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Applying My Lessons In Martial Arts To Professional Selling

by David Brock on June 8th, 2010

About 6 months ago, I started taking lessons in a couple of martial arts, Tai Chi and Kung Fu.  It’s been a tremendously interesting and frustrating experience.  Progress seems very slow, I feel as though I am still in the “Wax-On, Wax-Off David-san” stage.  Can’t wait to get to the painting the fence part. 

A few things have really struck me (pardon the pun) through the lessons.  They strike me as important lessons to apply to sales–and indeed many aspects of business.

Being in the moment:  I’ve learned to clear my mind, focusing on being the moment.  The moment I waiver  even just a bit, everything crumbles.  Often, as we go through our exercises, I start to think about what’s next, my attention to what is happening in the moment is lost.  Inevitably, I find myself losing my way in the exercise, exposing myself to my opponent, getting myself off balance.  I see the same thing happening in sales.  To often, we are not focused on the moment, but thinking of what’s next.  It’s particularly critical to be in the moment in talking to customers, it’s our opportunity to learn, understand and really engage.  If we are not with our customers, in the moment, we miss cues and opportunities.  If we constantly are thinking about what’s next, we really don’t understand.  Like an opponent in martial arts, the customer can see that we are not with them.

The importance of balance:  Balance seems to be one of the most critical things.  We all know that in the martial arts, your opponent tries to get us off balance.  But what I’ve found, is that it is very easy to get off balance all by myself.  Being distracted, not being in the moment, not having sound fundamentals, not moving fluidly, all sorts of things contribute to throwing ourselves off balance.  The same applies in sales.  Our competition and sometimes customers throw us off balance.  However, more often, I think we throw ourselves off balance.  We do not have a plan, we aren’t prepared, we shoot from the lip, we don’t execute the fundamentals, we don’t listen, we make flawed assumptions, we don’t understand our customers, their industries, we don’t understand our companies or our products.  There are so many things that can throw us off balance in business, we always have to fight those, but until we are in balance ourselves, we cannot perform as effectively as possible. 

Mastery of the fundamentals:  Moves can be very complex, but I am beginning to recognize they are built from a small number of basic moves–the complex moves come from fluidly connecting a number of the basic moves together.  They must be linked in the right order and executed flawlessly to have the desired effect.  Everyone in my classes, from the instructor, through the most experienced, down to me practice the fundamentals.  Likewise in sales, we further we get away from the fundamentals, the less effective we are.  There are a few basics in high performance selling.  Executing these flawlessly, seamlessly and quickly are critical to success.  Regardless of how experienced, top performers always practice and master the fundamentals of professional selling.

Sharpness of execution can beat size and strength: I watched a sparring match between a young lady, barely 5 feet tall, with a guy over 6 feet and about 200 pounds.  You know the story, she beat him soundly.  Her form and technique were better than her opponent’s.  While he was bigger and stronger, her superior execution enabled her to beat her opponent.  The same seems to apply in sales, superior execution trumps size and strength.

Economy of motion:   Watching my Sifu perform is a thing of beauty.  There is never a wasted motion, he moves from step to step fluidly, seemingly effortlessly.  He knows how to achieve his goal with no wasted steps or motions.  Top performing sales people are similar.  There is an economy of motion and actions, no wasted efforts, no aimless wandering through the sales process, no purposeless meetings.  Top performers know how to achieve their goal without wasting time their or their customers’ time.

There’s a lot more that I am seeing in my lessons in martial arts.  Underlying philosophy, how you think, flexibility, adaptability all seem to be elements that separate the masters from the novices.  While I have a long way to go in my lessons, I am learning a lot that makes me a higher performing sales professional.

I’d be interested in the views of readers much more experienced in the martial arts.  How do you apply those lessons to business, leadership, and professional sales?

I’m off to do my exercises, wax on, wax off, wax on…….

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  1. Dave,

    Don’t forget discipline! I practiced Choi Kwon Do for over ten years until some old hip & shoulder injuries got in the way. As a middle-aged guy, I thought I pretty much had the discipline thing down cold. Au contraire!

    Being on time, observing the rituals and protocols, focusing on all the minute details… I recommend martial arts training all the time because of its business benefits. (Plus it’s great exericse and fun!)


    • Todd: Thanks for the addition, Discipline is absolutely key. While I am still new, it is amazing how many lessons can be applied to sales, business, life—-I guess that’s one of the lessons. As always, great contribution.

  2. You should look at a book titled “Zen and the Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams, the lessons learned in that book can easily be applied to life and business. It just takes a little thought on how you can apply them to your life.
    It is a quick read, I think I read it in about an hour due to the way it is written. But if you are this passionate about learning your new discipline, you will enjoy the knowledge that is shared in this book.
    Have fun and welcome to the club of all of us that try and apply what we learn in the dojo (or whatever you would like to call it) to our real lives.
    thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the book reference Erik. It’s now on my list. Thanks for the encouragement–both in the dojo and beyond.

  3. Steve permalink

    listening—or waiting to talk……seems to be where most custimer contact sales mistakes seem to fall. It embodies much of the the above…..and of course the old PPPPPPP(proper prior preparation prevents….).

    • Listening, observing, being patiently impatient are key elements to success. Thanks for the comments Steve.

  4. Hi David – after 17 years of training in martial arts myself I learnt that the invisible strategies of the martial arts are timing, distance and balance – all critical to managing or disrupting the flow of any relationship.

    In addition – commitment to the objective. In combat your willingness to embrace hurt or even death (in sales they might be fear of rejection or loss) allows you to committ to the objective. As sales professionals our level of commitment to assisting our clients meet their business objectives is paramount to our integrity.

    Keep practicing!

  5. All excellent points, David. Bravo!

    Though these are somewhat implicit in your list, I would add respect and tenacity.

    Respect is not earned, but it can be lost. Everyone in the dojo shows respect to everyone else, from beginner, to green belt, to sensei, to grandmaster. In business, much can be gained by recognizing that even the lobby staff have value and can be strong and valuable advocates.

    After years of “practice”, I am STILL learning details about the basic movements and katas, as are most of the sensei at my dojo. It is being in the moment, observant and always striving to do better that makes the difference. When we let the martial arts or our profession become rote and stop participating, we might as well go home and save everyone’s energy.

    Thanks for the late Friday lift!

    Mark J.

    • Mark, thanks for the great insights. All the lessons apply to our business, professional, and personal lives. Regards, Dave

  6. Don Holbrook permalink

    great book and definitely a fit for the salesman today! It was interesting to me that of our instructors most were in the sales/management arena.

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