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The Neuroscience of Effective Sales Coaching

It’s About the How, Not the What

As any sales manager will tell you, one of the most challenging aspects of his or her job is sales coaching. It is one thing for your sales professionals to have a cognitive understanding of what to say during a pitch – the words to use, the appropriate script, what body language to display and which tactics to utilize when handling objections or other nuanced situations.

It is another thing (and mediated by completely different systems in the brain) for your sales professionals to have the people skills, the intuition if you will, to know how to deliver the pitch, how to display the appropriate body language, and how to handle a broad range of situations. Although a cognitive understanding – an understanding of the “what” – is useful, it is people skills – the “how” – that closes the deal.

Here is an example that all sales managers can relate to: A new sales rep is trained on your product and services.  He or she has a deep understanding of the sales process and is well-versed in responding to objections and answering questions.  He or she meets with the client on more than one occasion, seemingly with positive feedback, yet fails to win the deal.  As a manager, you are left to wonder, why?

In follow up discussions, you come to realize that although your rep answered the prospect’s questions and objections correctly, they missed the subtle messages coming through – perhaps lack of eye contact by the client, lack of follow up questioning or relaxed banter.  Missing the signs of disinterest – they fail to turn the call around and engage. This example speaks to the difference between cognitive and behavioral skills – both of which are needed for successful selling.

People skills are about behavior. They are about knowing the “how”. The sales professional with strong people skills seems to say the right thing, in the right way, under the right conditions with ease. But in reality, it is often experience and a learned process of behaviors that get them there and wins the day.

Although many sales coaching tools claim to target behavior change, they often focus more on a cognitive understanding (the “what”) and less on a behavioral understanding (the “how”).

As I have elaborated in detail in other research reports, there are distinct learning systems in the brain. Each system is optimally tuned to specific types of learning, and critically, the training tools that most effectively recruit each learning system are different.

  • The cognitive skills learning system has evolved to learn facts, figures, and the like (the “what”). Cognitive skill learning relies on working memory and attention and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex. Processing in this system is optimized when information comes in brief, coherent chunks (often referred to as microlearning), is delivered spaced over time, and is tested periodically to ensure storage of the information in long-term memory. I refer to these procedures as those that “Train for Retention”.
  • The behavioral skills learning system has evolved to learn behaviors (the “how”). Behavioral skill learning does not rely on working memory and attention. In fact, “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behaviors are learned through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment feedback learning in the basal ganglia. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. If a behavior is elicited that is rewarded, dopamine will be released, the neural connections that drove that behavior will be strengthened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will increase. If a behavior is elicited that is punished, dopamine will not be released, the neural connections that drive that behavior will be weakened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will decrease.

People skills are central to success in sales. People skills are behavioral skills. They are about what we “do”, “how” we do it, and our “intent”. The best sales coaching solutions target these skills.

The best sales coaching requires real-time, interactive feedback training. This is why in-person or virtual role play with real-time interaction and corrective feedback is often the best. Unfortunately, this approach is not scalable. Scalable solutions with true interactivity will likely require further advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. In the meantime, although the majority of sales coaching platforms are not truly interactive, many are still quite effective. The most common approach is to use video-based sales coaching.

If you are shopping for a sales coaching tool, we at Amalgam urge you to consider vendors with video-based training tools that allow a broad array of feedback that includes open-ended commentary from managers and peers, as well as ratings on standardized rubrics.

If a vendor touts the use of artificial intelligence or machine learning, don’t be wowed by the buzzwords – get a common-sense description of the details being offered.

Pay special attention to vendors offering time-stamped feedback or point-in-time feedback as they have the greatest potential for behavior change. Talk with the vendor about their roadmap and whether they are actively conducting research and development that is exploring true real-time, interactive feedback options. Vendors that argue against the importance of real-time and interactivity should be abandoned in favor of those who recognize and embrace what neuroscience makes clear. The field is moving quickly and artificial intelligence and machine learning are getting ever closer to embodying real-time interactivity. That is your ultimate goal and should be the ultimate goal of sales coaching vendors.

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