Great Sales Performers Are Made Not Born - Part 5

In Part 4 of this series we shared the secret sauce of sales performance came down to one key factor. Specifically that of the studies in all of the fields, the factor that explained the most (not everything) about expert performance was the quality and quantity of practice. We also shared The Five Steps to Mastery, captured in the acronym S.P.A.C.E.

In this post let’s look at S.P.A.C.E more closely. Then we’ll examine some of the implications for continually growing sales by continually growing your salespeople.

Create the SPACE for Improvement

Simplify (and Sequence): Develop mastery 5% at a time.

Deliberate practice is designed to improve a specific skill, attitude, or behavior. For instance, deliberate practice for a musician would not usually include playing the entire piece. It would focus on one particular passage in the piece or on a specific technique that relates to playing that passage or passages like it. Once that passage was acquired, the next would be added, then the next (Sequence). Then several passages would be combined. Eventually the entire piece would be performed.

A chess player wouldn’t practice an entire game - s/he would practice a particular position or phase of the game, and perhaps break that down even further. An athlete wouldn’t practice the entire event, but rather some small portion of it. Likewise in sales, deliberate practice wouldn’t focus on the entire sales cycle, or even one major phase such as closing; it would take the objectives of one phase of the sales cycle, break it down into the key skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to successfully execute that phase, and then design a practice for that specific

The sales success system defines the whole, the big picture. Deliberate practice defines a very specific and focused portion of the whole, commits it to mastery, and then moves on to the next ability.


Combine quality practice with massive repetitions.

No practice, no progress. Or said positively, people progress in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of their practice.

Practice Quality

In the beginning, it is almost always more beneficial if the deliberate practice exercise is designed by an expert. The expert understands the big picture, the most helpful sequence of practice events, and how to most appropriately construct each exercise, as well as providing illuminating feedback that would otherwise not be available. As an individual climbs the ladder of expertise and gains more familiarity with deliberate practice, they can design more of their own exercises.

… in almost any field: Decades or centuries of study have produced a body of knowledge about how performance is developed and improved, and full­time teachers generally possess that knowledge. At least in the early going, therefore, and sometimes long  after,  it’s almost always necessary for a teacher to design the activity best suited to improve an  individual’s  performance.

… people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view.

It’s apparent why becoming significantly good at almost anything is extremely difficult without the help of a teacher or coach, at least in the early going. Without a clear, unbiased view of the subject’s performance, choosing the best practice activity will be impossible.

Part of the quality design is to stretch the practitioner - just not too far. If deliberate practice is too easy, if it focuses on what you are already comfortable with, no growth happens. If it is too difficult, you can become discouraged and quit (and there are likely ways to break what is “too difficult” into smaller portions).

Well-­designed practice is mentally demanding. It works the brain muscle similar to how a bodybuilder strengthens a body muscle. “The chief constraint is mental, regardless of the field …the required concentration is intense …” Thus, part of the stretch is the willingness to engage in something that is not always fun, not always what you would want to be doing.

The good news is that the benefit of those “stretches” is cumulative. When a particular stretch shows an immediate benefit with clients, it is motivation to take the next stretch. This process is sometimes called the multiplier effect:

The concept of the multiplier effect is embedded in the fundamental theory of deliberate practice. Part of the way it works as first explained by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues is that a beginner’s skills are so modest that he or she can manage only a little bit of deliberate practice since it’s highly demanding. But that little bit of practice increases the person’s skills, making it possible to do more practice, which increases the person’s skill level more.

A very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages

Key to the “stretch but not too far” approach is understanding that performance grows in predictable stages. We move up the ladder of expertise rung by rung. Skipping stages is not an option, though we may move through them more quickly based on the quality and quantity of deliberate practice. “There is no evidence of a fast track for high achievers.”  Typical stages are:

The Ladder of Expertise.png

Quantity of Practice

Just as in retail and real estate where there is no substitute for good location, with deliberate practice there is no substitute for repetition. Repetition, combined with reflection and reinforcement (see below), leads to mastery. The practice sessions should be designed with repetition in mind. A high number of repetitions should be expected by the practitioner and required of them by the coach/mentor.

High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.

A study of violinists, later shown valid in other fields, established conclusively the link between number of repetitions and expertise. “One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.”

If you want to improve, you need to practice. Period. The more you practice, the better you’ll be (assuming well-­constructed practice). And if salespeople aren’t practicing they are not improving.

Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity in the learning zone. The other is the amount of repetition. Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.

Apply: develop conscious competence before, during, and after every real-­‐life experience.

If repetition is the fuel of improved performance, reflection is a turbo boost. Research has demonstrated that people who reflect on their practice performance (and actual performance) before, during, and after each event do far better that people who practice or perform without specific reflection. People who reflect before, during, and after outperform those who reflect only before, or only after, or only during.

Before: Preview

What do I want to accomplish with this specific exercise or application? How does this component fit into the bigger picture? How will I practice or apply? How will I know what’s working and what isn’t?

… the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome - win the order; close out my positions at a profit; get the new project proposal done.

The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome…. Best performers are focused on how they can get better at some specific element of the work…. They’re thinking of exactly, not vaguely, how to get to where they’re going.

