Forget ABC–The Most Successful Salespeople Focus on ABL (Always Be Learning)

This guest post original appeared in a newsletter from Andy Paul from The Sales House and the Accelerate! podcast. Sign up for Andy’s educational emails for more great sales content.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”–John Maynard Keynes

It’s a widely accepted belief that salespeople don’t invest enough of their own time and energy in improving their skills, increasing their capabilities and otherwise elevating their overall competence. I’m not sure that any research has been done on this subject. However, my own experience has shown this to be true.

What isn’t clear are the reasons why sales professionals are such reluctant learners. Given that their compensation typically is tied to a commission plan that rewards performance, one would think that would be sufficient incentive for sales people to invest every available moment in their self-improvement.

Why Are Salespeople so Reluctant to Invest in Themselves?

One popular theory is that salespeople are lazy; that they do the least work possible to get by. I spoke with the VP of Sales Enablement of a high-growth company last week who voiced that opinion. He was at a bit of loss about what to do. His sales team was pushing back against traditional sales training as ineffective and a waste of their time. And, yet, he had no confidence that they would take the initiative to learn on their own.

While undoubtedly there are lazy salespeople, I don’t believe that lack of motivation is the problem.

Instead, the primary culprit appears to be the inability of sales people to accurately assess the state of their own competence. Or, as the case may be, their incompetence.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-known phenomenon named after the social psychologists who first documented it. The first part of the Dunning-Kruger effect, to put it in sales terms, states that those sales people who are less skilled, or less competent, are less likely to recognize their weaknesses or deficiencies.

As a result, these under-skilled salespeople actually over-estimate their capabilities. And, since they truly believe they are more capable than they actually are, they are less likely to proactively seek out new knowledge to learn more about sales or to otherwise invest in their professional development.

I call this behavior confident incompetence. Unfortunately, the confidently incompetent comprise too large a segment of the sales profession with their self-reinforcing cycle of negative behavior.

old school salesperson who doesn't read new industry books Confident incompetence doesn’t discriminate–new reps, seasoned vets, and even sales leaders can all suffer from it.

The second part of the Dunning-Kruger effect states, in sales terms, that those sellers who develop their competence and become more skilled, are more likely to recognize just how much more they need to learn to further improve their capabilities.

In fact, Dunning and Kruger found that this same group of high-performers were more likely to underestimate, and be unsure of, just how capable they were because they were acutely aware of just how much more there was to learn about sales.

This behavior, which is the flip side of confident incompetence, I call diligent diffidence. This humble awareness that there is always something to be learned that will increase your capabilities, no matter how skilled you are, is a self-reinforcing cycle of positive behavior.

The challenge for sales leaders becomes how do they break the vicious cycle of the confidently incompetent and instill a desire for self-improvement in every member of their sales team.

Women on a sales team discuss their latest book reading for continuing sales education.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Front Line Managers Must Spend More Time Coaching Their Under-skilled Sales Reps

What I have observed over decades of working with managers is that they spend a disproportionate amount of their time coaching the top performers. They don’t evenly spread their attention and feedback across their team.

2. Confidently Incompetent Sales Reps Need Honest, Direct Feedback

I know, it doesn’t sound very touchy-feely. However, this is an instance where a person needs to be shocked out of his or her zone of self-satisfaction and complacency. An easy way to accomplish this is to take one call and have the rep and their manager(s) score it. Seeing the dissonance between the scores should be a good wake up call.

3. Give Sales People an Objective Measure of Their Capabilities and Knowledge

Use tests and assessments to provide under skilled and overconfident sales reps an objective measure of their capabilities and knowledge. Ask them about various parts of your sales process such as prospecting, discovery calls, and setting next steps.

4. Institute a Mandatory Team Learning Program

Start with something simple like an in-house book club (read one book per month and dedicate 15-20 minutes per week for discussion). It’s an easy way to involve every member of the team in broadening their knowledge base and enhancing their capabilities. To paraphrase Brian Tracy, embracing the habit of reading just one book per month about your profession will make you an expert in your field and propel you to to the top 1% of earners.

Need some reading suggestions? Check out Steve Richard’s Top 10 Sales Books

Encourage your sales team to become lifelong learners and watch them grow. With time your company’s alumni network will be filled with directors, VPs, and even C-level executives.

How do you stay educated on the latest developments in the sales industry? What are your favorite resources to learn from?