Let’s suppose that one of your less-experienced salespeople is struggling with sales discovery. So who’s the best person to teach her how to do it? Is it:
- Her immediate boss — the front-line manager who signs her paycheck?
- Her boss’s boss — the VP of Sales who knows everything under the sun?
- Your best discovery artist — the seasoned pro who is the recognized expert in your organization on sales discovery?
- Or her colleague in the next cubicle — who also struggled with discovery, but has gotten better at it lately?
Research suggests that your best bet is her colleague in the next cubicle.
It seems obvious that the best person to teach you something is the one knows it best. That’s why salespeople who want to make a million dollars go to seminars run by salespeople who’ve made a million dollars, why we wish that the top salespeople in an organization weren’t so busy making money for the company so they could spend more time sharing their knowledge, and why sales trainers work with subject-matter experts, extracting their knowledge so it can be passed along to less enlightened learners.
But there’s ample evidence that experts aren’t very good at teaching what they know to non-experts. They suffer from the “curse of knowledge” — precisely because they are experts, their brains work differently from those of non-experts. It’s almost as if, in order to become an expert, you have to forget what it was like to be ignorant.
So, for example, that discovery wizard on your sales team can’t really explain how to do effective discovery. He might tell a newbie, for example, that the key to effective discovery is to find out what keeps the customer up at night. So the newbie diligently asks a prospect: “What keeps you up at night?” and the prospect says, “Nothing. I sleep like a baby.” No, the expert explains, you can’t just ask the question; you need to get buyers to open up first. “Well, how do you do that?” the newbie asks. “It depends,” the expert says.
A recent study of medical students found that the most effective teachers were “near peers” — students who were just a little bit farther down the learning path than the person who needs to be taught. (Medical residency programs memorialize this approach in the adage, “See one, do one, teach one.”)
The reason near-peers are better teachers, it seems, is because they have a foot in both camps. Like experts, they know the material and have demonstrated competency. But they still remember what it was like to be ignorant, so they intuitively know how to explain the concepts to someone else. “When you do discovery, start with easy questions,” the not-quite newbie might explain. “I usually ask how many people are in his or her department.” Unlike experts, near-peers aren’t hobbled by the big picture. They remember the awful feeling of not knowing what question to ask next, and how they figured out a way around. Heck, they probably still have their cheat sheets.
An added bonus of using near peers is that it helps lock in their own learning. Here, too, the “see one, do one, teach one” rule applies. When second-year medical residents teach first-year residents a procedure, they have to think more deeply about what they themselves have learned. The same goes for the slightly competent salespeople that you ask to teach others. They get better too. Meanwhile, you can let your best salespeople sell and your managers manage. Everybody wins.
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