White Paper-Deliberate Practice in Sales Training


Applying Deliberate Practice in Sales Skills Training and Performance-Based Learning Environments

Sedric B. Hill

President, Sales Development & Performance, LLC


In many sports, athletes improve their performance with the help of a coach or trainer. Such is the case in high school, college and professional football where players are routinely videotaped during practices and game performances. The video recordings are used in many different ways but most commonly the athlete and the coach review video and look for areas of performance improvement. As the coach and athlete review the video, the athlete engages in reflective learning while receiving expert feedback by the coach. Through video analysis, a football player is able to analyze his actions and learn how he can improve his performance. The coach typically will review videos of practices and games in much more detail than players in order to evaluate the team and each player’s overall performance. As a result, the coach designs a practice plan of activities specifically targeted to present simulated situations of a game performance. The players then engage in a series of practice “drills” aimed to improve the specific techniques and movements that were previously captured on video. This is a form of “Deliberate Practice” (DP) which is a unique training activity specifically designed to improve performance. In order to ensure players perform each part of the skill tasks correctly, the coach establishes the drills in a “progression” sequence which begins with simple movements then progresses to the full technique simulated in a game-like situation. This use of video technology in DP sets the basis of our business model in applying DP in the sales skills training environment.

In recent years, training and development (T&D) organizations within the business domain have sought to transition from the traditional model of providing skills training programs that were primarily a “one size fits all” approach to a more performance focused model. Although some T&D organizations and industry thought leaders have been diligently in the pursuit to drive performance through training, the overall impact has been minimal. Training in most business sectors continue to yield low returns on investment. Likewise, in our own personal experiences in performance consulting with sales organizations, we have experienced similar results of a low or immeasurable Return on Training Investment (ROTI). Our primary aim is to design a sales development model that drives skill and performance improvement over time. This paper will focus on how Deliberate Practice coupled with reflective learning can play a significant role in the acquisition and development of selling skill and performance in professional selling. We will explain the Performance-Based Learning™ methodology which is designed to optimize performance from learning interventions (training) in a business environment. Finally, we will advocate for more formalized research on sales expertise by documenting patterns of skill development and performance from sales professionals throughout our span of network and influence.

Deliberate Practice

During the early 2000s, I worked as Training Director at Pitney Bowes Inc., a fortune 500 company based in Stamford, Connecticut. Pitney Bowes is a direct sales-driven organization and while working to improve sales training deliverables for the sales force, we structured our organization into a “performance consulting” team versus the traditional trainers. Our team was successful in improving the sales skills training program which played a role in the sales results growth that Pitney Bowes delivered during the mid 2000s. In 2008, my performance consulting firm decided to expand our training services by moving into a more advanced level of skill and performance for our sales clients. We discovered research relating to the acquisition of expert performance authored by K. Anders Ericsson et al., a highly regarded scholar and professor at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Professor Ericsson has been researching expertise (its structure and acquisition) for 30 years. As a result of his and other colleague’s exceptional work, DP has been identified as a necessary activity responsible for the acquisition of expert performance. It is frequently designed and crafted by a coach or expert advisor who helps the performer set performance goals that are slightly above the performer’s current skill level. The performer practices the training task and focuses on the technique and its improvement (task involved) rather than the result of the performance. Repetition, refection and the organized sequence of skill practice (skill progression) are embedded in DP training activities. Empirical research by Ericsson et al, documents the structure and acquisition of expertise across several domains, namely: Arts, Sciences, Music and Sports. One key take-away from the research data demonstrates that superior performance is acquired over time when engaging in DP training activities. The research findings also reveal that expert performance is almost always relevant in the performer’s domain which directly links the exceptional performance to the DP training regimen.

DP involves several unique characteristics including: (1) specifically designed to improve performance. (2) Involves breaking down the skill into specific parts (skill chunks) that have a high degree of influence on the performance outcomes. (3) Intense Concentration is required when engaging in DP since the performance goal is set slightly above the performer’s current skill level. (4) The performer receives accurate and timely feedback from a coach in order to make corrections to errors for incremental improvements. (5) Reflective learning builds a deeper awareness and understanding of the student’s cognitive, perceptual and motor behaviors during a performance. This understanding of self mediate the development of automatic processing controls for faster, more accurate responses during sales performances.

