Suppose you have one rep — let’s call her Kiley — who’s not as good at cold calling as you’d like. And suppose you have another — let’s call him Shane — who isn’t strong enough at closing.

And suppose further that you want to put your sales force through training in areas where they individually need reinforcement. Surely, respecting Kiley and Shane’s intelligence, you can ask them what sort of training they’d like, and they’ll recognize where their deficits are?

In a word, no.

It would certainly be nice if salespeople were self-aware enough to know what they don’t know, and what they need to get better at. They would tell you what training and development opportunities they need, and you would simply provide them.

But according to a growing body of psychological research, sales reps, like other people, DON’T know what they don’t know, and tend to wildly underrate their skill and knowledge deficits — or, if you will, wildly overrate their abilities.

A blinding effect
This line of research was kicked off a few years back by two experts at Cornell University, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Their work led to the formulation of what’s become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which they describe as a deep psychological bias that blinds people to their lack of skills or smarts.

In essence, Dunning and Kruger found, people’s inabilities prevent them from recognizing their inabilities. As a result, the research shows, they tend to think they’re much better at something — like logic, grammar, sense of humor, or even games like chess — than they really are.

And the worse people are, the more their self-assessment wanders away from reality. Dunning and Kruger found that people who scored at 12% on scales measuring these types of abilities self-evaluated at the 62% level! That’s a pretty clear indication of self-deception. The same effect was found with the better-performing experimental subjects, although to a lesser degree.

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It’s your call
Let’s not draw the wrong conclusion from these findings. You shouldn’t read them as saying that your reps are hopelessly incompetent and too stupid to know it. The right conclusion, it seems to me, is that you can’t trust reps to tell you where they most need training. It’s not that want to try to hide shortcomings (at least let’s hope so), but rather that they just can’t see those shortcomings clearly. The research tells us that human beings find it inherently hard to get a sense of what we don’t know, or can’t do very well.

This psychological fact bears major implications for sales managers who are responsible for creating and/or assigning training. It means that you need to look at the potential trainees, form your own assessment of their skills and deficits, and persuade them that they have a problem needing attention.

For Kiley, you might present her with a log of her cold calls and show her that she spends less time cold-calling than your other reps, and, what’s more, makes fewer sales per 100 calls on average than her colleagues. For Shane, you might calculate a presentations-to-sales ratio and demonstrate to him that his close rate isn’t adequate.

A final caveat: None of this means you should fail to consult your reps about the training they’d like to have. Doing so is a good way to get buy-in. And you don’t want to make training seem like a tyrannical exercise of your positional power. But the research strongly indicates that you’ll get best results when you individualize training to take account of the skill or behavioral gaps you have observed in the reps you want to train.

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