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Consultative Selling: Consciousness Vs. Competence

Many business professionals are familiar with the multi-stage “competency model” made famous, in part, by Disney University’s legendary dean, Mike Vance.  This blog examines that model, and its potentially surprising and sometimes even hazardous implication for the consultative salesperson in her/his client interactions.  Let’s look at the four levels of competence:

Unconscious Incompetence— not unexpectedly, this is the lowest and most challenging level, where we have little or no awareness and knowledge and literally “don’t know what we don’t know.”

  • An example:  A baby is not only unable to tie his/her shoes but, in fact, doesn’t even know what shoe laces are, or that they need to be tied. (Enter Velcro®— but that’s another story.)

Some unconscious incompetence situations are very serious:  the usually confident, product-savvy salesperson who doesn’t fully understand a complicated new product could easily blow the sales presentation.  The next stage above such “blissful ignorance” is:

Conscious Incompetence— Here, we are aware of our shortcomings; we do “know what we don’t know.”  This isn’t always a bad or dangerous condition (if it’s temporary); indeed, when we’re new at any job or activity, we’re all consciously incompetent until we learn, practice and develop proficiency.  That baby can eventually understand the need for shoelaces and learn how to tie them.  Progressing toward the next higher level is very satisfying:

Conscious Competence— Here, we do have competence, but must consciously think about what we’re doing: it doesn’t come very easily or “automatically.”  Despite our proficiency, we aren’t very efficient, or good at problem solving or multi-tasking.  The low-handicap golfer who must always be thinking about his stance, grip, back swing, etc., is consciously competent— but not likely to become a champion. The top competence level is:

Unconscious Competence—   Here, we have such a high level of proficiency that we can perform most or all of the task with little conscious thought; we’re operating largely on autopilot.  The star athlete who’s “in the zone” isn’t thinking about the mechanics— just strategies.  We all strive for this, and feel proud if we get even close.

Now, the punch line: for the consultative salesperson, unconscious competence is arguably the second most dangerous level of this model.  Client/salesperson dialogs are so complicated and variable that even your most historically successful communication and relationship techniques risk being ineffective— if not downright destructive— in this particular dialog with this particular client in this particular situationAlways be a “fly on the wall,” continuously observing, critiquing and, as necessary, changing your tried-and-true techniques; take nothing for granted.  (We might name this “conscious unconscious competence,” but that seems a bit over the top.)

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