The Dilemma of Skill Acquisition and Transfer in Sales

Sales has a long history of being a measurable, results oriented profession. Assignment of sales quotas, attainment of those quotas and other quantitative metrics have been a part of the sales domain for decades. Professional sales people operate in many different sales environments such as Business to Business (B2B) whereby the sales person is employed by a business which sells directly or indirectly to another business. For the sake of simplicity, this paper will focus primarily on B2B sales environment and B2B sales professionals. Training sales representatives and sales managers to improve skill and development is usually a relatively high priority for larger sales organizations (500 or more sales representatives). In smaller organizations, sales people may rely more on informal learning such as “tribal knowledge,” or knowledge based primarily on undocumented personal experiences of employees including informal mentoring, and on the job training activities. Training in corporate America carries a very large price tag. According to a recent study by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), U.S. companies spent $135 Billion on training services in 2007. Businesses and training organizations have long sought to find ways to measure and receive a ROTI for their training dollars spent. But ROTI continues to be a slow, challenging issue to conquer. Though results of ROTI are unfavorable, at least T&D organizations have an evaluation methodology of which to follow should they engage in training evaluation activities. The Kirkpatrick training evaluation model (Donald Kirkpatrick) has been around for over 40 years and is well known in most training circles. The models outline four levels of training evaluation, levels 1 - 4. Level one evaluation consists of “reaction” of participants to the training. Level two is typically an assessment or test after the learning event in order to determine if learning occurred and to what measure. Level three evaluation measures the transfer of knowledge and skills as related to performance on the job. Level four measures the impact to the organizational results. Needless to say, only a small amount of T&D organizations engage in level three and level four training evaluations. Training departments typically create training courses targeted for an entire large business unit or a department of employees. Unfortunately, this can contribute to a “one size fits all” perception by students and stakeholders. Most skills training content is not optimally designed in terms of fostering sufficient practice opportunities and reflection time. Practice and reflection are two of the key components necessary to effectively transfer skills to the work environment. This training design problem spans across the spectrum of training influence (pre-training, during the training event, and post training activities) and can be diagnosed into six vital areas: (1) (Pre training). No performance assessment is completed. A performance assessment identifies individual skill gaps In order to properly identify learning and performance needs. Many training organizations perform pre-training assessments but they are typically written to the pre existing content of the training course. (2) (Pre training) “Boil the Ocean” approach… This occurs where too much content which contain too many different concepts for the learner to master are presented in a compressed amount of time. (3) (During Training) Lack of clarity of the core skill areas that have the most impact to performance improvement. (4) (During Training) Insufficient practice opportunity in the learning environment. (5) (Post Training) Lack of a comprehensively designed plan for additional skill practice and transfer of skill to the work environment after the training event. (6) (Post Training) Absence of skilled coaching and advisory reinforcement after the training.

So how can we improve skills and performance by applying the principles of expert performance development? In considering certain support factors described in Ericsson’s research, performance advice and feedback from well qualified coaches seem to be consistent within most domains. Coaches assist the performers by designing the right practice activities that most directly impact the desired performance goals (DP), and by providing accurate and timely feedback for error corrections. As such, we have incorporated a methodology of providing expert coaching and feedback to sales professionals who are enrolled in the performance development process. The coach must first explicitly know the correct skills and techniques required to drive exceptional performance outcomes within their domain of expertise. As a starting point for establishing the performance standards for sales professionals, we developed the Sales Essentials competency model. The Sales Essentials identify the most fundamental and influential competencies that drive professional selling expertise: Interpersonal (Communication), Prospecting, Qualifying, Presenting/Closing, and Handling Objections. Within the Sales Essentials are critical skill sets and techniques that affect the desired sales performance outcomes within a B2B sales environment. Specifically, our development team believes that interpersonal communication, persuasiveness, and interpersonal relating are the most leverage-able skills that drive sales performance outcomes. Hence, we have developed superior sales performance “standards” which represent the specific skill techniques that most influence outstanding sales performance. These standards can be overlaid against most skill-based selling models as benchmarks and consequently used to structure DP drills for sales performance development.

