The Anatomy of Expert Sales Performance
Experts, Journeymen, and Novices
Before we can go any further in our journey to expertise, we must first understand the structure of expert sales performance by addressing several key questions:
- Who can be deemed an expert and what standard should be used?
- What are the main components and skills that drive expert sales performance?
- How do experts become experts?
This chapter also serves as a glossary of sorts, where we define several key terms and concepts that are used throughout the book. The goal is to reduce doubt by level-setting key terms to maximize clarity. This understanding helps to give you a solid foundation to gain knowledge from Expert Selling.
The academic definition standard for expert suggests a world-class level performer. However, researchers on expertise in natural settings (e.g., business) tend to rely on the more practical definition of superior performer. In this context, an expert performer is someone who consistently performs better than other performers. A journeyman is characterized by a solid track record of experience with adequate skills and performance. Journeymen are your typical advanced performers who aspire to move to the expert level. Novice sellers have limited or no experience, basic skills, or a history of subpar sales results.
I am often asked, “Are the top producers always the experts?” Perhaps the top producer has the best territory, or maybe he is assigned the highest revenue accounts. Because of these and other factors, be careful not to equate results alone to expert performance. However, as you will discover later in this chapter, there’s a causal link between skill, performance, and results. Expertise is marked by consistent and overall performance excellence.
The use of the term expert tends to vary from industry to industry. Therefore, it is important to overlay your particular industry guidelines with the definitions just described. That being said, experts always know who they are. Award-winning blogger and entrepreneur Corbett Barr said it best: “You don’t have to be the world’s greatest expert. It’s about being expert enough to accomplish your goals.”
Our working definition of performance is to consistently execute a task well. The premise of this book’s focus is individual performance as opposed to organizational performance. Organizational performance includes internal environment factors that influence outcomes such as compensation systems, infrastructure, culture, and management. External factors, including the economy and competition, also play a role in organizational performance. Most salespeople work as part of a team that is connected to a company structure. Therefore, it’s important to understand how sales reps drive organizational performance, and likewise, how the organization’s work environment affects sales rep production.
We have learned now that personal and organizational performance affects the other, but how do they impact sales performance? To answer this question, we first must define sales performance. We can think of it as a structure of three cylinders—capability, execution, and results—as indicated in Figure 3.1.
Figure 3.1 The Anatomy of Expert Sales Performance
Capability: (Tacit) Knowledge, Skills, and Actions
The totality of a salesperson’s knowledge, skills, and actions (KSA) plus their effort determines capability. Knowledge is what you know, skill is how you perform, and actions equate to applying what you know to your work. The “A” in KSA also represents ability, which is marked by innate potential. KSAs cover a variety of sales-specific disciplines relative to job duties. To achieve a standard of success, many sales careers and roles require certain KSAs and experience. For example, a medical equipment sales position that markets high-end MRI machines might seek a more technically inclined salesperson. Therefore, people who are entering sales for the first time should target sales organizations with products that best suit their skillset. A formal skill assessment can be used to shed light on your KSA strengths and areas to improve. They can also help you decide on the right sales industry or product offering that’s right for you.
Whether it’s sales or another business segment, employees must acquire a basic KSA level to competently perform their jobs. Most of these skills are acquired from company-sponsored training activities; however, once basic competency has been achieved, sellers grow skills mostly through experience. Hence, expert sales performance is marked by tacit knowledge and situation awareness, built through implicit learning. Implicit skills are largely subconscious and the performer is often unaware of their presence or unable to express them. Although these skills may be hard to pinpoint, their impact on performance is unmistakable.
Consider a football quarterback and his role in leading his team to the winning touchdown. There are distinct differences in the few great quarterbacks who seem to make the right decision when it matters most. Many NFL quarterbacks have good arms and other athletic skills in general. For the most part, they are skilled enough to play well in most games. They call the play, know where the pass is designed to go, read the defense, and execute the pass to the receiver. But for the NFL quarterback, the window of expert advantage can be found within recognition skills and situation awareness. Can he make the right pass decision at the end of the game when every play is critical? The elite players develop the skills that allow them to quickly recognize the defensive coverage before and after the snap. Finally, a top quarterback executes the pass with accuracy by completing it for the game-changing play or winning touchdown. And by the way, these decisions are made in less than three seconds while a two-hundred-seventy-pound linebacker bears down on him from his blindside.
