Twenty years ago, the most successful home improvement companies — Pacesetter, Sears Roebuck, AMRE — had a sales meeting every day, five days a week. With their sales exploding, those companies, for a time, ruled the home improvement industry.

During the past two years, touring the country and speaking to thousands of home improvement sales reps, I've found that, today, most companies hold sales meetings once a week, if that. What's more, those meetings are primarily concerned with operational issues such as paperwork.

At many companies, once a salesman knows the features and benefits of his product, he's considered “trained” and management feels that all he needs is an occasional motivational speech. It's as though an NFL team drafted a college all-star and told him to show up for the game and then come back for an hour on Wednesdays to discuss the pension plan. Such a team couldn't expect a winning season, and such a company can't expect to close above 40%.

But companies that move from the once-a-week meeting to the old-fashioned training-based sales meeting, held three times a week, can easily see their sustained close rate boosted by as much as 20%. How? Because well-rehearsed salespeople know their product and presentation better — usually a lot better.

CONTINUOUS AND RIGOROUS TRAINING So why doesn't every company adopt continuous and rigorous training when the returns are so dramatic? Because many sales managers have built their sales careers on their own natural closing ability without fully understanding the principles that underlie successful selling. Like some gifted jazz players who can't read music, they're great performers but poor teachers. They haven't mastered the fundamentals that are at the heart of effective sales training. Without this foundation, they find it's far easier to skip the training meetings and insist that an actual sales call is the best place to train.

But it's not. With lead costs skyrocketing, a home improvement company can't afford to give qualified leads to salespeople closing at less than 50% in the hope that they'll simply get better with time.

A second point is this: Game time is not training time. Think about it. They say that before every tournament, Tiger Woods sinks 100 three-foot puts in a row before he takes off his spikes. How many tournaments would Tiger have to play to equal the training value of those repeated strokes in close repetition, etching the movement into his muscle memory? Actual competition at a high level can hone skills to a fine edge, but for mastering basic skills, there's no substitute for drill — repetition under the eye of a dedicated and demanding coach.

IN THE HOT SEAT When a salesperson makes a mistake at the kitchen table, the homeowner can't tell him what that mistake was. All the homeowner can say is “No” or “We'll have to think about it.” When a salesperson makes a mistake while role-playing in front of a well-trained sales-force, every person in the room will tell him about it, and the sales manager will guide him to an appropriate correction — a lesson that benefits each person there.

One of the most effective techniques I use in sales meetings is the “hot seat.” Without advance notice, I bring up someone from the sales team. That person sits in a raised chair with instructions to go through some part of his or her presentation. The rest of the group will grade that presentation, on, for example, whether or not there was enthusiasm, flow, educational value, etc. We frequently videotape a “hot-seat” session, so that the sales rep can go back and study it on the computer.

Sound grueling? We want sales reps to feel like they're on the spot. The point of this exercise is to teach salespeople how to perform in situations much tougher than those they'd normally encounter.

Another critical exercise is our closing seminar. In that session, I play the customer, and the salesperson presents price by actually putting numbers up on the board and explaining how the price is determined. He also has to figure out how to overcome the price objections I throw out.