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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Car Sales Training & Improv Comedy Training, Are They The Same?

I had an experience recently that I would like to share. 


I wanted to do some improv comedy scenes with students that focused on reacting to the first funny/surprising thing in the scene. In creating an exercise that would allow me to do so, I stumbled into a bizarre realization: Most of the notes I gave to the improvisers to improve their scene work could have doubled as Car Sales Training.


Weird right?


Car Sales Training Meets Improv Comedy
Car Sales Professionals or Improvisers? You decide.

Now I was working only with beginning improv students, not car sales professionals, so I'm reaching a little? At the same time, I’ve been in sales, for a very long time, pretty much since I graduated college and I can tell you, many sales professionals, myself included, would make similar decisions to the ones my improv students made.


Let's review the exercise instructions.


I wanted to eliminate any distractions from my stated goal. So I decided I would set all of the scenes for this exercise at a car dealership with one actor playing a car sales rep and the other playing an interested customer. Okay yeah, so maybe this initial decision kind of explains why I saw a connection between improv and car sales training. But I made the decision so that there wouldn’t be any miscommunications in establishing the base reality that would detract from our focus on reacting to the funny thing.


I also explained to my students that the two characters should like each other, be reasonably competent and not get into any fights unrelated to the car transaction. I made this decision so that unnecessary fighting, a full blown dunce or mean insults would not be able to distract the students (or me) from that first funny thing. Essentially a watered down version of the initiating guidelines.


Finally, I instructed my students that the buyer must love the car they have been considering but inform the car sales rep that they won’t be buying it today.  Importantly, the reason they won’t be buying it must be a reason not frequently used by actual customers who are not yet ready to commit. So “I have to speak with my spouse first,” or “I can’t afford it,” or other objections of that ilk were off the table.


Let me share one of the scenes that were improvised by my students for this exercise. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. I’ve highlighted the critical moment so you won’t miss it.


BARBARA (SALES REP)

What car would you like to see today?


CAROL (CUSTOMER)

Oh, I love that little coup that’s over there. You know the little sports car, the red one that is over there?


BARBARA

Fantastic choice. Would you like to take it for a spin?


CAROL

Oh I’d love to, but I did actually take it out for a test drive yesterday, so I know I want it. I’ve even been to the bank, I’ve got the cash. It’s an amazing car.


BARBARA

Then let’s get that secured today. Let’s do it!


CAROL

Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but this is what I am going to tell youI cannot buy cars on Tuesday. It’s a superstition we’ve had in our family for generations.


BARBARA

I totally understand, but superstitions are meant to be broken.


CAROL

I’d love to try breaking a superstition, but I gotta tell you I can’t buy a car on Wednesday either, so it doesn’t make sense to come back tomorrow. 


BARBARA

My family told me that I could not wash my hair on a Saturday or Sunday, but that hasn’t stopped me.


CAROL

Every time I think about buying a car on a Tuesday I get the shivers and I just freeze, you know. My hand won’t go anywhere near my wallet.


BARBARA

But days are a social construct. Technically.


BLACKOUT! (Is this blackout dramatic enough?  Please send me your thoughts.)


First off, this is a pretty funny scene. I giggled a lot when I was typing it out. So hat's off on that front. All the stuff about random day restrictions on purchases were funny and after the first one, in the spirit of Yes And.


But was the first funny thing really reacted to? Or was it met with indifference?


The critical moment in the scene came when Carol said, “I cannot buy cars on Tuesday.” Barbara reacts with, “I totally understand, but superstitions are meant to be broken,” and you could be forgiven if you thought that read as a Voice of Reason response. But really it was the negation or rejection of a comedic offer through non-reaction.  


Barbara isn’t a bit surprised or even curious that Carol never buys cars on Tuesdays! She doesn’t like it and she wishes Carol would betray her commitment to not buying cars on that day, but that’s as far as it goes. Barbara sees nothing strange at all about having established that certain item groups are simply not purchased on certain days of the week.


As a result of Barbara’s disinterest in Carol’s Tuesday rule, we never find out why Carol maintains it. And without the why, unsurprisingly, the initial move is never repeated, heightened or better understood.


Eh, I guess it is a little when Carol reveals she also doesn't buy cars on Wednesdays and, but I suspect a second beat of this scene would be tough and probably wouldn’t feel connected comically to the first beat except for the possible inclusion of the same characters.


To fix this from an improv comedy perspective, what we want to do is slightly adjust Barbara’s reaction away from whether or not the sale happens and towards why Carol believes in such a seemingly arbitrary restriction. Barbara doesnt need to be rude or haughty or even confrontational. In fact she could react to the arbitrary rule by matching the belief. 


But whatever her reaction is, it needs to be noticeable to both her scene partner and the audience and it needs to be a reaction to the actual funny thing instead of the decision the funny thing is buried within.


Weirdly, my advice would be the same if Barbara weren’t an improv character but instead an actual car salesperson.  


Okay, okay, well I wouldn’t describe the objection as “The Funny Thing” but I would advise car sales reps that they need to react to the actual objection, not ancillary circumstances or distractions that are connected but not central. In order to do that they need to understand exactly what it is. 


