With the Tokyo Olympics just recently concluded, the world is still in awe of the feats of strength, speed, skill, and endurance that the world’s top athletes displayed. But the Olympics have more profound lessons to offer than merely showcasing physical prowess. Particularly in the world of sales, which is seeing a radical and fairly permanent paradigm shift in the post-pandemic world1, there’s a lot to learn from the world’s best athletes.
Here are five takeaways from the Tokyo Olympics for becoming sales superstars:
The importance of deliberate practice:
It’s no secret that Olympians train long and hard. British swimmer Adam Peaty, for instance, who retained his title in the 100m breaststroke race, attributed much of his success to the intensive pre-competition training regime he had adhered to on his path to becoming the fastest breaststroker in history. He is reported to have put in 10 intense two-hour sessions in the pool every week and a 40 hours-a-week gym routine.2 But it's not just the quantity that makes Olympic training so important. Rather, Karch Kiraly, coach to the gold-medal-winning US Women's Volleyball Team, argues, real improvement needs specific goals, an intense focus, and a push outside one’s comfort zone.3 Kiraly describes how his players divide their practices into minutely granular activities and focus on precise benchmarks and incremental advances. Such practice that takes the form of learning through continually refining newer skills and pushing boundaries with the specific goal of improving performance is often referred to as deliberate practice.
For sales reps, the lesson is clear. Rehearsing a sales pitch before a big client meeting isn’t enough. To actually create value from the 5% of the buying journey that buyers grudgingly give to individual sales reps4, reps must continuously work on every aspect of the sales process, from prospecting with cold calls and emails to the elevator pitch that gets meetings to actively demonstrating value, handling objection, and closing the deal. In such deliberate practice, commitment to the process on an ongoing basis is important for reps to continually develop and refine their skills. Building this deliberate pitch practice muscle as part of a daily or weekly routine and as an essential component of updating rep readiness before each scheduled sales call can help reps perform at their peak at all times.
Preparing for every scenario:
At the Olympic level, contests are won and lost on the minutest of differences in ability, which are impacted by a significant range of personal and environmental factors. Hence, athletes must prepare for virtually every situation that can affect their performance, be it even the slightest, on race day. What’s more, such preparations must be uniquely tailored to each athlete's physiological patterns and preferences, as no two athletes respond to circumstances alike.
To prepare for the hot summer weather in Tokyo, for instance, the Dutch cycling team developed personalized heat profiles for each of their athletes, which told them how each athlete's body responded to higher temperatures and how that affected their performance. This, in turn, helped the trainers develop tailored heat acclimation and cooling strategies for each rider.5
2020 showed the need for such agile thinking in sales teams everywhere, as customer pain points and buying behavior changed radically overnight. As physical distancing became the norm, signaling a drastic reduction in the popularity of face-to-face meetings, B2B sellers began to recognize the importance of transitioning to a virtual sales model with an emphasis on digital and remote sales interactions with customers that required new sales muscles to be built. Responding to such uncertainties requires sales reps to equip themselves with a deep understanding of each customer’s unique needs and motivations, as well as to roleplay, in advance, every kind of sales conversation and sales scenario that they may encounter.Such roleplays can help reps improve their existing sales skills as well as develop new skills suited to the current sales environment, such as being able to demo a product virtually. By practicing and recording their sales pitches for a variety of real-world sales scenarios, reps can get their pitches analyzed to discover what went right or wrong and receive feedback and coaching on which specific skills to improve and how. In fact, based on their pitch practice performance, personalized learning paths can be developed for individual reps.
Leveraging technology for feedback and performance improvement:
Practice cannot be deliberate without clear and objective feedback on the areas for improvement. Notably, such feedback has to be unbiased and objective to avoid distorting athletes’ skill development.
While athletes have long been accustomed to the advice and guidance of coaches, the importance of objective feedback through high-tech measurement and computing devices is increasingly being recognized. Wearables such as smart shoes and clothing measure millions of data points regarding angles of movement, speed, force, and so on to calculate subtle changes to form that can improve performance. Divers such as Oliver Dingley use video analytics to calculate minute changes to the twists and turns they perform during dives. The Japanese baseball team utilized Danish TrackMan technology to help them analyze hits and pitches during practice. TrackMan’s technology shows a video analysis whenever the ball comes in contact with a batter. The device measures spin rate, release speed, and spin axis, allowing coaches to evaluate a pitcher’s performance.6 These technologies provide data points and insights that simply could not have been captured by human eyes alone.