Throughout these high-pressure conditions, the top quarterbacks deliver this type of expert performance. When the game is on the line, their performance separates even more from other players. Top quarterbacks such as Tom Brady (New England Patriots) or Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers) are excellent examples of players who perform their best in the clutch moments of games. While most quarterbacks never make it to the Super Bowl, many of the top-tiered players have multiple championship appearances and wins.
People often relate tacit knowledge and situation awareness with natural talent or special gifts. To the contrary, research on expert performance reveals that a major difference in expert and typical performers is continual learning with progressive difficulty. Psychologists and learning experts describe the three stages of learning a new skill as (1) cognitive, (2) associative, and (3) autonomous. Let’s look at these stages in the context of learning to drive a car. The cognitive stage is expressed by forming a picture of the overall concept of driving (instruction, observation, and feedback). For instance, a novice driver reads the steps of driving in the driver handbook and observes a parent driving. The associative stage is represented by practicing the skills of driving (practice, refinement, and recognition of errors). Example: The novice driver practices driving with a parent or driving instructor and receives coaching. In the autonomous stage, the learner performs the skill automatically and with minimal effort (skill automaticity, self-correct errors, ability to focus attention on other cues within the environment). Example: A driver easily drives to her destination, while engaged in a conversation and drinking a bottle of water.
Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the research expert on expertise who was mentioned earlier in this book, asserts that experts continue to engage in the cognitive and associative stages of learning by developing increasingly complex representations to attain higher levels of controls over their performance. Lesser-skilled performers tend to remain in the autonomous stage (the third stage of learning), once the skill becomes easy to perform. Experts, however, continue to grow knowledge and skill through unique learning tasks, thereby increasing performance.
Deliberate Practice: How Experts Become Experts
Everyone knows that practice is important to improving skills; who hasn’t heard the old adage “practice makes perfect”? Practice in the most basic sense achieves the goal of transferring a skill for permanent use. But for expert performance, practice must have a stronger element of quality and intention. For example, a novice golfer might practice his game by going out and playing a round of golf. But the expert golfer, one of the greatest golfers in the world, practices much differently. He or she might take an entire day just working on one particular shot, such as a sand bunker chip shot. The expert hits the same shot over and over until muscle memory and execution is consistent. To add difficulty, they may change the ball’s lie or the angle of the shot in order to account for varying factors that could occur during an actual performance. Last, the expert’s practice is goal specific. Rather than just hit balls for a certain amount of time, he may hit hundreds of shots until one hundred of them are successful. Thus, we improve upon the old adage to say, “Practice makes permanent; deliberate practice makes perfect.”
The primary ingredient of expert performance can be can be traced to deliberate practice, a unique training method specifically designed to improve performance. Three tenets of deliberate practice include repetition, immediate feedback, and progressive difficulty. Usually directed by a skilled coach, it is most often applied in performance settings involving large amounts of practice such as sports and music. Hence, much of the research on deliberate practice has been focused on world-class athletes and top musicians, but in recent years it has also been applied in natural settings including business.
The obvious difference between athletes and musicians versus salespeople is the availability of practice time. Most professional sellers work eight or more hours a day, leaving little time for sharpening skills. That said, you should seek to carve out time for practice wherever possible. Whether rehearsing your presentation or polishing demo skills, practice helps to drive skill improvement. Even with limited time constraints, deliberate practice can help speed up skill improvement. In today’s fast-paced world, there are many distractions that manage to occupy our minds. But the right practice is worth the time because it produces a positive impact on performance.
Deliberate practice research has shown it to be a scalable activity based on frequency and duration. For instance, world-class athletes engage in the activity three to four hours a day, six days a week, and for ten years or more. However, many performers who fall into lower tiers still benefit from lesser amounts of deliberate practice.