Consider Barbara’s initial reaction, “Superstitions are made to be broken.” This comes off as all about Barbara and nothing to do with Carol. It hears the words of Carol’s objection, but it doesn’t respect them or care about them and it certainly doesn’t help Barbara understand Carol's words any better.


If instead she had reacted with something along the lines of, “Really? You never buy cars on Tuesdays due to a family superstition? I’m so surprised to learn of such a superstition, can you help me understand the thinking behind it?” then I would humbly submit to you that she would be much closer to a sale. That’s because her reaction positions her to gain knowledge about the objection which will prepare her to intelligently address it.


Sales rep can forget that objections are hard not only on the sales professionals, but also on the customers. Customers can feel embarrassed or disrespected when they say no if that moment isn’t delicately handled. If all a sales rep does is react to the absence of the sale, then the customer will conclude that the sales professional cares only about their own numbers and not about the client.


So can I make the bold claim that car sales training and improv comedy training are essentially the same thing? Mmmmm, it still feels a little like a reach.  Let’s look at a second example.


The below scene was improvised directly after the one we just examined, so the participants in it had the benefit of hearing the first scene’s feedback before trying the exercise themselves. Even so, the stated goal of reacting to the first funny/surprising thing remained a formidable challenge.


LINDA (SALES REP)

It seems like you really like this little clown car. What can we do to get you in it today?


GRACE (CUSTOMER)

I want you to make this little clown car a little bear car. Can you do that?


LINDA

Yes we can have some little bear ears added to the top of the car. We can even get a fur finish for the outside.


GRACE

Did you say little bear ears?


LINDA

Yes, we can get little bear ears installed to the roof of the car. We can replace the paint job with a fur finish, it will look just like a bear. 


GRACE

Can you put Winnie The Pooh as the driver? And can there be pots of honey with bees?


LINDA

Yes I think we can do that and if you sign today we can even include a real live beehive right in your passenger seat so you can get all the honey you want when driving, with an option to add angry bees.


GRACE 

Sold!


BLACKOUT! BLACKOUT! BLACKOUT! (I've upped the ante on the blackout to end this scene, in case last time it wasn't enough.)


Let me start by saying that this scene was quite successful and I think, pretty funny. I believe that both players had at least a sense of the game of the scene if not a very clear understanding of its parameters. These were beginning improv students so I would say they performed marvelously.


Even so, the very specific thing I asked for in this exercise, really reacting to that first funny/surprising, didn’t happen. I’ve got no argument with funny scenes like this one, but when we miss an exercise’s goal, it means we weren’t in control. So it is worth reviewing.


To start, the first line has a funny thing in it that gets totally ignored. Linda asks whether Grace would like to buy a clown car. Grace doesn’t care and never reacts to this offer (even if the improviser silently clocked it and Yes Anded by adding a new themed car).  


Instead she ups the ante by switching away from clown cars to a brand new subject that's even weirder, bear cars. This becomes the focus of the scene so certainly this first mention of bear cars can be said to launch the scene’s game. Linda plays along and we have lots of fun moves in short order. 


But Linda also never reacts to the idea of bear cars. She isn’t skeptical of them or surprised by the request, so this isn’t a Voice of Reason scene. 


Nor is she very supportive of the idea, which might have helped to justify the request. The scene does move forward in a consistent pattern, but it doesn’t feel like a Matching Game.


I think it ends up being a very witty semi passive world game in which people attempt to go about their business when very arbitrary limits have been placed on their commerce. Kind of like an absurd extension of no liquor sold on Sundays.


I worry this scene feels untethered and might veer off into Crazy Town. There isn't much to it except for game moves. What happens if even for a line or two a player can't think of a new joke? Understanding the origin of the comedy in the scene can allow for more impactful, long lasting moves played through the actors relationship onstage.


Again, the decisions made in this scene definitely worked, but the absence of a strong reaction under similar circumstances could cause confusion between the players about the scene’s focus leading to a trip to Crazy-Town. A clear Voice of Reason or Matching reaction guards against this and shouldn’t be hard to pull off.


From a car sales training perspective we have a similar problem. The sales rep closed the deal! What is there to improve?


Fair enough. But let's imagine a world, difficult though it may be, in which your sales team doesn’t sell bear car makeovers. In this word the request can count as an objection.


In order to overcome or (as an improviser might think of it) build on top of an objection, a sales professional must first understand it. By not reacting to the objection, Linda never gives herself a chance to understand why her potential customer wants a bear car. Without that comprehension, Linda is flying blind for the rest of the sales process.


Even if you do sell bear cars, wouldn’t you want to know why this particular client wants that particular car? Taking the time to unpack such moments will pay off more often than not.


So both the sales rep and the improviser need to spend more time at this critical moment, whether it comes in a comedy scene or a sales process. 


And the solution to the problems this moment brings with it is comprehension. Empathy. Clarity.


So, there it is. I have proven in this blog post that there is no substantial difference between improv comedy training and car sales training. 


They are the same.


It is incontrovertible. One example wasn't enough, but two seals the deal!


If you happen to work in Sales and are looking for fun, fresh training options, I do offer great improv based sales workshops. Or if you are interested in trying improv at your office on your own, I am offering a Teach The Teacher class in late April that will give participants the ability to do just that!



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