Practice (Plus Coaching) Makes Perfect

Everyone says that practice makes perfect. But does it? Morris Sims, M.S.M., CLU ChFC, explains why mastering a skill takes more than just repetition and half-hearted enthusiasm. True mastery requires focus, time, outside influence, and a commitment to excellence.

STATISTICS SAY IT ALL about financial services sales. Roughly 15 percent of people hired as advisers will be successful no matter what we managers do, and 10 percent will fail no matter what we do. The other 75 percent, though, represent a large group that we can improve through professional development. So how do we have the greatest possible positive impact on that 75 percent? Success in sales — insurance or otherwise — requires a body of knowledge and a set of skills.

Knowledge is essential, but there comes a point of diminishing returns if the required skill set is not also developed. Developing strong skills makes the difference between success and failure in our profession. While it might be quicker and easier to teach a young producer the latest product information or sales idea, long-term success comes from practicing sales skills as they are developed with a good coach.

Time spent developing agents should have a specific component of practice.

In Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell explains the 10,000 Hour Rule, “to become great at something, a person must spend a great deal of time practicing at it — roughly 10,000 hours. This was as true for the Beatles as it was for Bill Gates” Gates even told Gladwell that having unique and abundant access to a computer, at a time when computer use was not yet widespread, greatly contributed to his success.

In The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, best-selling author Daniel Coyle takes this theory to the next level by explaining that it isn’t just practice that hones skill, but specific kinds of practice — practice accompanied by a strong motivation, a high level of commitment, and coaching. Gladwell and Coyle both found through their research that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice, or about five years, to become truly great at anything. That’s a lot of practice!

So whether you want to become a great musician, soccer player, or life insurance agent, you have to commit to spending 10,000 hours practicing the corresponding skills. Furthermore, Coyle adds an interesting twist to the equation. Through his research, he discovered that regardless of the occupation, a top coach can help expedite skill building and mastery, and in our industry, we certainly need to accelerate sales mastery. New advisors cannot afford to spend 10,000 hours of practice before they become great at sales.

Practice, Practice, Practice — and Have a Good Coach!

We can have the greatest impact on the 75 percent in the middle by helping them improve their sales skills through practice and coaching. How does one do that?

Researchers Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp studied famed college coach John Wooden. At UCLA, Wooden led the men’s basketball team to 10 NCAA championships in a 

12-year period with seven of them in a row. Clearly, to achieve such consistent results, there was some outstanding coaching going on. Research shows that great coaches share several common strategies. They all do the following:

  •  Focus on each player, with a powerful desire to help that person become great.
  • Plan practice out in detail.
  • Spend 85 percent of their coaching time showing how to properly perform a given skill.
  • Spend less than 10 percent of their coaching time praising or criticizing players.
  • Become fully engaged in every aspect of the practice session.
  • Play down lectures or “chalk talks,” and instead have players practice skills.

In 1974, Bill Walton became the number one NBA draft pick after playing college ball under coach Wooden at UCLA. When interviewed for the book How to Be Like Coach Wooden: Life Lessons from Basketball’s Greatest Leader, Walton described Wooden’s practices as “nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding… With coach pacing the sidelines like a caged tiger, barking instructions, positive reinforcement, and maxims: ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry.’ He constantly changed drills and scrimmages, exhorting us to ‘move quickly, hurry up.’ Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear. I’d think in games, why is this taking so long, because everything we did in games happened much faster in practice.”

Unfortunately, most new-agent training in financial services is not nearly as revved up or supercharged. Classes are mainly about the latest product innovation, tax concept, or about how one company’s product is better than another’s. Little time is spent coaching and practicing with new agents — to their detriment.


Practice (Plus Coaching) Makes Perfect

» REPEATED practice of sales skills at the office and in the field is the only way to ensure success. You cannot master a skill without performing it over and over again.

» SPEND significant time planning complete, fast-paced, and fun practice sessions that focus on particular skills.

» DON’T LECTURE during practice session. Talk less and do more.

» ALLOW agents to fail in a safe place. Offer encouragement, and help them learn from their failures.

