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Self-Improvement - What Sales People Can Learn from Athletes

Posted by Pasquale Acampora on 02-Feb-2015 09:00:00

Self_ImprovementThe world of Sales is full of comparisons with Sport. That’s OK because we are the athletes of the business world, always pushing ourselves to go higher, further, faster. I want to look at some real lessons Sales Professionals can learn from Sports People. I work in Sales and Sports Training so the examples I talk about are from real life.

I wrote this blog following a conversation between my colleague Phil Kreindler and the US Sales Manager of a global chemical company. The Sales Manager said “I have 16 Sales People spread across the country and I see each of them working with customers no more than twice a year. That isn’t much for coaching and feedback. That’s why I’m interested in what triggers self-improvement.”

This is a good question because a lot of Sales Transformation Programs put great emphasis on coaching by managers. But what if the manager doesn’t have enough time to coach, what if he has 20 other number 1 priorities, what if management coaching is simply not feasible? How can the adoption of new competencies and skills be triggered through self-improvement regardless of management coaching?

Passion and Self-Improvement

I want to talk about Passion, The Big Why, Dreams & Goals, Strengths & Weaknesses, Learning from Failure and Action Plans.

The best Athletes and the best Sales People are passionate. Passionate people are the ones who are best at improving themselves. Passion is the gasoline that powers Self-Improvement, so I always ask people why they love what they do.

The Big Why

Everyone has to have a Big Why. Athletes want to be the best at their sport, to represent their country, to make their family proud or to get away from a poor background. Sales people are the same, they want to excel at what they do, become Sales Directors, prove something to their friends or make enough money to give their kids what they never had.

As well as the Big Why I get people to dig deep and think about all their Whys. I don’t stop until they give me 20 or 30 reasons why they are passionate about what they do. I do this because these Whys give you the energy to continuously improve oneself and to keep you going in difficult times.

Dreams & Goals

If passion is the gasoline that keeps the car going, Dreams are the steering wheel that points you where you want to go. I work with a very talented 18-year-old soccer player, his Dream is simple. He wants to play for Italy in the World Cup Final and win, and I want to be in that stadium when he does. But he needs short term Goals to aim at this season so he is aiming to play in at least 75% of the games for his club, score 10 goals with 7 assists and improve his passing and dribbling. Next season he can set new, higher goals.

A Sales Professional may have a Dream to be the Sales Director. But his Goals need to be more short term like meeting his annual quota and closing 10 big deals in the next 6 months.

Strengths & Weaknesses

How do you achieve your Goals? Look at your Strengths and Weaknesses. You need to leverage your Strengths and deal with your Weaknesses. For athletes it’s usually easy to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, they have coaches to tell them and my soccer player can watch himself on video recordings, work out what he did wrong and work on those weaknesses.

For the Sales Professional it can be harder, there is no video playback of a Sales meeting. But you can record your telephone conversations. I know my colleague Enrico who, despite many years of Sales success is highly motivated to improve himself, records his telephone calls and reviews them critically. This brings me to another key characteristic of people who are good at improving themselves – self-reflection.

We all know about the athletes who blame the referee when they don’t win. And we all know Sales Professionals who blame the price, internal politics, unfair competition – in fact anything but their own performance – if they lose a deal. It’s only people with high levels of self-reflection who can acknowledge they under performed and go on to do better.

Learning from Failure

There are few more successful Sportsmen than Michael Jordan and this is what he says about learning from failure.

I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

It is exactly the same for Sales Professionals. For self-reflective Sales People failure is a starting point to learn, the rest use the “excuse box” and say “it’s not my fault”.

The Win/Loss interview

For Sales People, a Win/Loss interview to identify personal strengths and deficits should be part of every Sales Process. Infoteam has done research and found that fewer than 7% of all Sales people regularly conduct an interview with the customer to identify deficits in their sales process after losing a pitch. This is a huge missed opportunity and results in mistakes being repeated. You can learn from the pitches you win and the ones you lose.

An Action Plan

Once you have identified your Dreams & Goals and your Strengths & Weaknesses you need an action plan and stick to it – which takes a lot of self discipline. My soccer player spends an extra half an hour before and after his normal training practising passing and dribbling. His objective is to reach ‘unconscious competence’ which means he does the right thing without thinking about it, which makes it much harder for the opposing player to guess what he is about to do.

I understand that it’s harder to practice Selling. For Sales people two of the most important improvement areas are asking questions and listening to the answers. Inexperienced Sales people don’t know how to ask questions well and experienced ones often don’t listen properly to the answers - they have heard them all before. A good basic technique to practice is writing your questions and the answers down. It helps to improve the quality of your questions and reduces the temptation to interrupt or ignore what the customer is saying.

Whatever you want to improve, make an action plan, keep it simple and stick to it. Then go back after a set period and review what progress you have made. 

Ask yourself these questions

  1. Do you know what you want to improve?

  2. Do you have an action plan for each improvement area?

  3. Do you learn from failures or use the excuse box?

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