Most salespeople want to improve performance to a level that allows them to achieve their goals and personal growth. They are less concerned with achieving world-class level in selling. But the better news is knowing that your KSA development can take you as far as you want to go.
Since professionals don’t have much time for extended practice, there’s been an effort to find other ways to learn while working. Experts Dr. Peter Fadde and Dr. Gary Klein define deliberate performance as an effort to increase domain expertise while engaged in routine work activity. If you replace the word domain with sales, you have the definition of Performance-Based Learning® (PBL). PBL sales activities will be covered in more depth in section three. For now, we will focus on the framework of deliberate practice and performance, which are the key drivers to systematic improvement of selling KSAs. Figures 3.2 and 3.3 depict the key elements of deliberate practice and deliberate performance, respectively.
Figure 3.2 Key Elements of Deliberate Practice Figure 3.3 Elements of Deliberate Performance
Deliberate practice training coupled with PBL during routine work hastens connecting skills improvement. Now that we’ve examined the KSA components’ selling capability, we turn our focus to effort and execution.
Effort: We Know a Lot More Than We Do
During the 2000s I worked with a very good salesperson who for the sake of her privacy I will call “Jane.” In reviewing sales reports, I noticed Jane’s sales production was down significantly. In prior years up until that point, she was very successful with Pitney Bowes. Although Jane was still able to do her job and achieve her sales quota, the volume of her sales revenue was down by 40 percent. I decided to set up a meeting with her to help identify and solve the problem. This meeting evolved into multiple meetings over several days. Even though I had a very good professional relationship with Jane, she became defensive when we discussed the potential reasons for her drop in performance. She blamed the CRM system and other departments and even pointed the finger at her sales manager for her shortfalls.
Eventually, Jane shared with me what was going on. It turned out that because of personal family reasons, she was unable to make more than one or two sales calls per week. To my surprise, I learned that this had been going on for over a year, matching her decline in performance. I reminded Jane that great skill with low activity will produce only modest results at best. Simply put, while excellent selling skills are essential to success, there is no substitute for the value of effort. Selling at a high level requires engagement in many activities. These can include making calls, learning from experiences, engaging customers and internal colleagues, and developing skills. The list goes on further. Professional selling is not easy by any stretch, but one essential factor of success is giving your best effort every day.
A notable contrast can be observed between salespeople who work hard and those who work but tend to waste valuable selling time. The sales culture is deadline driven. Therefore, sales reps who misuse time are less productive. For instance, in sales offices or retail stores, sellers often interact and socialize. But timewasters tend to continue these conversations for much too long. They work on paperwork for hours or strike up personal conversations that erode time that could otherwise be used to advance the sale. Many sellers now operate out of home offices. Yet time is wasted on phone calls or on other non-selling activities.
Let me premise my next statement with this: Top producers are not always the hardest workers. But by and large, the most consistent top producers tend to work very hard. Contrary to timewasters, productive reps are acutely aware of what we call optimum selling time (OST). In most B2B sales, OST is between eight a.m. to noon and one p.m. to four p.m. In the retail space, OST might apply to the weekend shift and evenings. The idea is to maximize OST for customer interactions. Unlike timewasters, productive sellers act as if they have an OST clock in their head—a fierce sense of urgency. They set personal rules on using their time wisely and can even get antsy if you hold them up for long. Simply put, they work hard and they work smart, and they never waste time.
In sum, top producers aren’t top producers simply because of skill alone. They learn to leverage skill by applying it in more situations. Thus, expertise is formed not through mere experience but through experiences. Effort drives the selling activities, which become your experiences. This does not mean that more is always best, but it’s important to do enough of the right activities every day. Thus, effort plays an essential role in the execution of expert sales performance.
