The goal of every sales training program is to improve the bottom 80% of salespeople, but that’s not what happens. What happens is that the top 20% get better, and the rest stay the same. Why? The top 20% can apply it in the field, and the rest can’t. So if you want to improve the bottom 80%, then you must share how your star performers are able to apply what they learned. You must use your best to train the rest through peer learning.


When I taught solution selling, it was my experience that most salespeople couldn’t apply it in the field because actual customers don’t sequentially follow the questioning model like they do in role plays. When customers, for example, jump from question 12 to 18 and then back to 7, most salespeople get lost in a sea of questions. It’s as if they’re selling blind in the customer’s world.

The top 20%, however, don’t get lost, because they have what I call “sales wisdom.” Their curiosity allows them to stack customer knowledge on top of their product knowledge. With an overview of the customers’ world, they are able to improvise, go off the script, and then lead the customer back to the value of their product. This is in stark contrast to what most salespeople do: They lead with their product, and then hope that the customer figures out why they need it.

I understand why it’s scary for salespeople to meet with c-level executives. Most salespeople have never been a c-level executive. When salespeople go off script, it feels like they’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty, so they cling to what they know – the security of their product. It’s what most salespeople revert back to when they hit a bump in the road, such as trying a new consultative sales approach.


I’m embarrassed to say this is exactly what happened to me last December. I received a call from the CMO and CEO of an emerging technology company. They had read my book Insight Selling, and they wanted my help to create a few insights. I thought this will be a quick deal.

After our conversation, I followed up with an email. I knew they were interested because I can track that they opened my email 29 times. We spoke again the next day. I followed-up with an email, but this time they didn’t open it. It seemed odd because I thought the call went well.

It wasn’t until I woke up in the middle of the night that I realized what had happened on the call. How could I have behaved so badly? It all went downhill when the CEO asked me to go in a direction I hadn’t gone before with my product. Instead of creating insight-based stories for his salespeople to share with potential customers, he wanted to apply the insights to digital media. I hadn’t done this before. He seemed so knowledgeable about digital media, and I knew so little.

Instead of listening to the customer and accepting that digital media is one of the many potential doors customers can go through to buy my service, I kept interrupting and arguing with the customer to go in a different direction. I wasn’t consciously aware at that time that I was misbehaving or I would have changed my approach. I’m well aware that my needs will not be met until I first meet the needs of the customer. However, I didn’t abide by this principle, because my ego rushed in to protect me from walking into the unknown world of digital media. As the alarm bells rang, my fight or flight response kicked in: My neocortex shut down, and my vision narrowed onto the perceived threat.

As I lay awake at 4 am, I realized how my self-induced frontal lobotomy had transformed me from a trusted advisor into an inflexible call center agent who is only capable of marching customers down one generic path to a door that leads to their product. No wonder the customer stopped opening my emails. The customer wanted to walk through a different door to buy my product, and I slammed the door in his face. How embarrassing.

First thing in the morning, I called the CEO to apologize for my behavior. With his knowledge of digital media and my knowledge of creating insights, he said together we’d work it out, and we did.

With limited customer knowledge, I understand why salespeople can be afraid to go off the script. Unfortunately, this product-centric approach leaves it up to the customer to figure out the value of the salesperson’s product. The top 20%, on the other hand, have a helicopter view of the customer’s world. This advantage enables them to look up from their script, locate the customer, and lead them back to the value of their product.


If only the top 20% of salespeople are able to improve from sales training, then why invest limited resources training the rest? That’s the question a sales enablement executive was asked after his sales team had just been trained on a well-known sales methodology. He shared with me how on the last day of training, the salespeople were required to apply what they learned and deliver a presentation to a mock customer. The problem was that he felt only 10% of the presentations were any good. I asked him why his enablement team hadn’t shared with the salespeople how the top 10% were able to apply what they’d learned through peer learning. He said “We’re in the volume business. As one of the largest software companies, we have thousands of salespeople to train. We don’t have the time or the resource to customize the material.”

If you want to improve the bottom 80%, then I believe you must share how your star performers are able to apply what they learned. You must use your best to train the rest through peer learning.