Credit: Illustration: Matt Wood

I played college basketball with aspirations of playing in the NBA. I worked hard and progressed to a high college level. But there came a point when all my long hours of practice no longer produced the gains I needed to attract the attention of the NBA scouts.

Then my coach showed me a lesson that elevated my skills to NBA level and taught me how to train sales reps to close most of the leads they run. I learned the importance of practicing with the same moves and with the same intensity that I brought to a game.

This is what happened. After practice one day, the coach called me into his office. He popped a video cassette into the VCR and we watched the tape he had made an hour before without my knowing. I shrugged.

“That's me practicing my jump shot,” I said. “So?”

“Now watch this,” he said, and popped in another cassette. It was the game film from the night before. We watched as I made jump shot after jump shot that bore no resemblance to the jump shots on the first tape.

He said nothing. He didn't need to.

On the practice jump shots, my feet hardly left the ground. In the game, I jumped a full 2½ feet. I had been endlessly practicing a lazy shot that I would never take in a game with adrenaline pumping.

Next day, I took to practicing the moves I saw on the game tape with game-like intensity, shooting from 2 feet in the air. My shot percentage moved upward.

My coach found many ways to introduce game intensity into practice. We usually scrimmaged with all the starters on the same squad. We could usually best the second squad in a walk — until the coach began fielding them with seven men to our five. When practice takes place in what feels like a mosh pit, going against the mere five opponents we faced in a game seemed like playing unopposed.

GAME INTENSITY In the home improvement business, most salesmen learn their presentation during the first few weeks. In an occasional sales meeting, when called on to recite their pitch, they can do it without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, in an actual sales situation, they can lapse into a passionless recitation or be knocked off their well-worn rails by one unexpected objection.

Many veteran sales reps, confident in their mastery of the presentation, have little patience with frequent sales meetings. They regard role-play drill as a waste of time. If they're “practicing their jump shot with their feet on the floor,” it probably is.

But an hour spent in role-play with close supervision, under game-like pressure, can pay great long-term dividends and put more money in your pocket than a successful sales pitch in the home that doesn't advance your selling skills. The wise salesman welcomes the chance to strengthen those selling muscles playing with the pressure of five against seven.

IF IT'S REPEATABLE, IT'S PERFECTIBLE The first task of the sales manager is to set up a disciplined, step-by-step sales process such as the 10-step system I teach — a process that's repeatable — then train every sales rep in that system. It moves through the same distinct phases, whatever the product, whatever the objection. (That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvisation and spontaneity.) If every rep goes through the same steps, the same way every time, the process can be analyzed and refined to near-perfection.