Great Sales Performers Are Made Not Born - Part 2

In Part 1 of this series we asked as organisations - small, medium, large, or mammoth - what could we do differently to change the game and improve sales results? In Part 2 we take a look at the first of four key steps we can take.

Step 1: Four Steps to Consistently Grow Sales by Consistently Growing Your Salespeople

We’ll list the four steps, talk about them at a high level, and then go into each in more detail.

The Four Steps:

  1. Commit to a sales success system (mindsets, skillsets, toolsets).

  2. Use training as part of a process and not a standalone event.

  3. Engage in an ongoing process of deliberate practice designed and implemented by experts.

  4. Build a supportive environment.

Step 1 is not a revolutionary insight; it’s a necessary jumping-­off point. Step 2 starts creating distance between what people do and what they need to do. Step 3 is the real secret sauce of continually improving performance - and not a well-known or well-­executed secret. And Step 4 is what is necessary for a number of people to improve rather than one or a few individuals. To obtain the desired results, apply all four steps together.

As you read through the four steps, we would like you to mentally test the following hypothesis: Anyone of reasonable intelligence can become a great sales performer if they are willing to practice.

Step 1: Commit to a sales success system.

We use the phrase “sales success system.” We could just as well say, and be comfortable with, sales methodology or sales framework or sales model. You can do a mental search and replace if one of those terms works better for you.

A sales success system helps you organise and understand your experience. It clearly spells out what you believe works and doesn’t work in creating more sales today in a way that will create even more sales in the future. Being explicit about these beliefs allows you to test them against the marketplace. When you get the results you want, you can reinforce, reward, and repeat what works. 

When you do not get the results you want, you can find out why. Is it because salespeople aren’t applying the system? If so, increase application. Is it because they are applying the system, yet not doing it well? If so, increase the level of execution. Is it because they are applying the system well and it’s not working? If so, reevaluate and change the system.

None of us is exempt from the possibility that what we hold to be truth is, in fact, a belief, an assumption - and one that can be contradicted by experience … in the best of all worlds, managers create an environment where beliefs and assumptions are routinely challenged, because dissenting views are almost always useful.

… of the defining traits of great performers: They all possess large, highly developed, intricate mental models of their domains.
— Dorothy Leonard, Walter C. Swap, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2005)

For anyone, a rich mental model contributes to great performance in three major ways:

  1. A mental model forms the framework on which you hang your growing knowledge of your domain.

  2. A mental model helps you distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information. Example: distinguishing facts from problems and evidence from the description of the situation.

  3. Most important, a mental model enables you to project what will happen next. A mental model is never finished. Great performers not only possess highly developed mental models, they are also always expanding and revising those models

There are several sales systems on the market with a sound track record and passionate advocates. And yet, not all would appeal to you equally. Here are some considerations for selecting one that is a good fit for you personally and as a cornerstone of how you want to grow your business. We liberally use the word “should” below, knowing full well we are expressing our strongly substantiated opinions and beliefs rather than absolute truths.

The sales success system should resonate in your mind, your heart, and your gut.

Mind: To be a great sales performer requires sound business intelligence (IQB). Your system should display intellectual rigor, be founded in research, promote good critical thinking skills, and push you to develop your business acumen. It should help you identify and communicate how economic value is created in a process, function, business unit, organisation, market niche, industry, or economy. 

It should encourage you to articulate and test key assumptions and beliefs; to seek evidence and data to support actions; to recognize and push through lazy thinking from you and from others.

Heart: To be a great sales performer requires advanced emotional intelligence (EQ). Your system should lead you closer to the person you are and want to be, not further away. It should give you practical skills to convert your top-­‐priority values into everyday sales dialogues. It should steadily increase your ability to interact successfully with a wide variety of human beings — with differing styles of personality, learning, thinking, communicating, and decision making.

It should make relationship building something you can do on purpose rather than experience simply by happenstance. You and those with whom you work should feel as good about the journey as you feel about the destination.