Moving from Effort to Passion
Have you ever noticed that successful people seem to have very high levels of motivation? Are they born with this burning drive to get up early and work fourteen-hour days? While conclusive evidence is lacking, several theories have emerged that offer some explanation. Some believe that top achievers are driven by success, rewards, and recognition. Many psychologists point to innate talents or environmental factors such as family upbringing when describing what is known as achievement motivation.
Frankly, I think Geoff Colvin nailed it in his book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else when he said, “We simply don’t know.” But whether it comes through praise from parents and admirers or through the realization of success, passion and expert performance seem to feed off the other. My hypothesis is that passion is closely related to performance achievement. Outstanding performance fuels the desire to continue to excel to even higher heights.
Consider LeBron James, arguably the best basketball player in the NBA. By winning the NBA Championship back to back, he finally answered his critics who questioned whether he could win multiple championships. But as you will see from the upcoming excerpt from a LeBron interview, he remains focused on getting better. The following interview was done six days after winning his second NBA title:
“It’s something that I want again. Because the time goes fast. We won it Thursday night, and we’ve already had the parade.… I want to be able to win another championship because it’s the best feeling in the world. I want it…”
Success can be a vicious cycle, but the passionate drive to succeed is quite common in the world of top performers.
Everyone can relate to the idea of gradually building momentum of motivation through incremental successes. For example, recently my doctor told me that I needed to lose weight because my blood glucose levels had approached the pre-diabetes level. I was told that if I did not make changes in my habits, my health could be at risk. First of all, the mere mention of the word diabetes scared the daylights out of me. My doctor suggested that I lose twenty pounds in six months. I had always been a reasonably healthy person, so it was a bit of a shock to discover that I now had to change my diet and get more active. I decided to make changes to my eating habits and commit to running four times a week. I knew the diet would be the hardest thing because I’m a guy who likes his sweets, but after working out and changing my diet for just a couple of weeks, I weighed myself and saw that I had lost six pounds! This measurable result motivated me to do even better. I began to intensify my workouts and even started counting calories to meet my goal. After only a month, I lost ten pounds. I was excited and feeling better physically. In just over two months, I lost the entire twenty pounds. I decided to stop by my doctor’s office and let him know that I had done it! My second round of blood tests showed that my glucose levels were back to within normal range.
In my case, stepping on the scale and seeing the pounds drop represented evidence of achievement. This in turn spurred me to continue and follow my commitment to living a healthier lifestyle. It was simple; a weight loss goal was set by my doctor, I noticed progress, my drive became stronger to achieve and exceed the goal. In many ways, passion and expert performance is remarkably like the chicken and the egg—you may not know which came first, but you certainly know that one comes from the other.
So far, we have defined the key elements of KSAs and performance capability; now we will discuss execution, which relates to effective action. Execution is the act of applying the skills to the specific activities needed for success. In this context, we assume that the organizational factors are supportive and free of toxic inhibitors. All things being typical, excellent sales KSAs and great effort drive the desired actions.
How can salespeople execute more effectively? Although it will vary in different selling industries, execution boils down to consistently performing the basics well. Experts in many domains seem to have the ability to deliver the right performance at the right time.
Preparation plays a key role in performance capability. Whether it be practice for an expert musician or an executive in business planning, we know that experts prepare to perform at the highest levels.
Another important factor in execution involves attentionality, which relates to laser focus during performance. To understand attentionality, we first discuss the effects of the wrong attentions. Consider a basketball team that is trying to win every game by thinking about winning. As each game unfolds, players focus on scoring more points than the opponent, but their play suffers. When the star player thinks of making the game-winning shot, he misses it. Sports science and all good basketball coaches will tell you that this type of results-oriented mindset can be toxic to the players’ play.
Great teams use attentionality to win. For example, they focus on making the right passes, getting more rebounds, and making their free throws. The team narrows its focus on its play, not the desired results. These performance principles are applied in natural settings as well. During an operation, the expert surgeon doesn’t think of the patient’s full recovery, she concentrates on removing the tumor and preparing for any potential adverse situations. As such, selling at a high level requires a heightened awareness of the selling-execution process rather than result outcomes. To put it simply, experts focus on the aspects within their control rather than the outcomes they cannot.