In sales as well, AI and machine learning are providing the foundation for a highly optimized sales performance, playing a role in a variety of areas such as forecasting, lead qualification, and productivity enhancement. In the area of training and coaching, AI-enabled tools deliver deep insights through pipeline analysis, personalize and target training to reps’ needs and learning preferences, and improve outcomes with content recommendations and guided selling. Further, AI-enabled pitch intelligence platforms can be leveraged to record and evaluate sales pitches and provide immediate, unbiased, and specific feedback for improvement. Such platforms use algorithms to capture and analyze data on factors such as keyword usage, topic coverage, speed and tone of delivery, and so on. The formal rules of algorithms ensure that the feedback remains neutral and bias-free, while superior computing resources allow for more rapid feedback.
Learning from peers or other super-performers:
For viewers, the great Olympic rivalries between countries are the stuff of gossip and excitement. But for the athletes themselves, their closest rivals are a necessary push to greatness that brings out their competitive spirit. That's because elite athletes can recognize the best in each other and continuously learn from other super-performers. As the 400m hurdles champion, Sydney Mclaughlin, said of her teammate, Dalilah Muhammad, after beating the latter to the gold and breaking her own world record with a time of 51.46 sec, "… iron sharpens iron. So it's two people pushing each other to be their best."7 Just how much such rivalries push these elite athletes can be seen in Muhammad’s time of 51.58 sec, which also became her personal best.8
Many sales reps can be as competitive as any Olympian. Organizations can capitalize on this competitive spirit to create collaborative learning opportunities and share tribal knowledge within teams by creating pitch competitions. When sales reps are tested for their knowledge absorption and skill development in competitive, gamified ways that are both fun and engaging, it pushes them to learn, prepare, and pitch better. Roleplays can thus be transformed from a routine, reluctant practice into a competitive, repetitive sales sport. And organizations can, in turn, curate the best of these practice pitches to share with other team members as valuable examples of what makes the top performers so successful. After all, surveys show that peer-to-peer learning is the preferred mode for 68% of sales reps.9
The importance of a good coach and mentor:
Research suggests that one significant difference between Olympic super-elites and high-performing athletes who do not win a medal is the quality of their relationship with their coaches.10 Coaches come with a wealth of knowledge built from years of observing and analyzing a sport. But they are responsible not only for providing technical or strategic support but also for providing emotional support for athletes with positive feedback that helps them strengthen their self-confidence and motivation.
The difference that coaches can make was seen when American gymnast Jade Carey nearly fell out of the reckoning for an Olympic medal after tripping in her vault finals but came back the very next day to win gold in the floor routine. It was her coach and father, Brian, who stepped in after her disappointing performance to egg her on with the words, “Right now, you feel like today was the worst day of your life, but tomorrow can be your best day. So don’t give up. Keep going.”11
Sales coaching may not have the Hollywood swagger that sports-based stories do but is just as vital for great sales performance. Unfortunately, studies show that sales coaching—already a sporadic activity in many organizations—has drastically reduced in frequency in 45.2% of organizations since moving to remote work.12 Importantly, just as every top player cannot automatically become a coach, every successful sales rep cannot automatically coach others to sales success. Building an effective coaching culture requires sales organizations to put in place a well-crafted program for coaching the coaches, with defined methodology, adequate organizational support, and proper tools and technologies that can free up bandwidth and time, thus allowing sales leaders to truly coach and gather a clear picture of where reps are lacking and how they can best improve.
Just as Olympic champions are not born but built up through years of hard work and focused learning, superstar sales reps can be cultivated in any organization with the right ingredients. Deliberate pitch practice, training for a variety of sales situations, measuring performance and providing unbiased and immediate feedback for improvement, peer learning, and effective coaching of coaches are all factors that organizations must focus on in training and coaching their reps to ensure that reps are able to put their best foot forward when meeting customers and strike gold.