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John Reid
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The following is adapted from Moving from Models to Mindsets.  

Having deep expertise in your products along with great confidence about this knowledge is a source of strength for any salesperson. However, having expertise and “being the expert” are different, depending on how you approach a conversation. “Being the expert” often leads to behaving in ways that can be deadly – like talking too much or demonstrating a lack of curiosity.

The model known as the “expertise trap” reveals that when you’re confident and knowledgeable about a subject, you tend to lose your curiosity about it. In fact, people with little or no knowledge about a topic share the same level of curiosity as an expert. For example, if your knowledge about opera is limited and someone tells you about an opera they attended, you may not ask many questions. Conversely, if you hold an MFA with an emphasis on classic music,  you may be less curious about someone else’s study of classic music theory since you know all of this “stuff” already. This hubris can be compounded by sharing everything you know in order to demonstrate your “smarts”. The same argument can be made when it comes to selling. That is, if you have a degree in chemical engineering and find yourself selling chemicals, your curiosity about a production manager’s operations might be shallow, to say the least.
Be Curious
When you approach conversations as knowing some things, but not everything, you’re more likely to be curious and your goal as curious salespeople is to find that middle range and stay there. This space is essential for a salesperson because it helps you understand your client and shows your client that you want to understand them. So, the questions to answer are – how do I stay in a curious place? How do I find this sweet spot?
To begin, you need to be aware that there are two evolutionary tools working against you. First, we are pattern seeking and meaning making. With little data, our brains are wired to make inferences so we can quickly assess threats and opportunities. Second, neuroscience has taught us that wefeel before we think. The center of our brain’s limbic system, the amygdala, assigns meaning to incoming stimulus and registers an emotion. All of this happens fast, only fifty milliseconds or a twentieth of a second, for our amygdala to react favorably or unfavorably. These lightning-fast judgments have enabled us to evolve, survive and thrive, but they limit our curiosity because when our limbic system assigns meaning, our prefrontal cortex is hijacked and we don’t think deeply or ask a lot of questions.

Given this mix of evolution, expertise and confidence, the antidote is to seek out difference. Remember, our brains quickly look for patterns or meanings which leads us to pay attention to similarities “How is this customer like this other customer?” In reality, most things are different. Even clones are not identical. Instead of asking questions to fit a client into a prescribed model, ask questions that lead you to discover what makes them unique. For example, that chemical engineering expert can stay in a curious place by asking a client, “how is this operation different from most?” or “what makes this reactor different from others?” At the very least, this demonstrates that you care about the customer. In the best moments, you’ll gain new knowledge that will lead to richer questions, deepen your expertise and perhaps uncover a need the client didn’t know about.

It’s important to have a deep knowledge around your products and services, but if you focus on “being the expert” you risk losing sales because you will have a tendency toward telling customers everything you know and spending little time learning about them. Ultimately, the salesperson who stays curious and looks for differences is of greater value to their customer.

John Reid is the author of Moving from Models to Mindsetsand is Founder and President of JMReid Group, whose clients include Ernst & Young, ProAmpac, Global Healthcare Exchange, Fox Sports, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In 2015, JMReid Group’s work was featured in Training magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame Outstanding Training Initiatives.

 For more advice on avoiding sales pitfalls, you can find Moving from Models to Mindsets on Amazon.