How to really develop your sales skills!

collectif Published by Staff

if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that developing sales skills is one of our passions at Halifax Consulting. It’s our guiding purpose, in fact. Every year I read many business books on my own time and every now and then I discover a gem. PEAK (1), by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, is one of those!

It’s a gem of a book that describes in detail how to truly develop skills effectively. The authors don’t focus solely on sales skills—far from it—but that’s obviously the content that I tore through.

The book is jam-packed with information and I would never attempt to summarize it completely in a few lines. I really encourage you to pick it up.

I will, however, share with you the main insights I took away from it. I hope that it will make you want to take a hard look at your own practices to develop your skills or those of your salespeople.

When reading what follows, keep your mind on the pursuit of excellence and nothing else. That’s the goal described in the book.

Which, alone, is not sufficient.

First, the author notes that the most common approach for acquiring a skill is not enough to aim for and achieve excellence.

Here’s an example that demonstrates the classic approach:

  • One day you decide to learn how to play golf.
  • You start watching videos, read a book about the basics, and buy your first equipment.
  • Then you realize it’s a bit harder than it looks on television and in your book.
  • But you don’t give up. You take a few lessons.
  • Eventually, you reach an acceptable level—good enough to play a few rounds with your friends.
  • After that, you start playing regularly to keep up your game and maybe improve slightly.
  • And now you’ve risen to a decent level. You’re good enough.
  • You’re a reasonably good golfer and you’ll stay that way for the next 20 or 30 years. In fact, you’ve reached a level you’re happy with in terms of how much effort you’re prepared to put into your practice.
  • From this point on, the number of years of practice does not make a huge difference. 20 more years will only give you the equivalent of practicing for a year 20 times.

It’s a bit like driving. You’re not necessarily a better driver after 20 years than you were after your first year of driving.

This same phenomenon can also be seen in our work life. If they are not careful, a seller in the business for 20 years can have the same level of expertise as they did after their first years. The same goes for managers, by the way.

The first proposed resolution: sort out what you can leave in the “good enough” pile and what you need to improve upon on a continual basis.

Purposeful Practice for steady progress

The author presents Purposeful Practice as a means of getting past the “good enough” plateau. Regular practice of this type over a long period of time is the key to making significant progress.

Here are the key ingredients to this type of practice according to the authors. I’ll let you compare them to your own way of doing things.

Specific goals

Returning to the golf example, there is a substantial difference between “hitting balls” repetitively, without thinking, and “hitting balls under competition conditions with a competition-level routine and concentration.”

Purposeful Practice consists in splitting your end goal into smaller, intermediary steps that you can work on individually.

Maximum concentration

To clarify this point, the authors use the example of runners and swimmers, who often let their mind wander while training. There’s nothing more tempting than daydreaming during such a long, repetitive activity. The problem is that doing so is a lot less effective. The hours spent in the pool aren’t enough to achieve excellence. The authors cite the example of a champion swimmer who made real progress once she stopped letting her mind wander and started focusing on each stroke, to continually perfect all the minute details that affect performance. Obviously, you can only practice with this level of concentration for a limited amount of time. You can’t maintain 100% focus for hours.

That is why you need to practice purposefully within a set time frame: not too long, but with full attention from start to finish.

Systematically leaving your comfort zone

This is very important. Practicing what you already do well maintains your level but doesn’t lead to improvement. Purposeful Practice consists in attempting things that you have not yet mastered and/or trying to do them differently.

The authors hammer home their key idea: you make progress by continually leaving your comfort zone. They cite the example of the amateur pianist who took lessons for a decade and then played the same compositions for the 30 years that followed. He’s not a better pianist than he was 30 years ago. He may not even be as good as back then.

Purposeful Practice does not involve doing more of the same technique, but rather doing it differently and better to improve.

Quality feedback

The authors emphasize the importance of having a coach, mentor, or teacher to show you how to do things differently and reach new milestones. In general, making progress involves not just practicing more, but also practicing differently. That’s why it’s important to have a coach who can suggest different methods to take it up a notch and get past plateaus as you progress. The best will then help you achieve the level of maturity required to give yourself feedback on your own.

Purposeful Practice requires external or internal perspective to help you understand how to improve.

Sustained motivation over the long term

Motivation is another crucial point, because it’s what pushes you to continue working over time. And you need to be motivated to leave your comfort zone (which is uncomfortable!) for an extended period. Keeping up your motivation is easy in theory but much more difficult in practice.

Quality feedback and regular progress evaluations and updates serve as motivators that help you maintain the desire and energy needed for the constant battle of practicing outside your comfort zone.

So to review, Purposeful Practice consists in leaving your comfort zone with targeted goals and a training plan developed based on those goals, while maintaining long-term motivation.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice is the next step up, the ultimate level of skill development.

Here again, the authors provide many fascinating examples, which demonstrate how to turn Purposeful practice into Deliberate Practice. There are three complementary components on the path to excellence and expertise.

Identification and assimilation of best practices

Deliberate Practice involves pinpointing and assimilating the practices of the very best experts. Not every field is fortunate enough to have distinguished what separates the best from the rest. But when they have done so, and set specific training goals and provide quality feedback with that knowledge, training reaches an optimal level.

Progress goals and feedback should draw inspiration from the practices of top experts.

Develop the most extensive mental representations possible

The difference between the experts and the rest is that through years of practice, the former have gained the ability to imagine the various options in fine detail. That, in turn, makes them more effective at solving problems they encounter and mastering the highly specialized skills needed to excel in their field. The more extensive and more detailed your mental representations, the more you can come up with quick responses to the situations you encounter.

Modeling instincts, attitudes and methods suited to different situations is an ongoing pursuit that requires fledgling experts to constantly seek out potential alternatives.

Focus on hands-on training

Traditionally, teachers most often focus on knowledge. Even when the goal is to gain the ability to do something, the traditional approach involves providing information on the right technique and hoping that the student will be able to apply

 this knowledge. Deliberate Practice, on the other hand, has a quasi-obsessional focus on performance and how to improve it.

The coach needs to ask the right question: “What are you capable of doing?” rather than “What do you know?

That about sums up the key points of this fabulous book.

I hope that this will inspire you to step up your practices in training, coaching and developing sales skills. Today we not only know what needs to be done, we have tremendous tools for bringing out the best of these techniques in every training project.

Bibliography (1)PEAK – Secrets from the new science of expertise, Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, éd. Eamon Dolan / Mariner

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