In examining much of the research on the applications of DP, participants who engage in DP training activities will realize scalable results based on the amount of DP and the time duration of DP in terms of years. In Ericsson’s criteria for “expert performance,” the subjects are typically international, world class performers within their respective domains. Our primary goal in establishing this business model was is to drive performance improvement for sales professionals and organizations to a “desired level of performance.” The desired level of performance relates to our client’s goal of measurable improvement of targeted performance metrics as a result of participants engagement in DP and skills transfer activities. Therefore, we define expert performance levels as measurable improvements of sales performance after the training and performance intervention. Ericsson et al. have estimated that to achieve expert level performance, it will take a minimum of 10,000 hours (10 years). However, after a period of short term improvement, performers will often reach a plateau in their development process which is followed by a reduction of DP training activities. As a measure to counter act the arrested development stage, sales professionals should continue to apply DP and reflective learning during actual selling situations. By engaging in reflective learning, we believe that sales professionals can continue to improve skills by developing a deeper understanding of their behavioral patterns and environmental cues (tactical skills) during sales engagements.

Organizational Performance

In the T&D community, much of the work in driving performance through learning has been geared towards “organizational performance” versus individual performance. Organizational performance is the collective performance generated by a group, team or enterprise. Performance within organizations is driven primarily by efforts and skills of employees as well as work environment factors such as processes and systems that enable or inhibit employee performance. Typically, companies that employ large numbers of employees are the types of entities that employ T&D or Human Resource training departments. As indicated earlier, the performance definition in the T&D context is generally the “on-the-job behaviors” expected from all employees. In addition, the students who make up the training audience are usually not accountable to the training service provider. Therefore the training audience reporting structure makes it difficult to integrate learning into the work environment. In order to address these challenges for optimizing skill acquisition, we developed Performance Based Learning™ (PBL).

Many corporate internal training functions as well as external firms use a job competency-based instructional design process. The following is a general description of that process: (1) Develop or use an existing competency model to determine what knowledge and skills are required for an employee to perform their job. (2) These competencies become the baseline standard for designing training (Desired knowledge and skill) (3) Instructional designers develop training content for various disciplines associated with the organization’s ability to perform its function. The enrollment of training participants typically occurs as a result of (1) a requirement for all employees or certain departments to complete specified training programs each year. (2) A business leader or manager requests training for their department. Typically, the business leader has not conducted a formal assessment to determine a valid training need. Training departments often comply with the training request especially in the absence of a formal need-based training assessment procedure. As a result of these flawed methods, training is often viewed by participants and stakeholders as ineffective, irrelevant or time consuming.

Performance-Based Learning™ Methodology

Our first goal was to develop the structure for a performance-based business skills training model. We looked for new ways to influence outstanding performance and the development of sales professionals and sales organizations. The first issue we dealt with was the mere definition of “performance.” As stated earlier, in a training context, performance typically refers to the “behaviors” that an employee exhibits on the job. This definition seems particularly unremarkable since the performance standards are derived from competency models or job descriptions (satisfactory performance). We decided to adopt a different working definition of performance that is more accurately representative of an achievement level of performance. Hence, performance (in a business domain) is the on- the-job skill execution that leads to a desired and measurable business result.

PBL is a professional training methodology that optimizes performance through learning by systematically addressing the six problems of traditional skills training:

  1. (Pre Training) Performance assessments identify personalized skill gaps so that Targeted Learning Interventions (TLIs) are designed and delivered when required. Current skill level is also factored in designing the TLI so that the DP training activities are set just above the current skill level of the participant.
  2. (Pre Training) PBL formats training content in part by identifying “skill chunks” that most influence the desired performance. Skill chunks are skills that are carefully analyzed and can be divided into smaller skill components in order to isolate the techniques required for DP. Each skill chunk is organized in a logical pattern-based sequence in order to optimize the learning process. Remaining knowledge-based (cognitive) training content can be moved into e-learning delivery modes or may be modified or removed from the skills-based training altogether.
  3. (Training event) The ratio of practice time compared to non-practice activities is optimal when 75% is practice and 25% is lecture or other delivery methods.
  4. (Post Training) A detailed practice plan (Blueprint) is presented to the learner along with the prescribed DP drills and reflective learning activities.
  5. (Post Training) A Level 3-4 Performance evaluation is performed at the designated time after the training event (three to nine months). The evaluation provides the organization and the individual with a report which shows the affect of the total learning and DP training activities to the performance goals and desired outcomes.
  6. The instructor, performance consultant or certified sales manager will provide accurate and timely feedback to the student in order to identify and correct errors. In addition, the sales manager or supervisor will be trained on how to effectively provide support and reinforcement to the student who engages in work related DP