During: Calibrate

How am I doing? What’s working? What’s not? How effective is this practice method, or how effectively am I applying this skill?

As humans, we have the ability to engage in a task and, at the same time, have a part of ourselves that can mentally step outside of the activity and act as a witness, or an observer. We can observe ourselves, the task or activity, and the others involved. This observant quality (sometimes called metacognition), like most abilities, can be improved with deliberate practice. As our observant awareness increases, we can better calibrate both our performance and its effect on others.

While building our capacity forreal-­time observation, it can be very helpful to have another person perform the role of observer for us.

The most important self-­regulatory skill that top performers use during their work is self-observation…. The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step  outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going.

For instance, when a customer raises a completely unexpected problem  in a deal or negotiation, an excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his or her own mental process as if from outside.

After: Review

How did I do? What will I do next time?

Top performers learn to make better distinctions about how to improve. Because they have more specific and focused performance goals, and because they are paying close attention to what happens as they perform, they tend to make better after-­‐performance judgments about what needs to improve.

Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-­based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Top performers hold themselves to higher standards of performance — not only in the stretch goals they set, but also by how they choose to measure their success afterwards.

Excellent performers judge themselves differently from the way other people do. They’re more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies … the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison (for review) that stretches you just beyond your current limits.

Importantly, top performers take personal responsibility for what didn’t work, rather than attribute mistakes or poor performance or less-­than-­‐optimal performance to outside factors.

Whereas failure, slight or dramatic, causes average performers to bail out, it motivates top performers to  adapt, change,  and  improve.

Reflection before, during, and after is a virtuous cycle. When the performance activity is focused and specific with a clear image of how it will be achieved it increases the acuity of self observation during the performance. When self observation improves it allows for better understanding during review of what needs to improve and how. Better understanding of how to improve is input into the next “Before” session. And performance improves.


Get continual feedback from an expert/coach/mentor on how to keep getting better.

Directed action, combined with feedback from the coach, captures the essence of deliberate practice… the transfer (of deep smarts) will never take place without a willing, skillful coach and a receptive, able learner.

Given that we are looking to stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone, we typically need someone else who is well versed in that stretch to guide our improvement. They can help us diagnose and design a program of improvement (before); if available, they can observe us during our performance (during); and importantly, they can give us critical feedback about our performance that we cannot give to ourselves (after). Top performers have teachers/coaches/mentors to help them move up the ladder of expertise.

Both simulations and direct experience are of limited used without performance feedback … experience without some guidance is ad hoc and inefficient.

Deep smarts grow out of practice, but not simple repetition. Deliberate practice adds reflection and mindfulness to the act of repeating a skill. But guided practice adds the experience and skill of a coach to help the learner reflect on his or her performance, and to provide feedback on that performance…. Observation with reflection and guidance is an underutilised mode of transferring knowledge.

The ability to have a coach or mentor work with you is greatly aided by recent advancements in virtual technology. Coaches and learners can see each other and get all the visual cues they would see if they were there in person (same time, different place). Learners can record practice sessions and have them reviewed later (different time, different place).

In large organisations, having a coach for each individual is usually not practical. However, giving a coach to a sales leader has great leverage. Instead of the sales leader just going through a one-­or two-­day program on coaching, they also get a coach to work with them for as long as it remains high impact - you coach the coaches. Each sales leader can then affect 5, 10, or more salespeople.

Further leverage is gained when all the practice routines are available online and the sales leaders are provided with “playbooks” laying out how to SPACE the improvement of the people with whom they work.


Push the envelope on how to get better at this skill.

Getting really good at something is fun and rewarding. It can often prompt people to search out more depth of expertise or to share their expertise with others. Salespeople who create SPACE, particularly with acute self observation before, during, and after, begin to make new distinctions about what works and what doesn’t. There is a saying: “If you want to learn, teach.” When they share their new observations with others, or take the time to articulate them well enough to teach others, both learner and teacher benefit.

In our next post we'll recap the S.P.A.C.E model and consider how much you actually need to practice to sustainably improve your performance. 


Throughout his long and distinguished career, Mahan Khalsa has been dedicated to helping people get significantly better at sales, and he continues to be instrumental in pushing the envelope on the mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets that make getting better both real and never-ending, both for individuals and for organisations.

Mahan is co-­author of Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship. He is the founder of the Sales Performance Practice at FranklinCovey and the originator of the Helping Clients Succeed body of work, employed by many of the world's top companies and taught in more than 40 countries and 10 languages. Mahan has worked directly with clients to help create and capture billions of dollars of value - and to do so in ways that lead to greater trust, better relationships, and increased future value.

Mahan has three key beliefs that drive his passion - personally, and with colleagues and clients. The first, garnered from his extensive research in the science of expert performance, is that everything you need to know to be great at sales is learnable - you just have to be willing. Second, the amount you can learn and the degree to which you can improve is infinite. Third, what you learn to be great at sales contributes immensely to who you want to be as a human being.

Follow this link to learn more about FranklinCovey Sales Performance Solutions or contact Ian J Lowe via

Credits: Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-­Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group, 2008).

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Dorothy Leonard, Walter C. Swap, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom

Image Credit: 300 Movie, 2006, Warner Bros