The Unpopular Road to Top Sales Performance | Business LockerRoom

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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Mar 09

The Unpopular Road to Top Sales Performance

by Kelly Riggs

You may remember a famous 2002 press conference with NBA star Allen Iverson. It’s the one where the topic of “practice” becomes the focus of the interview.

Seems Mr. Iverson wasn’t exactly a fan of practice. Well, to be fair, I think he was concerned with the notion that he was being judged more for his participation in practice that his performance on the court. [Missed it? See it HERE.] But, the fact is that Iverson had logged many, many hours of practice in order to perfect his considerable basketball skills.

Speaking of press conferences, don’t miss my
press conference vignette later in this article.

The truth is that practice is incredibly important performance. In fact, I would ask you to name one skill of any consequence that does NOT require practice to excel at that skill.


Of course not. You cannot perfect any skill unless, and until, you practice.

Which means that your employees are either practicing to improve their skills, or YOU (the sales manager) are guilty of the ultimate performance killer – no practice. Which also means that YOU (the sales manager) are the problem.

Yes, I know, some people seem to get to an acceptable level of proficiency quicker than others. And some folks just seem to have a knack or a gift for certain skills. Some are even good enough to skip by simply because they are naturally much better than most. But, forget the outliers. Their native talent will take them to a certain level, but it won’t make them the best of the best.

Top-level sales performance takes practice. Lots of practice.

The truth is that, at some point – for some it’s earlier than others – a substantial amount of purposeful practice will be a non-negotiable aspect of consistent, long-term success. So, would you care to explain why you don’t require your team to practice?


Let me help. Here are the excuses I hear over and over:

  • Your salespeople complain. You see, they don’t like to practice. It’s too hard. They don’t like to be “embarrassed.”
  • YOU  know how to sell – after all, you were a superstar salesperson – but you’re really not very good at teaching and coaching.
  • You personally don’t enjoy practice, so you avoid it.
  • You think practice is time that could be better used getting in front of prospects (theoretically, I suppose, so they can practice on your customers…great idea).
  • You personally don’t have time to oversee practice.

Those are the Top 5 excuses in a landslide.

But let’s take a minute and take a look at those really lame excuses in a different context.

The Head Football Coach Post-Game Interview

Reporter: “So, coach, tough loss out there today. What do you take away from today’s game that you can improve in practice?”

Coach: “Practice?”

Reporter: “Uh, yeah. Practice. You know, next week? What will you work on?

Coach:  “Well, here’s the deal. We don’t really practice. My players are not big fans of practice. It’s taxing on the players, and frankly, they don’t like to have to practice their positions in front of other players. It’s kinda embarrassing. It’s tough enough to play in this league without those kind of distractions.

Reporter: “You’re kidding, right?

Coach: “Of course (nervous chuckle). Just trying to lighten the tension a bit. Actually, the truth is, we really don’t have time to practice. I mean, we’ve got a lot on our plates, you know. We’ve got to scout the next team. Break down film. Get our game plan together. Plus, we’re traveling next week – you can’t even imagine that logistics nightmare. Wow.”

Reporter: “Coach, seriously (looking around). I mean…I know the loss hurts, but I’m sure you guys are already looking to bounce back next week. I’m just looking for a few details on practice next week. What will you focus on?”

Coach: “Oh, right. Of course. Well, the thing is, practice really isn’t my thing. You know what I’m sayin’? 6 Pro Bowls. An MVP. Two trips to the Super Bowl. What I’m gettin’ at is either my players can play or they can’t. I think we just need to work harder at getting the right guys in the right positions and those wins are gonna take care of themselves. Make sense?”

Reporter: “Well…not really, no. I mean, I’m not really sure how to think about that, coach. You were 9-7 last year. 6-10 before that. And you’re off to a slow start this year. It’s hard to imagine that you don’t….uh…practice.

Coach: “Look, son. I don’t know how much football you’ve played. Not much? That’s what I figured, so let me clue you in. All that wasted time on the practice field can be used in much better ways. My players are spending time in the community. They’re participating in team-building activities. And they’ve got to prepare detailed reports on each game and their individual performances. Plus, do you know how much effort they put into reviewing their play books? OK? So, what I’m sayin’ is that “practice” (air finger quotes) sounds all fine and dandy, but we’ve got a job to do. That is how you can think about it.”

Back to the Real World

So, that’s what your excuses sound like.

LAME. Silly, actually.

Your team isn’t winning consistently, and you’ve got salespeople that consistently underperform. And you don’t practice?

Let’s go back to square one: You don’t get better at anything without practice.

So, here are 3 strategic steps to rapidly improving the performance in your sales department:

Step 1:  Outline a detailed sales process you can assess, teach, and replicate.

Edward Deming said, “If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” That said, most sales teams have little or no organized approach to selling. They don’t have a process that takes a salesperson from one end of the sales funnel to the other.

How you identify and acquire prospects, qualify them, discover their needs, differentiate yourself, build relationships, make solution presentations, win opportunities, and implement your solution are all critical aspects of the sales process. Inside of that macro process are many opportunities to succeed or fail.

Step 2:  Figure out the mission-critical skills and activities for each step in the process.

The next obvious step is to know and understand what skills a particular salesperson needs to develop in order to succeed. In football, it’s blocking and tackling. Throwing and catching. And footwork. And a dozen other things, each depending on your position on the field.

But, until you determine what critical skills and activities create success (or become sources of failure) for your salespeople, you won’t know what needs to be practiced.

Step 3: Finally, make role-play and practice of those critical skills a habit.

Right about here is where the concept of practice becomes important. It should become a consistent habit.

But you’ll be shocked at how much people hate it. You’ll also be shocked at how much they improve. Ultimately, people embrace the concept, because improved sales performance is the proof that hammers home the point.

When I started in sales, my first boss made it very clear: I would be able to demonstrate to him that I could adequately present our products before I went into the field to represent the company. Oh, and the clock is ticking. You’ve got a certain amount of time to do so. If you can’t, we just can’t use you.

Role play is tough. No question. It will test your mettle. But either you can or you can’t – and if you can’t, “we just can’t use you” (Translation: you’ll get the opportunity to try your luck elsewhere).

Are you seriously trying to convince me that you are stellar in front of prospects, but you can’t present your product in front of the boss because you’re embarrassed? Or, you don’t like criticism?

And you’re in SALES?

Sales is the ultimate one-on-one game AND it’s the ultimate team game. To win consistently, to outperform your competition, you MUST practice.

I have yet to meet the sales team that practices role play that doesn’t outperform the competition. Not surprisingly, I never see an average sales team practicing.


Oh, by the way. Do you struggle to get rid of under-performing salespeople?

Maybe you should just ask them to role-play. That should make it a lot easier.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”