Gut: To be a great sales performer requires courage and discipline (XQ). You need to face and surmount fears - your own and those of others; to prioritise and execute the few “must do's” rather than stay busy with the many “could do's”; to take difficult action when there are many other things you’d rather do; to practice and push ahead while others are content with the status quo; to skillfully push back when things don’t make sense. The courage and discipline to focus, to execute, and to eliminate the unnecessary should be part and parcel of your system.


The sales success system should have a good balance of what to and how to.

Some systems are very process oriented. They do an excellent job of spelling out the milestones in the sales process and describing what you need to accomplish at each step. They are often far less rich in developing the specific skills, attitudes, and behaviors that make you better at what you need to accomplish. They are more what to and less how to. It doesn’t take too long before you know what to and the differentiators become more about how to.

At the other end of the spectrum are providers of skill sets that are powerful, yet not incorporated into a repeatable methodology. Such providers often feel their particular skill set is mission critical - it could be a skill like establishing rapport, relating to differing personality types, effective use of language for questioning and persuasion, presentation skills, or negotiation tactics. Yet no matter how important and impactful a particular ability, it is still just one among many critical pieces of a larger puzzle.

A good sales success system integrates solid what to with expert how to.

The sales success system should balance simplicity and sophistication.

When smart, experienced people build systems, they tend to make them thorough, complete, and capable of addressing a wide range of possible situations. Unfortunately, in most circumstances, the more complete the system, the less it will be used. We see it all the time - people get overwhelmed and burdened by the amount of detail; they come to resent it and resist it, rather than be enabled by it.

A great deal of research substantiates that humans can hold somewhere between five to nine units of information in short-­‐term memory, with “5 ± 2” being the general rule. So when you have systems with 20 key steps, or 14 milestones, or 12 critical functions, or 9 boxes, you exceed what people can easily carry around in their head. They don’t have the big picture easily available in dialogues with clients and they have to go back to a computer to remember the steps and start filling in the details.

Experts in any field operate with the same “5 ± 2” units as novices, yet each unit, or chunk, holds a lot more information. The key is to have a model that is simple to grasp at a high level (5 ± 2 big chunks) yet is increasingly sophisticated as you drill down. It is helpful if each more-­detailed level can have five or fewer chunks and so on. Acronyms or other memory devices can help increase ease of retention and organisation.

If a system is not sophisticated, it won’t make a difference. If it is not easy to assimilate and apply, it won't be used. A good system should consciously balance the two.

Ideally, the sales success system should be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Many sales success systems are like schools of martial arts. Each thinks it is superior to its perceived rivals. Not only is one kung-fu style superior to other kung fu styles; kung fu is superior to tae kwan do, or jujitsu, boxing, wrestling, aikido, and kickboxing. Yet in mixed martial arts competitions, where competitors are free to use any combination of disciplines (within some defined rules), those with advanced skills in multiple disciplines tend to outperform those even exceptionally skilled in just one.

As mentioned above, it is usually more effective to first master one sales success system that resonates than to dabble in many systems and take “a few good ideas” from each. At the same time, you will be better served if the system you choose actively validates and encourages the use of strengths from other systems (obviously with proper attribution). You will likely hire salespeople who have experience with one or several other sales success systems. An inclusive sales success system will be able to translate from one system to another, helping in acceptance and application. 

It will build on what people have previously found valuable, while explicitly integrating it into the new system. It will encourage a focus on what works with clients rather than on the egos of sales success system providers.

To recap, commit to a sales success system that:

  • Resonates in your mind, your heart, and your gut.

  • Balances “what to” and “how to.”

  • Balances simplicity and sophistication.

  • Is inclusive rather than exclusive.

However, even the best sales success system in the world won’t enable you to be a great performer unless you also implement the next two steps. In Part 3 of this series we'll take a look at Step 2: Use training as part of a process and not a standalone event.


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).

Image Credit: The Blind Side Movie, 2009, Alcon Entertainment