapport with customers, and adapt to new situations.
The increasing demand for this kind of skills-focused program is why Vancouver TheatreSports League (VTSL), the Granville Island-based improv group, has created training specifically for businesses and sales pros who could use a leg up. Ken Lawson, the group’s corporate trainer and lead facilitator, suggests three ways improv can shore up a sales pro’s skills and give them the confidence to close the deal.
1. Build Authentic Interactions
One of the most transferrable skills professionals can take away from improv is learning how to quickly and adeptly build rapport with a stranger.
“Sales professionals find that they need to be present and empathic, putting themselves in the client’s shoes and really seeing what their needs are,” Lawson says.
Vancouver’s Young Travel Professionals (YTP) recently worked with Vancouver TheatreSports for this very reason.
“I wanted our members to go outside their comfort zone and try something they wouldn’t normally do,” says Jessica Renshaw, co-founder of YTP. “I assured everyone that we would have a safe space, free from judgment and worry, and that we were there to explore new ways to work on our communication and listening skills.”
Understanding a customer’s goals requires clear communication and a foundation of trust — which can come from authentic interactions between the sales professional and a potential client. Those authentic interactions can then blossom into successful working relationships.
2. Be Flexible and Adapt on Your Feet
Anyone who has seen an improv show can understand that flexibility is a core concept of the craft. The audience makes a suggestion (called an "offer" in the improv world) and the performers on stage must co-create a story around that by building on each other's ideas.
This improv ability to think on your feet is an important training tool for sales professionals as well.
“We call it the ‘improv mindset’,” Lawson says. “So it’s about tapping into that improviser’s mindset of being open to whatever happens, being willing to let go of your plan and going down a different road, while still keeping your goals in mind."
This kind of flexibility can help pros close more deals, as they become more equipped to successfully pivot when a client conversation doesn’t go as planned.
It’s one of the major takeaways Renshaw drew from the VTSL workshop. They learned tactics to keep travel pros on their toes in an ever-changing industry.
“The travel industry is very dynamic so I like to subsidize our regular networking events with more hands-on events,” says Renshaw. “We work with people every day and we need to know how to properly communicate, listen and share information in a way that tells a story and captivates our audience.”
3. Building the Story Together
Another component of flexibility in improv is being open to other people’s offers to collaboratively create a story. This is particularly applicable in sales where organizations are shifting from scripted interactions to more personalized selling tactics.
It takes openness and strong communication to understand a customer’s goals, receive those offers and combine them with your professional offers to create a successful sales story together, and improv training helps cultivate those skills.
This practice builds on the well-known improv concept of “Yes, And” which focuses on listening closely to an offer a team member communicates and building upon it.
“It’s about being open to other people’s input to create a story together, so being open to being changed by other people’s input and not just driving your ideas through.”