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How to Master ANY Sales Skill

This is an essential post, because it holds the key to your success, not just in Sales, but in most other aspects of your life. So pay attention and read it carefully. You'll want to thank me when you're done.

This blog often discusses sales skills, ranging from specific techniques during sales calls to altering habits of thought that make selling more difficult. However, I've never explained exactly how to master a sales skill. (I did post a short summary a couple of years ago, but that doesn't really count.)

Fortunately, I recently had a discussion about this subject with Greg Wingard, the author of the very cool book Stick With It: How to Overcome the Obstacles that Keep You From Following Through. This post describes his method in detail and explains exactly what you need to do in order to be learn and master any skill, sales or otherwise.
It's no secret, of course, that mastering any skill involves practice, practice, practice. However, practicing anything on a regular basis requires something even more basic: the ability to follow-through on that commitment to practice.

So your ability to mastering a skill is thus always dependent upon your ability to follow-through. According to Wingard, there are two kinds of follow-through, one easy, the other difficult.

There are two kinds of follow-through, one easy, the other difficult. The easy kind of follow-through simply involves following the steps of your sales process, like sending a thank-you email after a sales call, or checking that the customer received the order as promised.

This kind of "day-to-day" follow-through is easy because all it takes to make sure that everything goes smoothly is a documented sales process and a CRM system to issue reminders.

The difficult kind of follow-through involves making long-lasting changes in your beliefs, attitude and behaviors, changes that will allow you to achieve at a higher level than before.

How many times have you taken a sales training course, gotten all jazzed up, and then found, three months later, that you never incorporated what you learned into your selling style? And that type of follow-through isn't about just about sales.

In your personal life, how many times have you resolved to do a daily, vigorous workout, only to find a film of dust on your weight bench or treadmill only a short month later?

Following through on life-changing decisions - the ones that should drive major changes in your behavior - requires more than just determination. Follow-through on a grand scale requires an understanding of how the human brain works and how it can be permanently programmed, and reprogrammed, to behave in a consistent manner.

You've done this many times in the past. There was a time when the skills that you take for granted today - driving a car, using a computer, even brushing your teeth and tying your shoes - were once major challenges. Today, though, you barely think about them because the skill has become automatic.

When a skill becomes automatic, follow-through becomes effortless. Therefore, if you want to completely integrate a new skill, behavior or habit into your repertoire, your goal is to make the follow-through as automatic as all the other easily-managed day-to-day tasks that once were a challenge.

To do this, you first need to understand how your brain works when it's incorporating a skill. That's what I explain in the next page of this post.

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Most people are aware of the difference between the "theory" and the "practice" of any skill. For example, an athlete can read fifty books about the theory of baseball, and still flub like a fool when he steps up to the plate for the first time. What most people don't realize, however, is that the mind actually goes through six specific stages when mastering a skill, three in the "theory" segment, and three in the "practice" segment.

The Theory Segment

  • Stage 1: Unawareness. You are completely unaware that there is a skill to be learned. For example, a novice sales rep might be making cold calls without realizing that her accent is making it difficult for customers to understand what she's saying.
  • Stage 2: Awareness. You realize that something isn't working. For example, that novice rep may notice that her hit rate on the cold-calls is much lower than the other people working in that office. This causes her to ask colleagues and her sales manager for suggestions.
  • Stage 3: Clarification. You understand what you need to do differently. For example, that novice rep signs up for a class that will improve her diction and make it more understandable to the target customer base.
The Practice Segment
  • Stage 4: Awkwardness. You attempt the new behavior and find it difficult. For example, the novice attempts to apply the skills learned in the class and speak without the debilitating accent. She finds that it's hard and exhausting to hold a conversation without slipping into the old accent. WARNING: Because the new behavior seems awkward at this stage, it's easy to give up, conclude that the new behavior is "not right for you," or simply too much bother to pursue. This is where people who aren't really committed fail at follow-through.
  • Stage 5: Familiarity. The new behavior is easier but still not automatic. For example, the novice finds that she can now hold a conversation in the new accent without fumbling or falling into the old accent. Practicing the new skill is no longer a burden. WARNING: Once a new behavior seems easy, you'll be tempted to neglect practicing it. In most cases, people think that they've mastered the skill and can move on. But, in fact, the skill is not yet automatic, which means that, without practice and ongoing attention, you will quickly slip back into the previous behavior. This is where people who are committed (but are unaware of how the human brain works) fail at follow-through.
  • Stage 6: Automatic. You no longer think about the behavior but simply do it. For example, the novice now finds that talking in the new accent seems more natural than the old accent. In fact, it takes a conscious decision to speak in the old accent. At this point, the brain has been reprogrammed so that the new behavior no longer needs monitoring or specific practice sessions. It's now like "riding a bike" - a lifelong skill that you'll never forget.
Reaching stage 6, where the new skill, behavior or habit becomes automatic, requires constant and consistent practice. The amount of time varies according to the complexity of the behavior and the degree to which the previous behavior is ingrained, though.

For example, changing a habitual negative thought (like "I'm not that good with people") to a positive alternative (like "people really like me when they get to know me") can be accomplished in less than two weeks, simply through five minutes of daily affirmations. By contrast, changing something major, like your eating habits, can take a commitment of an hour or more a day for six months to a year. (This is, by the way, why most dieters regain whatever weight they lose.)

If you don't practice the new skill until you reach stage 6, so the change in behavior never becomes automatic. And that requires single-minded focus. Unfortunately, that focus is difficult to achieve. I explain why (and how to achieve that focus) in the next page of this post...

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The focus required to achieve Stage 6 in today's business world for two reasons. The first is distraction. Modern working life is full of interruptions constantly vying for your attention.

The second focus-killer is over-commitment. Most people who are committed to improving their lives often attempt to make changes in multiple areas, makes it difficult or impossible to focus on single one change long enough to reach stage 6.

For example, how many times have you heard yourself (or somebody else) say something like: "Starting tomorrow, every day I'm going to run three miles, lift weights, drink eight glasses of water, stop smoking, stop drinking coffee, and eat 50 percent less fat." While those are all laudable goals, the likelihood that you'll be keep up that regimen for more than a few days (let alone reach stage 6 on any element of the regimen) is practically nil.

To overcome distraction, you must set aside a very small amount of time each day - hopefully less than ten minutes to focus on the change in behavior that you seek. More time than that, and it's likely that other priorities will intrude.

To overcome over-commitment, pick a single behavior that you wish to change, and then focus on that until it becomes automatic. Then move to the next.

Over time, your list of automatic skills will far exceed what you would ever been able to achieve through the scattershot "crash course" that's the mainstay of sales training and self-improvement.

BTW, don't worry that focusing on one thing will make everything else fall apart. While you focus on this one thing, the other automatic behaviors that you've already acquired will continue to function much the same way as before.

In other words, if you can already do what it takes to sell, focusing on improving a single sales skill won't cause the rest of your skills to disappear.

READERS: How does Wingard's process square with your personal experience? It matches mine perfectly.