In the current U.S. economy, corporations have been forced to reduce costs and expenditures in order to preserve capital and turn a profit. Inevitably, there will be even more scrutiny placed on training investments in terms of seeing a measurable ROTI. PBL is designed to deliver accurate and positive Level 3 and Level 4 evaluation results when fully adopted and implemented properly. Our focus is to help sales professionals and T&D organizations improve performance through understanding the relationship between performance-based learning and performance business impact. In doing so, we believe that sales organizations professionals in general should avoid focusing on sales results as a matter of intention while performing. It is more effective to narrow the sales focus to specific skill and performance improvement such as how to use different types of qualifying questions to develop business needs and requirements. By driving “intentionality” to skill and performance improvement, sales professionals will be able to improve performance over time by minimizing stressful thinking and anxiety of making the sales quota numbers which can hinder performance.

Applying Deliberate Practice in Sales Skills Training    

Video recording of sales simulations and role play (skills practice) has been a long standing instructional strategy in sales training for decades. Typically, the trainer coordinates a role play exercise using pre-written scripts with background information on a case simulation. Each exercise may typically last 20 to 30 minutes. Most training courses are designed to wait until after the completed exercise to start the debriefing feedback process. The longer the delay to the performance reflection time, the more difficult it becomes for the student to accurately recalls the critical aspects of their performance. Historically, role play exercises were conducted in a classroom environment in front of the class observers. Many times, trainers will add the element of video in order to provide the students with feedback from analysis of the video performance. Classroom-based role play exercises that are videotaped can contribute to student anxiety and fear of being embarrassed or criticized by others. As a result, students may focus on exterior distractions such as what their peers are going to think about them instead of attending their focus on the cues within the simulated sales environment. In addition, the set up and maintenance of the audio video equipment is costly and cumbersome. In developing our business model for recorded DP drills, we decided to set up a more private video scenario with two students or one student and one coach. The coach or the second student would play the role of the prospect or customer. The elimination of an audience provides a more realistic setting that reflects most B2B sales situations.

Leveraging Technology to Manage Deliberate Practice Videos    

With the advancement of computer technologies, computers ownership and access have become commonplace within the corporate environment and most individual professionals. Hence, we elected to utilize laptop computers, webcam video cameras and video management software in order to provide a cost effective infrastructure to manage the video process. The webcam cameras in particular provide an efficient video capture and transferability of video between the student and the instructor. Webcams allow relatively easy uploading of video content using the internet, or a company’s intranet or LAN network. The following chart depicts the process of how trainers and students exchange video content and discuss the video performances interactively within a virtual learning environment.





PBL = Performance-Based      Learning


Blueprint = Individual      Development Plan


Level 3/4 = (Donald      Kirkpatrick) Training evaluation levels that measure learning transfer and      performance impact.





