The Power of Habit Book

Keystone Habits – Three Behaviors That Can Transform a Mediocre Sales Team into World Class Performers

People often ask us what change they could make that would have the greatest impact on sales performance for their team. I imagine they expect to hear things, “If you better qualify opportunities, you’ll waste less time on deals you cannot win.” Or maybe, “If you have meaningful business conversations, you’ll better understand how to impact your customers’ business.” Or possibly even, “If you help buyers develop differentiating criteria, you can build significantly more value and sell at higher margins.”

While all these things will definitely help INIDVIDUAL salespeople sell more, the most significant change for an ENTIRE TEAM is actually far more fundamental and has the potential to be considerably more impactful. The most significant change any sale team can make is to develop these three keystone habits that have the power to enable a mediocre team to become perennial winners.

What is a Keystone Habit?

In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg coined the term keystone habits, which he defines as “an individual pattern that is unintentionally capable of triggering other habits in the lives of people.” One of the things that is so fascinating about keystone habits is that they often-times do not represent the ultimate change or behavior we are seeking. Rather, keystone habits are enabling patterns that allow us to affect the change we are after.

An example from everyday life is exercise. Duhigg notes, “Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.” The implication of course is clear, if we want to eat less, be more productive, patient, and financially responsible, start by creating a habit of exercise and we will be on our way to affecting the other changes.

The Changes Salespeople Make

We’ve all been part of programs intended to help salespeople make some change that promises to improve their performance. We want them to prospect better, qualify more thoroughly, present in a more compelling fashion, build greater value, negotiate more effectively, populate the CRM with real data … the list varies by company, team, and even person. In each case however, a new habit is needed to help improve their sales effectiveness. So, sales enablement implements training, tools, and programs to affect these changes. Unfortunately, all too often, the desired changes are adopted by relatively few, while the majority of people continue to do the things they do, the way they’ve always done them. The stats are so often cited we’re tempted to accept them as unavoidable:

  • According to ATD, up to 80% of new skills are lost within 1 week of training if not used

  • A study by HR Chally showed up to 85% of sales training fails to deliver a positive ROI

Keystone Habits for Sales

Fortunately, there are three keystone habits for sales organizations that are so powerful as to trigger all manner of other positive changes. These simple, but essential habits form the foundational behaviors for a high-performing, adaptable sales organization.

Habit #1 – Learning

It seems almost condescending to propose that effective sales organizations must develop the habit of learning. However, over thirty years working with dozens of companies and hundreds of thousands of salespeople, it has becoming undeniably clear that most organizations are not in the habit of learning new skills, or growing existing skills, on a regular cadence. Sure, they conduct training sessions. But training events and learning are not the same thing.

In a learning organization, people continually get better as a core part of their jobs, not as an infrequent and separate activity. If learning were a habit, it would happen regularly and any new activity, new product, new strategy, or new market dynamic, could be easily integrated into the normal cadence of the sales organization with a high degree of comfort that the overwhelming majority would be able to apply what they learn quickly.

Habit #2 – Practice

It’s tempting to simply include practice with learning and shorten this list, but that would be a mistake. While practice is an integral part of the learning cycle for new skills, it is too often overlooked as a fundamental habit or discipline in the organization. Most sales teams practice with peers or coaches so infrequently that when they do it sparks a round of complaints that might seem more like teens objecting to chores than professionals mastering their craft. There is no substitute for practicing our selling skills in front of people who can offer meaningful coaching, and there is only one way to make role-playing less painful – do more of it!

Picture a professional sports franchise that doesn’t practice in front of one another, or their coaches and you can quickly imagine them losing regularly. The only reason that doesn’t already hold true for selling is that so few teams are engaged in regular practice that failing to do so isn’t as significant a handicap as it would be in sports. However, this is almost certain to change as the pressure to improve sales execution grows. Forward thinking sales teams should get ahead of this trend and integrate regular practice into their workflow so that they can better execute key selling behaviors and outperform their competition.

Habit #3 – Coaching

We’ve written and spoken extensively in the past about the critical importance of coaching, including in a recent webinar hosted by, which you can find here. Coaching is an essential keystone habit for the sales organization because done properly, it will drive the cadence of learning and practice that are so fundamental for the sales team. However, effective coaching must include root cause analysis and the assignment of learning and practice activities in order to promote the adoption of those other keystone habits. When managers revert to feedback instead of coaching, sellers don’t get better, and they don’t value the engagement. For more information on the difference between the feedback and coaching, download our Guide to Sales Coaching here.

Developing Keystone Habits

As Charles Duhigg has noted, developing new habits is not easy. However, for sales organizations that effectively adopt these keystone habits, the rewards are significant. When sales teams routinely acquire new knowledge, practice and refine their skills, and leverage effective coaching, they not only get better at sales engagement, but they also get better at everything else. New products are launched, new strategies implemented, new market conditions embraced, and new programs and tools adopted more effectively when teams have developed the habit of continuous learning and improvement. These keystone habits drive exceptional performance and the possibility of a sustainable competitive advantage

How will we develop these keystone habits? As all habits are formed by cue, routine, and reward, Mr. Duhigg advises that changing habits is best accomplished using existing cues and replacing the routines. How does this apply to our keystone habits for sales? Here is just one example to consider:

Leverage the Opportunity Review

Nearly all sales teams regularly engage in a review of open opportunities. Developing these keystone habits doesn’t require replacing this activity with something else. It merely requires updating the routine with new activities and rewarding the adoption of these new behaviors.

Current Pattern

Cue: Opportunity Review meeting between seller and manager

Existing Routine: Manager asks seller series of questions in order to understand how qualified the opportunity is and makes recommendations about next steps the seller should make to increase their chances of winning.

Reward: Assuming the feedback is useful, increase win rates. Even when that isn’t the case, manager encouragement affords some reward

New Pattern

Cue: Opportunity Review meeting between seller and manager

New Routine: Manager asks seller series of questions in order to understand how qualified the opportunity is and identifies areas where the seller can improve their skill. The manager assigns a learning activity based on the identified root cause of any gaps in the sellers understanding of the opportunity.

Reward: During their next meeting, the manager audits completion of the learning activity. Positive reinforcement is provided whenever assignments are completed and a role-play confirms the seller has improved their skills, providing an additional reward.

Beyond integrating the new habits for sellers, companies will need to create new routines for managers to ensure their coaching includes learning and practice activities that help cement the keystone habits. An important part of this will be measuring coaching frequency and activity for at least as long as it takes to form these new habits. One example for this would be to add a team effectiveness or personnel development item to the normal forecast review most senior leaders conduct with sales managers. This would help to cement the importance of coaching and development in addition to achieve sales objectives.

It certainly takes effort to form these keystone habits, but the potential payoff for organizations that succeed in doing so can be amazing. One organization we saw make tremendous progress in developing these habits was able to achieve 16% growth in revenue per rep. In another case, the Nashville office of a national technology provider consistently out-performed other markets in profitability, total revenue and quota attainment through three different market leaders.

Want to talk more about how your organization can develop these keystone habits, connect with us here to schedule a conversation.

At Axiom Sales Kinetics we’ve spent thirty years helping sales teams coach, learn, and sell more effectively. We offer a unique alternative to traditional sales training. Unlike traditional sales training events, we embed our methodology into your sales cadence, delivering dramatically better sales results. To learn more about Selling the Axiom Way, our Kinetics Sales Effectiveness Platform, or our unique, guaranteed approach, please visit us at

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