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The Power of Practice: How Music Prepared Me to Succeed in Sales

Written by Mike Kunkle

Cellist Practicing her skills

My name is Mike Kunkle, and I’m a recovering musician.

Kidding aside, sometimes it surprises people when they learn that I have two degrees in music, played professionally, and composed and arranged music.  When I was studying music in college, if you had told me that one day, I’d be working in corporate America, I would have laughed in your face.  If you had told me that I’d be working in any field related to sales, I would have told our bartender to cut you off and certainly taken your car keys.

It’s funny how life works, isn’t it?  I’ll spare you the details about my odd transition, but I do want to share a relevant “lesson” with you (yes, pun intended).

What’s not funny about all this, is how well my music education prepared me for success in the sales profession.  What’s sad about that, is how difficult it is for me to get others to heed my advice on what music taught me about how to succeed in sales.

Why is it difficult, you ask?  Why don’t people glom onto this pearl of wisdom and secret dot connection that I can offer?  I think it’s because my advice involves:

  • hard work and a LOT of practice
  • dedication and discipline
  • endlessly pursuing mastery of your craft
  • being pleased with your performance but never satisfied

On being asked why, at the age of 93, he still devoted three hours a day to practicing, world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals said: “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

Want to make it worse?  In sales, “practice” means “role-plays” or sales simulations.  Despite rampant sports/sales analogies and a seeming connection between sports and sales psychologies, for whatever reason, role-play still makes many sales reps and managers groan.

The Music Beginning

How Practice Worked for Me

music-book as practice materials

One of my degrees in music is a performance degree.  From my senior year of high school (where I purposefully orchestrated a lot of free periods to practice in the band hall) through my college graduation, I spent a lot of time in private practice rooms or in rehearsals.  I practiced scales, arpeggios, etudes, long tones, and musical pieces, from ensemble or band parts to solos.  When I wasn’t playing, I was often listening to players I admired, or writing music.  I ate, breathed, and slept music.

I had to; I got a late start with music.  I didn’t start playing until my freshmen year in high school, and I primarily joined the band because I wanted to meet a certain clarinet player.  I caught the bug, though, and four years later, was accepted into a music program.  Another four years later, I emerged with two degrees, one in performance.  Two years later, despite my passion, I made a difficult decision to pursue another career direction.

Entering the World of Sales

I stayed in the entertainment profession but moved out of music into the business end of things.  In that first job, I entered the world of inside sales in November of 1984, and it’s fair to say that I had no idea what I was doing.  I did get some proven scripts, training, and a good manager (the business owner) who was also a mentor and invested time in me to help me succeed.  Still, I wasn’t very good out of the gate.  What I did, however, was throw myself into it, like I had done with music.

I practiced my scripts every night. I tape-recorded myself doing it and listened to the tapes to critique them and try again. I practiced on my friends, who thought I was crazy but went along with it and gave me feedback.  I documented the objections I heard and rehearsed my responses.  I asked for feedback at work, constantly, and took it.  Later, I bought a VHS video recorder and a tripod, and video-taped myself as well.  I also bought whatever books, cassette tape sets and videos that I could afford.  I played the tapes constantly in the car, to the point where I was able to talk along with them.  If you’ve been around awhile you’ll remember the names Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Tom Hopkins, George Walther, Roger Dawson and others, whose tape sets were available through Nightingale-Conant.  Eventually I ran into the content of Linda Richardson, Ron Willingham, Mack Hanan, and others, which took me deeper in the direction of consultative, buyer-focused, solution-oriented selling.  I practiced, drilled and rehearsed through all of it.  I even eventually made tapes of myself delivering messaging, presentations and resolving concerns, and talked along with myself in the car.

Not Magic, But It Worked

Look, I wasn’t a natural at selling and have never tried to hide that. I really struggled at first.  If you know me or have read my work, you probably get that I’m driven, but I’m much more of an analytical type who figures things out so I can improve them.  Yet, I got pretty good at selling. At a different company, I outsold the rest of MY peers on my team and was promoted to manager. That year, we did two things that helped us overachieve every goal category… we instituted dedicated prospecting days for everyone, and we all practiced, drilled, and rehearsed our prospecting, questioning, presenting, closing and concern-resolution skills, and gave each other feedback. We did some practice and role play, every single day of the week.  It worked like magic.  It wasn’t comfortable for everyone at first, but we worked through that and created a supportive, positive environment where everyone helped yet challenged each other.  We blew the doors off that year, and I was promoted again, to where I really wanted to be… into the Sales Training department at the corporate HQ.  Twenty-four years later, I can say confidently that I found another passion to replace my zeal for music, but there is more of a connection between the two, than most people will ever realize.

How to Implement Practice & Role Play with Your Sales Team

sales team implementing practice and role play

What can you take away from my experience?  Here are some ideas that I hope will help:

  • Get started with a role play/simulation/practice initiative, and get started now. Sales analysts consistently report that the inability of reps to communicate value is a major deterrent to sales success and growth. This is the path past that hurdle (assuming they can create value, which is a different issue).
  • Stop coddling your reps and letting them complain their way out of doing role-play and practice. This is valuable, important work, just like spring training or concert rehearsal.
  • Don’t make it punishing, but do make it very realistic. (Note: If reps are learning new skills, start easy, without much customer role resistance, and progressively get more difficult.)
  • Don’t allow reps who play customers to “take it easy” on their partners. When practical (especially for certifications), hire actors or use company executives or other employees to play the customer role.
  • Provide honest and direct feedback (not harsh, but not sugar-coated to make it “easier” on reps).
  • Enforce the rule that reps play the role and speak the messaging or conduct the dialogue live, as if speaking with a real buyer, not just talking about what they’ll talk about.
  • Provide ample time for reps to rerun the scenario after they receive feedback, with multiple practice-feedback loops, if possible.
  • Make practice and feedback a cultural norm and expectation.
  • I didn’t gamify my approach in my past, but I might today. If you turn it into a fun competition, while ensuring the supportive environment and learning focus remain, it could provide some additional motivation and inject some fun.
  • Use available tools like Rehearsal VRP to enable practice with evenly distributed, remote teams (for times when you can’t get the team together), to foster and build a sales coaching culture, to document your teams’ capabilities and their progress, and to more easily capture and share best practices among your team.

Some Related Resources

About the Author

Mike Kunkle

Mike Kunkle is a training and organization effectiveness leader with
special expertise in sales force transformation.

After his initial years on the frontline in sales and sales management,
Mike spent the past 21 years as a corporate manager or consultant,
leading departments and projects with one purpose – improve sales