Firing up the (Financial Services) Players

Time spent developing agents should have a specific component of practice, and a lot of it. As with most anything, if you measure it and report on it, the numbers increase. Noting the number of hours spent in practice and tracking that number over time will provide a way to determine what effect the practice has on results. Holding training on different topics is important, but there should also be specific practice sessions that are planned out down to the smallest detail. Here are some ways to prepare for your practice sessions:

  • Make practice fast paced, exciting, and fun. Have groups of agents compete for rewards, with the ultimate honor being the best performance of the day. Keep it interesting and keep it moving!
  • Plan practice down to the minute. Spend hours preparing for practice. Know exactly what agents will be doing and exactly how they will do it.
  • Use scripted drills. These keep the entire group involved and on their toes.
  • Focus the practice on doing, not on listening. This is where agents hone skills with their coach at their side.
  • Keep it positive. Practice is a place to learn skills, receive instruction, and feel encouragement. It is not a place for scolding or punishment. Here, agents should be allowed to fail — and fail often — as long as they are learning from those failures.


  • Coaching and practicing sales skills will boost agent success.
  • It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become great at something.
  • Practice should be fast, fun, scripted, and tightly planned.
  • One great practice session does not make a great agent.
  • Coaches spend most of their time demonstrating how to properly perform a skill.
  • Coaching is not about lecturing or scolding.
  • Practice and coaching in the field build confidence as well as skill.


  • Learn the theory.
  • The coach demonstrates the skill.
  • The learner tries the skill.
  • The coach provides feedback.
  • Further practice. 
  • Further coaching. 

During practice, good coaching will provide training that will directly affect performance. When done properly, the coaching process will allow skills to be transferred to job performance 80 to 90 percent of the time.


The coaching process shown above is adapted from research done by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers. Their research was published in 1981 in their Journal of Education article, “Transfer of Training: The Contributions Of Coaching.” The process is also just plain common sense. Isn’t this the process we all went through to learn to drive a car, ride a bike, hit a baseball, or write our name? Let’s use the process to turn new agents into great salespeople.

How can you have a strong impact on the development of new agents’ sales skills? For one thing, start practice with a brief review of the concept or theory. For instance, “Today’s session is on closing and answering objections. Here’s what closing is and what answering objections is all about.”

Then demonstrate how to close, but do so one skill at a time. Don’t dump everything on them at once; the brain can’t process too much input at one time. The agents have to see each skill done properly and feel comfortable with it. Demonstration is the first step in building the agent’s confidence to the level of, “If he can do it, I can do it!”

After you have broken down a process into pieces, have agents practice each piece separately. Then put the whole thing together again, and have them practice from start to finish. After this, the agents should try different skills while the coach observes and provides feedback.

Practice all the skills involved in the sales process: the approach, fact-finding, determining the need, presenting the solution, closing the sale, answering objections, and policy delivery. We practice many times, but usually it’s only on closing. That is very important, but practicing a fact-finding conversation is equally as important. If we don’t understand the prospect’s needs and desires, then the solution we present might not solve the right problem. If that’s the case, the prospect isn’t going to buy — no matter how well we close!

Finally, implement further practice and coaching until the agent really nails the lessons. in The Talent Code, Coyle says that winning coaches will tell their students, “Now do it five times exactly right. If you make a mistake, stop and start at the very beginning again. Practice that part five times in a row exactly right.”

The Value of Failure

Now it’s time for agents to use the skills in the real world. Go with agents on sales calls, and see how they do. After they finish and you’re back in the car, you can debrief them, providing guidance and further instruction.

The key to this development method, as in the practice sessions, is allowing the agent to fail. You and your agents will learn more about their abilities if you observe the entire sales process, which may include failure. As long as agents learn valuable lessons, an occasional failure in the field won’t make or break their career.

Demonstration in the field by the manager is also vital to the process. When the agent sees you doing something successfully, exactly the way you taught that agent to do it, his or her confidence jumps. Then when the agent follows your coaching and demonstration and finds success, that person’s confidence soars and learning is reinforced.

Many times, people will learn something new, and then when it works, they’ll stop doing it. To avoid that with your agents, make practice and coaching a part of your training and development system. Put both priorities on your calendar weekly, and remember, it’s not just brand-new agents who need to practice and be coached; the agents with as much as five years of experience can use coaching too. So instill practice and coaching in your agency’s culture.

The bottom line is: in addition to having your agents practice until they can sell in their sleep, make a conscious effort to be a coach as well as a manager for them — and speed their way toward becoming real industry players.

–  Morris Sims

Morris Sims



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