The Code for Growing Exceptional Sales Talentt

I recently discovered a book by Daniel Coyle called, “The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born,  It’s Grown. Here’s How.

The author’s interest in the subject began when he noticed how there seemed to be talent hot-beds around the globe and wondered why they materialized there, and perhaps more importantly, why they didn’t materialize elsewhere.

What were the driving forces behind these talent hot-beds, places like a ramshackle tennis court in Moscow, a soccer field in São Paolo, a non-descript vocal studio in Dallas? While the types of talent in the book were mostly focused on sports, music, math I think it’s reasonable to expand the concept to growing sales talent.

The author specifically refers to “growing” talent, not “building” or “creating” because of the theory that repetitive use of connections in the brain (practice), causes cells to wrap layers of myelin around those connections. The more myelin that is grown around specific connections, the faster those connections fire. You grow myelin by specific, targeted practice.

While practice is the key to growing myelin and myelin translates to skill, not just any practice will do. What’s required to grow myelin and thus, exceptional talent, is something called deep practice.

Deep Practice involves slowing down and analyzing each step. You stop when an error occurs, practice that one skill until it is perfected, then continue. People learn by repeating, reassessing and “fixing” their skills through the use of immediate feedback and error-correction. This is far different from how most organizations grow their sales talent (or how individual salespeople tend to go about improving their skills). Neither instruction nor actual “doing” in front of real customers is enough. Relying on those methods will certainly improve your skill-set but you won’t become great because neither method involves the repetition of errors, correction, and perfection i.e. deep practice.

Allowing salespeople to conduct their deep practice in real-life sales situations is a little like sending student pilots up into the air to learn through deep practice. Neither will end very well. It’s not wise to follow an error-stop-correct-try-again approach in life-or-death or deal-or-no-deal scenarios. It’s the reason why flight simulators were created and why role-play tools like Allego and Brainshark were created.

You want salespeople to have a safe place to operate at the edge of their ability and that means role-playing.

Role Playing

Role-playing in a group environment is not typically a safe place. Think about what you are really saying or asking. Are you saying, “Let’s use this as an opportunity to work at the edge of our abilities.” Are you asking, “How can we learn as a group to perform at our best?” Perhaps if you’re working with people new to sales that is the case. But if your entire sales team is in one room, you can bet the experienced salespeople may not be willing to make mistakes or to take a trial and error approach while they’re on that very public hot seat.

The point of role-playing from the salesperson’s perspective (due to how it’s set up by managers) is to be judged for how well or how poorly they perform. In this type of role-playing environment, we avoid the mistakes as much as possible. We do our best not to look stupid. That’s unfortunate because for role-playing to really work, you must be willing to endure feeling stupid, or looking bad. You must welcome the stumbling and stammering because it’s the mistakes, in addition to the slow analysis, correction and repetition that builds skill. That’s what video role-play tools allow you to do.

Sales Talent

There are two types of talent. Skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are skills that require situational fluency and in turn require us to grow vast vine-like circuits that we can use to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics on the other hand are skills that depend on techniques that, when used with precision, allow us to recreate an ideal performance.

Selling requires the vast ivy of circuits because of the near infinite number of scenarios that could occur. Much like soccer, a player on the sales field responds to where the conversational ball was a second ago, where it is now, and where it may be heading. At the risk of upsetting soccer fans, selling is more difficult. In sales, the most effective approach is to not move the ball much yourself but rather to have the customer move the ball toward the goal for you. To do that, you have to know how to ask the right questions, ignite motivation, and instill confidence.

Deep Practice for Sales Talent like any other, should consist of three elements defined as “chunking.” Coyle writes, “In the talent hotbeds I visited, the chunking takes place in three dimensions. First, the participants look at the task as a whole, as one big chunk, the mega circuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn it’s inner architecture.”

There is also a very specific role for coaches which Coyle also describes in detail. He writes, “Master coaches aren’t like heads of state. They aren’t like captains who steer us across the unmarked sea, or preachers on a pulpit, ringing out the good news. Their personality–their core skill circuit–is to be more like farmers: careful, deliberate cultivators of myelin. They possess vast, deep frame-works of knowledge which they apply to the steady incremental work of growing skill circuits, which they ultimately don’t control.”

How much better would you be if you practiced a skill every day for one or two years?

Simply playing a sport or going on sales calls every day will not grow an exceptional talent. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how one of the greatest basketball players of our time, Stephen Curry, approaches practice. Did he get where he is because he showed up every day? Or because he had to do drills in front of others? No, he is the exceptional player he is because he engages in deep practice. See how he does it.

Imagine how much better you would be at selling if you practiced the skill every day for a year. What if you used chunking to break-down your performance and focused each element until it was error free. Here’s an example of what it looks like when a beginner deep practices table tennis every day for a year.

To start, dissect each sales call afterward looking for the mistakes or missteps. Did you miss an opportunity to dig deeper? Could a different response or question have resulted in a better outcome? But don’t stop there. Practice the correct response out loud until you get it just right. Think about how you could’ve helped the prospect think through it for themselves.

Managers and coaches, how can you help your salespeople deep practice every day? How can you create and encourage a culture of chunking performance to improve highly specific skills? The great news, as Coyle discovered, is that it doesn’t matter whether you have a shiny facility or shiny equipment. What matters is that you understand the code for growing exceptional talent. Any sales organization can become it’s own talent hot-bed. What will you do to be one of them?