Sales Bullpen Sales Newsletter - December 2003

Take time to rethink how you are selling- Make sure you are not 'Unconsciously Competent'

The end of the year is always a good time to take time and think about the past year in preparation about how you are going to improve your approach to selling in the coming year. In my book, Accelerate Your Sales, I talk about becoming 'Unconsciously Incompetent'. This means that you don't know what your aren't aware of that you might be doing wrong or doing right in your approach to sales.

When is the last time you tried a new sales approach with your prospects, a different telephone cold calling introduction, or tried hard to really understand the business problem the prospect in front of you is trying to solve? We are all creatures of habit and we all settle into whatever seems to work for us or has worked for us in the past. The true professional is always looking for ways to improve their skills, learn new techniques and try new approaches to try and improve their success rate!

A famous American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed one of the leading theories regarding how humans learn. Maslow developed the concept that there are different stages to conscious learning by human beings. There are four stages of learning and in order for you to grow and learn something new, you need to pass through each of these four stages.

Stage One Unconscious Incompetent
The first step in how humans learn is known as the unconscious incompetent stage. This stage describes the process in your learning when 'you don't know what you don't know.' For example, let's say you are joining a new company in their sales department. You have never been in sales before and have no experience in this field. All you know is that you are interested in going into sales. You've heard it's a good career, and it sounds like a lot of fun. You don't know anything about the products you're are going to be selling or the customers. You don't know anything about the competition or even who the competition might be. You are not aware of how little you know about what it will take to be successful in your new sales job.

Stage Two Conscious Incompetent
You get offered the job and now you have been on the job for a few weeks. It starts to sink in that there is a lot to learn about selling with your new company. You have now become a conscious incompetent. You begin your sales training and start to 'know what you don't know'. This can be a painful stage as you realize how much you have to learn in order to do your job. Many new salespeople can become disillusioned at this stage when they see how much work they have to do, but this is normal. You have to look inside yourself and decide that you are going to do whatever it takes to come up to speed. You slowly start to take steps to learn what you need to know in order to succeed. This is where your real growth begins. You start taking sales training courses about your company's product line, its history, and how your company sells its products. The more you learn the more excited you get as you begin to understand the benefits and advantages of your company's product line.

Sales skills are like any other skill. It requires understanding, practice, focus, and an open mind in order to keep learning and improving your skills set. The conscious incompetent stage can last for several weeks to well over a year. If you are fortunate, your company offers a structured training program for its new sales people to make this transition as easy as possible. Take advantage of this opportunity to get a good foundation in basic sales skills, as well as training on your company's products and procedures.

During my first year with I.B.M., we were put through a very rigorous training program that involved taking classes at their executive sales training center in upstate New York over the course of several months. We were given training on the history of I.B.M., the culture of the company, information on I.B.M's products, the basics about how businesses function and an introduction to the I.B.M. sales process. At each step of the way, we were tested, videotaped, graded, critiqued and videotaped. At the end of that program I felt like I.B.M. had given me the equivalent of an MBA in professional selling. That sales training gave me the foundation of sales skills that I continue to build on today.

Stage Three Conscious Competent
This stage is the reward for all of your hard work. After completing some of your training classes, you start to realize that you have learned a lot about your company and its products. You start to regain your self-confidence and self-esteem. The hard work you put into learning new sales skills starts to pay off with your customer contacts, and you start to see early sales success. You begin to appreciate that you 'know what you know' about selling and presenting your company's products.

During my first year of training at I.B.M, I kept asking those around me, 'When am I going to feel like I know what I am doing? There was so much to learn, the basics about the data processing industry, product information, and company sales policies.' Everyone kept saying that one day the light bulb will come on and everything will fall into place. In fact, that is exactly what happened.

One day, I was meeting with a client and when asked a question about one of our products, instead of having to think for a minute the answer just blurted out! I suddenly realized at that moment that all the product knowledge I had acquired had become internalized. It was now a part of me just waiting to come out.

I understood the client's problem and knew instinctively what solutions might solve it. I was consciously competent and felt like I knew what I was talking about.

Stage Four Unconscious Competent
The next stage of learning is when you reach the stage that you are unconsciously competent. This is the stage where everything feels natural. You demonstrate your selling skills effortlessly without even thinking about them. The sales skills that appeared rough and awkward months before have become automatic. You intuitively know which questions to ask and how to present your solution so that your customers are convinced why your solution is better than the competition's. It feels like you win your deals easily and without much effort. You are at the top of your game. This is the stage where you don't know how much you know.

Full Circle
Then one day, you lose one deal, then another. You can't understand why this is happening. You are using all of the same sales techniques that you have been using for the past year or so. Those same approaches worked in the past. Why aren't they working now?

Without realizing it, you have come full circle. You have gone from being unconsciously competent to being unconsciously incompetent again. You are back to where you started when you first began in sales. Except this time, the reason you are losing deals is because you have not kept up with the latest product developments or maybe you haven't kept up on the competition's newest product announcements. You suddenly find yourself back to where you started, 'you don't know what you don't know.'

This is a moment of truth. You can either continue to do the same things over and over again, and start to lose more and more deals or you can 'wake up' and take a hard look at your current sales approach and think about trying to learn some new selling skills.

I hope that you will think about this concept of the unconscious incompetent and use it to force yourself to look at things differently and to try new ideas like the Planned Sales Process.

Good Selling,

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