Here’s a heavily loaded question. Are you good at selling? On a scale from 1 to 10. One is poor, and 10 is world class. Do you have the number in your mind? And yes, there is a question behind the question: “How good are we at gauging if we are good at selling?” in other words “What’s our level of self-awareness concerning our own sales knowledge and capability?” This is metacognition and it is the key skill to opening up our blind spots. Metacognition is the ability to monitor and measure our own thinking. It is a tough skill to master, but it brings big rewards. Being able to monitor your thinking effectively enables you to assess your own performance more effectively and reduce potentially harmful blind spots. You may think you can already do this. Some people can do this better than others, but in all of us, there are cognitive biases that help to build our blind spots. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way that we process information and they recur predictably in particular circumstances. These cognitive biases get in the way of us being accurate about our capabilities, our knowledge and our performance. It turns out that some of these cognitive biases are particularly strong in sales people.

In sales workshops I ask the delegates if they are good at selling using this question: “If the average in the room is 5, how good are you at selling from 1 (poor) – 10 (world class)?” This survey has been run with thousands of salespeople from different countries in different industries. There’s never been anyone from any sales population score themselves at less than a five. Not one person, ever. I don’t know how good you are with statistics, but it can’t be possible for everyone to be better than everyone else. This ‘optimism’ cognitive bias means at least half of the sales people in the survey are over-optimistic about their capability, which manifests as an illusion of superiority over their colleagues.

There is a very good reason that people are typically more optimistic than pessimistic. According to Tali Sharot, director of the Affective Brain Lab and faculty member of the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, “Optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into the brain.” In her book ‘Optimism Bias’, Sharot describes how being over-optimistic about oneself can be seen in everything from smoking and diet to marriage. Smokers think that the other smokers will die. People eat unhealthy food regularly because someone else will get heart disease, and even people who marry for the second time believe it is once again ‘forever.’ But my research shows that when it comes to salespeople, the optimism reaches an altogether higher level. Which in some respects is good, because if there’s one behavior that we want salespeople to have in spades, it is optimism.

So this is not completely bad news. We want salespeople who are optimistic about their products, optimistic about their customers and the market. However, when it comes to self-awareness we also want salespeople to be aware of their capability and, specifically, aware of their capability gaps. If they are more aware of their capability gaps, they are more likely to do something about it, and sales performance should improve as a result. This is where boundless and unchallenged optimism can get in the way. If salespeople are unaware of their capability gaps, not only are they less likely to do anything about them independently, but they are also less likely to take advantage of any support being offered. When I ask salespeople if they need training, they invariably answer, “Yes.” So on the surface, there’s engagement. But when I drill down a further layer and ask what they mean, the answer changes: “The training will benefit the others, the underperformers, and the new guys. I’ll take just the bits that I need.” This example of the optimism bias is the person overestimating their qualities and abilities, relative to others, and masks significant blind spots. From this, we can see why some salespeople are not engaged in the support that is provided for them, for example, training and coaching. They feel that the support is not relevant to them. Some may go further and feel that it is insulting to them and their situation because they simply don’t need to improve. Like over optimism in sales forecasting, this is a surprisingly common blind spot in sales populations.

We run a similar survey with the same salespeople after the workshop. We ask the question: “From 1 (poor) to 10 (world class) how good are you at selling using these new techniques?” This is performed after they are aware of their optimism bias. Even then, and even with new skills just learned, skills that they have never performed in the real world, the salespeople are equally over-optimistic about their capability. Again, everyone is above the average of five. This confirms that when challenging a sales population on their sales capability, at least half will be over-optimistic about their capability. And that is the case even if they are aware that their responses are over-optimistic!

My field observations of salespeople with prospects and customers backs this up. As part of the diagnostics and before the field visits, I ask the salespeople to predict their score of the competencies to be measured in the meeting. I also ask sales managers and sales leaders to predict the scores for their teams. Let me give an example to illustrate this. Let’s say the sales leaders want the sales teams to perform a certain sales skill, for example, hold an in-depth review of the prospect’s situation at the start of the sales process. The sales managers and sales leaders are asked to predict the capability levels of their salespeople at doing this in the meetings. Each salesperson is asked to predict their score before a meeting, too. An observer then accompanies the salesperson and scores what they observe. After a representative sample of salespeople has been observed, I compare the predictions with actual observation. What I consistently find is that salespeople typically overestimate their capability by approximately 25% in even the most basic sales competencies. Sales managers typically overestimate the sales capability of their sales populations by approximately 20% above that of the sales population’s estimations. Remember that the sales populations are overestimating their capability by 25%, and so the sales managers are overestimating capability by 45%.

As Darwin observed in The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert….” The learning is clear:

1) Sales leaders, sales managers, and salespeople all overestimate the capability of salespeople in customer facing sales opportunities
2) To get an accurate picture of capability, someone outside of the sales team should be used to observe behavior to eliminate the biases that cause these blind spots.

Many sales transformation initiatives begin with assumptions about levels of sales capability that later turn out to be false. The impact on sales transformation is catastrophic.

When you’re taught to navigate using a map, you quickly learn the most important thing to know is your present location. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t plan a route to where you want to be. Because of significant blind spots, most sales organizations on a journey of growth are struggling locating accurately their current location, their current reality. This makes finding the destination of increased sales performance and growth almost impossible. If we are to maximize sales performance and growth, we need to know exactly what has to be improved. It sounds so obvious, but relying on our own view of our sales performance is misleading because of cognitive biases hard wired obstinately into our brains. The bad news is that we have cognitive biases that limit our self-awareness and subsequently our decision making capability. The good news is that we can do something about it, and Deal Hacks are designed to reduce the effects of cognitive biases in the sales process. This is why Deal Hacks are so effective as a sales transformation tool. They strip out the cognitive biases that cause overoptimism, not just when it comes to deals, but also when it comes to sales capability. 


Are you good at selling?