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A hidden performance derailer

‘Don’t touch that! It is hot! You’ll get burned!’

If you are unhappy with the performance of your sales team or think it could be better, then you should definitely read this article. In fact, if you are unhappy with anyone’s performance, including yours, you should read this article. I promise you will have some insights.

When I discuss sales performance issues with the leaders of an organization, first in their mind is the level of knowledge the team members have about the company’s products, competitors’ products, customers ‘pain points’, and not to forget the ‘sales methodology’. The common statement I hear is: ‘They are good sales professionals, but they just need to learn more about our company specifics’. Even when proving with data that sales professionals with the least knowledge in those areas are their organization’s best performers, they don’t change their mind. Because it seems so logical. If people knew more about those stuff, they could perform better. Even Plato argued that lack of knowledge is the root of all evil. Who am I to disagree with Plato? And I don’t, I totally agree. If you do a thorough root cause analysis of any performance issue you will end up with ‘lack of knowledge’. But in most cases is not the knowledge you initially think of. In most cases, sale performance issues are not caused by lack of knowledge on the sales professional side. They are caused by the poor design of sales and sales enablement processes because of lack of understanding of a fundamental learning concept: prior knowledge. Because of that, the expectations about what and how fast people can learn and the sales methodologies implemented are utopian. The consequence, and I say it without exaggerating for dramatic effect, is that the sales enablement processes in most of the tech companies consume lots of resources, generate countless activities and outcomes, but make little or no difference to sales performance.

Now, let’s understand why.

Prior knowledge Any learning professional knows (or should know) that when you teach a new concept you need to link it to something that the learner already knows, otherwise the teaching effort will be a waste of time. This is the reason why using analogies is such a powerful teaching technique. But "what someone knows" is the proverbial devil in the details. Imagine a toddler, 3 years old, that walks towards a pot with boiling water. The mother sees him and shouts ‘Don’t touch that! It is hot! You’ll get burned’. The child never experienced hot water and he never got burned, so basically he has no idea what his mother is talking about. Because of your life experience you could imagine two possible main scenarios: 1) The kid ignores his mother, touches the pot and gets burned. 2) He listens to his mother and goes somewhere else.

From the learning perspective this example is very interesting. In both scenarios the kid has been exposed to two new concepts: ‘hot’ and ‘getting burned’. But if you ask him after that what ‘hot’ and ‘getting burned’ mean you can imagine that the answers will be totally different. In the first scenario he will give an explanation based on what he experienced. In fact, if we ask any number of kids that experienced touching the same pot, we will get similar answers.

In the second scenario he will either look puzzled realizing that he doesn’t know, or, much more common, he will ‘invent’ something based on connection/associations made with prior knowledge. For example, he might say that ‘Hot’ is like ‘Chocolate’, and ‘get burned’ means ‘getting yelled at’ because that is his prior experience hearing his mother shouting ‘Don’t touch that!’. Here only my imagination is the limit because we have basically zero control on what connections/associations someone makes when exposed to a concept without physical experience. This makes possible shows like ‘Kids Say the Funniest Things’. Also important is that both experiences will contribute to what is called the ‘illusion of knowledge.’ In both scenarios the child will consider that he knows what ‘hot’ and ‘getting burned’ mean. And he is wrong in both cases. In the first one, because his experience was limited. There are also other ways of getting burned and other meanings for hot. In the second, because the meaning was acquired through association and is most probably wrong or irrelevant. But the child doesn’t know that. In both cases he believes he knows and the next time he hears the concepts, those specific meanings will come to his mind.

As you can realize now, the conclusion is that we need to consider not only the prior knowledge but also how that knowledge was acquired. The level of understanding and the capability to use the knowledge properly depends majorly on the way it was acquired.

This example is very good for parenting but let’s see how it applies to sales professionals.

Take ‘hot’ and ‘getting burned’ concepts, multiply them by ten thousand, and we end up with ‘Hyperconverged infrastructure for the edge’.

The only people that can properly understand ‘Hyperconverged infrastructure for the edge' concept are the ones that built and managed during their career IT infrastructures using different hardware and software applications in different setups and sizes and felt the benefits, the challenges and the differences. They are like the child from the first scenario. Their knowledge was acquired through experience. Everybody else is like the child from the second scenario. Most of their knowledge about IT infrastructure was acquired through connections/associations. And they might think they know and understand (the illusion of knowledge) when in fact they don’t. Almost all sales professionals these days are in this category. And this makes them the perfect candidates for shows like ‘Salespeople say the Funniest Things’. Just ask any IT infrastructure professional who sat in calls/meetings where a sales rep tried to convince him why a specific architecture/hardware/software is better than the one he uses. To be fair to the sales professionals, the same is valid also for most marketing professionals and business managers. And also, for IT infrastructures specialists who believe they know sales and marketing.

But this is not a problem because it is normal. We all have limited experiences and in today’s world we learn most through connections and associations. And because of the exposure to information made possible by internet and social media, the illusion of knowledge is higher than ever (‘illusion of knowledge’ is not something new. Even Socrates debated the influence it has on human behavior).

It becomes a problem when people set goals and create strategies and processes that do not take into consideration the prior knowledge concept and its impact on human performance.

Here are 2 of most common situations that are found in high tech companies of all sizes.

1) Product ecosystem training that sales professionals receive these days does not take into consideration their prior knowledge. It is represented by tens or even hundreds of hours of exposure to slide based content created and delivered most of the time by people that also have very little real knowledge about customer processes and needs, product functionalities and competition. Expecting people to understand, remember and use the knowledge acquired in this way to add value to customers is utopian. And no tool can compensate for this, despite what the Sales Enablement tools evangelists preach. It doesn’t matter how good and how well-organized sales collaterals are if sales reps do not understand the content and the context. It is like using perfume without using soap and water first. Expensive and useless.

2) Because the product is high tech and supports complex business processes, managers think immediately consultative selling type of methodology. But those only make sense when the sales know more about processes and tools than the prospect. Nowadays, most of the time is not the case because the prospects know more than sales professionals about those.

Methodologies like solutions selling, or consultative selling, or SPIN, or challenger selling, etc., are utopian in this context.

One simple model that can help to decide what sales strategies make sense in a specific context is to map the categories of prospects and the sales professional to a tools/processes knowledge matrix. If the situation is like the one below, then no ‘customer education through sales’ strategy is going to work.

Startups and Scaleups are prone to this mistake. Many of them were founded by experts in their field and their initial success is built upon their own sales efforts. Then, they hire sales professionals that are far from being subject matter experts in that specific area and expect them to perform in a similar way. When they don’t, they consider that several hours of exposure to some power point presentations could fill the gap between a subject matter expert and an amateur.

I’m not saying that the prospect is not going to buy the product. He might do it. But not due to sales. Sometimes people buy despite being upset by salespeople’s behavior. They believe the product is what they need and they ignore the sales (I’m sure that most of you have been in your life in the situation when you bought something even though the salesperson was useless or even annoying) The point is that with a sales methodology that does not consider the prior knowledge of the prospects vs sales professionals the sales and sales enablement effort are useless.

The situations described above are only two of the most common performance issues generated by lack of knowledge about learning fundamentals. The implications are much wider and dipper, varying from hiring and management to employee engagement and motivation. As I said at the beginning if ‘prior knowledge’ is not understood properly and not considered, the sales enablement processes will consume lots of resources, generate countless activities and outcomes, but will make little or no difference to sales performance. If you want to know more on the subject or to perform an analysis customized to your organization, you can contact us.

Written by: Radu Mesa

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