  1. Step1.      It is important for training providers to create performance friendly content for students. This starts by evaluating the training format, delivery method, and timing sequence of the training materials. Content should be carefully analyzed to ensure that the core skills and techniques that are expected to be applied on the job (performance) are clearly identifiable. Once skills are clarified, they may need to be broken down into skill chunks wherever appropriate. Skills that tend to be high in complexity and low on interdependency should be segmented into smaller skill chunks. DP scripts and a model video recording are developed as a source of preparation for the student.
  2. Step2.    Model video clips are produced each skill technique area. If the skill has been broken down into skill chunks, the model video should incorporate the most critical aspects of the skill that affects the performance outcome. The purpose of the model video is to demonstrate the performance goal and establish a benchmark (performance standard) that stretches the learner beyond their current skill level.
  3. Step3.    The coach performs a performance assessment for each student in order to establish a skill baseline for development. A short video clip of the student is captured during the training event (but prior to engaging in DP activities). A style analysis is also factored in the assessment and is designed to provide the coach and student insights on the student’s business style (interpersonal communication) as well as cues to look for in others’ styles.
  4. Step4.    The trainer or coach then analyzes the student baseline video and style analysis to create the student’s “Blueprint” performance development plan. Each Blueprint is unique to each student however; the structure of each DP practice activity is consistent and highly focused on interpersonal communication skills. A student may have more emphasis on certain skills and techniques than another student based on each of their current skill level along with the requirement of those skills in their respective business environments.
    1. Ideally, students will work in pairs so one student can rotate back and forth from the role of sales person and prospect. If pairs are not possible, the trainer or supervisor can play the prospect role. Students prepare for each DP training drill by reading the script provided by the coach and reviewing the performance guide which includes the performance goals and critical skill elements and techniques to perform and the ones to avoid). The webcam is then switched on to record the performance.
    2. After completing the DP video performance, the student performs a self assessment of the video using the performance guide tool. Self analysis and comments are entered into a software utility that combines the video performance and the text into the same file record.
    3. Each student is expected to record three to four DP videos each week. Once all weekly DP videos are completed, the video files are uploaded to a secure website. The student’s privacy is protected through password access and other technology provisions. Whenever a student uploads a video, the system automatically sends an e-mail notification to the coach.
    4. The coach analyzes the DP videos and provides feedback to the student via a live discussion thread or using webcam technology (asynchronous learning). Errors are identified and discussed along with corrective strategies to attempt for the next DP video performance.
    5. The student prepares for the second round of DP video and refocuses his efforts on improving his performance with each practice repetition. This intentionality drives gradual improvement to the skills and performance.
    6. Steps 5 – 9 are repeated until a desired level of proficiency is obtained by the student unless otherwise directed by the coach.
    7. After all skill areas are completed (30 to 120 days), a final performance feedback session is scheduled between the coach and the student. This session can be performed in person or using the webcams in an asynchronous mode. The coach and student engage in joint reflection using the student’s baseline video and the final DP video(s). The coach provides feedback to the student on how to continue and expand the development plan over time and strategies to further integrate acquired skills into the work environment.
    8. The client (management) is provided a Training Evaluation report which summarizes the measured skill acquisition, student compliance in following the blueprint training schedule, learning transfer findings and conclusions, and performance impact to the organization. If performance metrics are agreed to prior to the training date, a post-training report of the designated metrics is provided to the training organization for the purpose of analysis and placing into the Training Evaluation report. Student transcript records are stored on a proprietary Learning Management System (LMS). Videos are archived, returned to student, or discarded based on each client’s preference outlined in our contract.

Advancement of Research in Professional Sales Expertise

Researchers of Expert Performance such as Professor K. Anders Ericsson have contributed a priceless body of research which has proven useful to many of us in the business domain and to society as a whole. As a result of this great work, we have been enlightened and inspired to do more and perform better with more expertise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 2 million sales representatives in the United States. This number is expected to have average growth through 2016. Capturing scientific research on sales expertise is a challenging task due to the dynamic nature of sales environments (territory changes, compensation models, and account attrition). That said, we believe that with the right set of conditions, these environmental factors can be dealt with in ways that will ensure the scientific integrity of the research. For example, there are many larger sales organizations that maintain well documented sales processes, procedures, and sales representative tenure which could provide a sufficiently standardized foundation to follow sales research on the acquisition of expert performance. Scientific research can be beneficial to the professional sales industry and its stakeholders by discovering and validating key insights in the structure and acquisition of sales expertise.

As thought leaders in the sales performance consulting sector, we will work with the intention of capturing sales demographic information on sales performers that become members of our sales community network. We plan to elicit and maintain an open dialogue with the academic and scientific sectors to share our findings and experiences accordingly.

In conclusion, becoming a top producer in professional sales is both art and science requiring superior skills that are adaptive and unpredictable yet consistent and deliberate. We are excited to be a part of a new movement to expert performance-based development within the sales and business domains. Sales is much like the game of football in that each has a “burning platforms” to improve performance and results. With today’s challenging economic conditions and growing pressures to increase revenue year over year, sales professionals, like football players and athletes in general, should likewise develop a culture that embraces the values of Deliberate Practice and its role in the acquisition of expert performance.


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