Last, superior performance is driven through progressive improvement. Selling experts identify the most critical parts of their skills, then create a plan to improve them. The performance process includes preparation, pinpointed focus, and progressive improvement carried out daily. This success routine fosters automaticity, but is occasionally disrupted with new learning to avoid arrested development (AD). In short, sales performance is made up of several interacting parts—KSAs, effort, and execution that drive performance results. These parts have a direct link to sales results, which we will cover next.
Causal Linkage to Results
As we’ve discussed, capability, effort, and execution are all within the span of control of the seller to execute and improve. Let’s use the example of Cindy, a B2B sales rep in the software sector. Cindy can improve her KSAs through training, practice, experience, and observing other performers. Of course, she controls her own effort as well. She gets up each day, plans her work, and does what is necessary to produce results. While outside influences can affect her motivations, it’s Cindy’s personal choice to work hard and be her best every day.
But what about the results? Are we able to control the outcomes and results in the same manner as we can control our capability and efforts? The answers may vary depending on the circumstances. Perhaps golfers or Olympic swimmers have the ultimate control over their results compared to salespeople whose success in part depends on many other factors and players. But even golfers can hit the ideal shot or play the hole perfectly, only to have another player do it even better. In other words, golfers or swimmers may be able to control their own results to an extent, but the outcomes are still subject to outside factors.
Coaches understand that there are games in which the team may play well but still lose and conversely, there are games where the team may not play well and win. They know that the odds are stronger on the side of winning when the players focus on execution and playing their best.
Perhaps in sales this principle is even more meaningful and appropriate given the relative weight placed on results. Business executives, managers, and sales professionals often have their job security and income tied to their performance. I used to always greet my new-hire sales training classes with a big smile and say, “You decided to get into sales because there is no ceiling to your income, right?” All the heads would nod and big grins would appear. Then I’d say, “But guess what? There’s also no floor!” As looks of shock replaced the smiles, I would inform them that our goal was to ensure that they stayed closer to the ceiling than the floor. My little icebreaker achieved its point of garnering the class’s attention, but truth be told, it’s a fact that earnings are the holy grail of selling.
Sales Results and Metrics: Evidencing Expertise
There are typically three result-based metrics that are paramount to any sales professional: sales quota, sales revenue growth, and sales profit margins. While these fall under the category of quantitative results, most organizations also measure qualitative metrics such as conversion rates, customer satisfaction, and customer retention, to name a few. Results reflect the end goal and the primary reason that sales forces exist. Companies are driven to make a profit. Achieving top-line revenue is the first step in attaining overall profit objectives. Of course, good companies must also manage expenses to optimize profits from their revenues. Growth metrics are used by many organizations to drive long-term success. No matter how much you sell in a given year, you get to try and repeat it the following year! In fact, many organizations now include growth elements within sales quotas. Results metrics are a reflection of sales performance outcomes. Understanding the elements that affect performance gives you knowledge to adjust your personal actions to impact results.
Performance Consistency: There Are No Trophies Given Out at Halftime
OK, we now know that capability plus effort drives results. Therefore, expert capability plus high effort creates outstanding performance. The reason we can say this with confidence is that the common unit of business performance measurement is one year. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said it best: “If you make the effort to do the best you can, regularly, the results will be about what they should.” Certainly, no one can question Coach Wooden’s results: ten national titles in twelve years, including seven in a row.
Although salespeople are measured monthly, or quarterly, the most important timeframe is the fiscal year. In most sales settings, the element of time acts as a great regulator. When a seller with good KSAs and effort executes for the year, his results tend to match his performance. By using a shorter time range, such as monthly or quarterly, more exceptions will occur. Put another way, in any given month, any capable seller can generate good results. On the flip side, a consistent performer may have an off month or two during the year; this happens to everyone. However, in sales, time has a funny way of autocorrecting the numbers. By year’s end, more often than not, your results will line up to your performance. Read More Expert Selling on Amazon.com