Does Practice Make Perfect?

Perfect practice enables perfect play, and imperfect practice leads to imperfect play. You can’t just practice, you have to practice the right thing, or you burn in the wrong pattern.


“You play like you practice,” is as true in sales as it is in leadership, sports, and life. The principle is simple: The more you practice something, the easier it will become; and the more you integrate something into your personal way of working, the more sustainable it will become. Professional athletes practice four hours for every 15 minutes they “play.” 

Does practice make perfect? Yes, when it's combined with structure.

Practice can be done on an individual or group basis:

  • A salesperson can practice their pitch alone at home or in their office: talking out loud through the actual words they will say, working through the logical twists and turns, and becoming deeply familiar with responses to possible objections.
  • Practice can also be done in front of audiences or a video camera—as in role playing during training. Group practice can be a special kind of torture that brings out the best and worst in people. There is something about having others in the room to watch, react and interact that adds that exact pressure, that brings you just a little closer to the intensity of a sales call.

The tool that helps to ease the tension of practice and reality is structure. Every salesperson will tell you they have their own particular style. Style is really nothing more than a structure founded on that salesperson’s own experiences, refined through practice and reality, and accented by preference and personality. Most people develop a sales style or structure without even knowing it; it feels intuitive and natural. The fact is, you can improve anything you construct. Those who are open to continually practicing their sales structure tend to be more successful than those who see their structure as definitive and complete.

Part of any person’s sales structure should be a set of killer questions. Questions are the tool used to understand your client’s business needs, objectives and challenges from their perspective. No amount of desktop research will produce the same insights as posing thoughtful open-ended questions to a client. Now, when we think of a set of killer questions, it screams “Science.” The trick is that while a set of questions may feel formulaic, what they generate and how that is used is very much art-based. At one point in my career with Cisco I created a tool called Customer Support Requirements Analysis (CSRA). CSRA was comprised of 130 questions that enabled a salesperson to enter into a Socratic dialogue with their clients. The tool helped salespeople to understand which questions to ask depending on their particular situation. It also helped them walk through the analysis process. The tool, however, was not meant as a traditional training tool—that is, I wasn’t going to hand the tool to our training team and ask them to build a program around it. It would have been as painful as a root canal for both trainer and participant. Instead I expected them to use the tool as a guide. Once the salesperson understood how to use the tool, once they understood what the questions really asked and what the responses really meant, the tool was no longer needed. The tool was a short cut to experience.

Anyone who has taught a teenager how to drive can relate to this model. If we do a quick online search for “steps for using turn signals,” we will find the average number of steps is five. Five steps to flick on a turn signal. Now, think of all the other things you have to know to drive and add up the steps in total. Now, think of the average attention span of the average teenager. Scary. What we do with teenage drivers is give them all those steps and hope that through practice they can develop their driving structure in such a way that prevents them from causing any harm to people or property. Practice makes perfect!

The CRSA tool I developed for my transactional sales staff was meant to accelerate the science lifecycle and move forward the consultative learning curve. In short, it provided structure that would augment their ability to learn from their experiences. A sales professional has to be able to effectively diagnose what their perspective customer needs in real-time all the time. For me, that was the beginning of creating a sales system, but more on that later.

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