The Stanford Study that just Might Help you Sell More

October 2, 2013 Nancy Nardin

hand tapping The Stanford Study that just Might Help you Sell More

Salespeople know they won’t close a deal if they can’t make the connection between their solutions and a high-value outcome. Yet executive buyers believe only 8% of salespeople are focused on driving a “valuable” end result for the buyer.[1] That buyers feel their needs are being ignored by salespeople surely can’t be for lack of trying. Something is clearly going wrong in the process of communicating value. Why the disconnect? What’s happening during sales conversations, and why deals fail to close, may both have something to do with the curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge was aptly demonstrated back in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton. Ms. Newton was a Stanford University graduate student in psychology at that time when she conducted a study based on a simple game. She assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Tappers were asked to pick a song most people would know, like “Happy Birthday,” and tap the rhythm of the song on a table. The listener’s job was simple; guess which song it is.

Before the experiment, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability their listeners would guess correctly. Tappers felt listeners would guess the right song one out of two times, or 50% of the time. Over the course of her experiment, the rhythms of 120 songs were tapped. The results of the study were astonishing. Turns out listeners were able to guess only three of the 120 songs correctly. That’s a success ratio of 2.5%, a far cry from 50%. Why did that happen, and what does it have to do with a buyer’s perception that salespeople aren’t value-focused?

When a tapper taps, they hear the tune playing along to the taps. What the listener hears is quite different. They don’t have the benefit of the tune playing in their head. What they hear comes only from the sounds being tapped. So they can’t make the connection between the song and what is being tapped.

When salespeople and prospects have a conversation, both are tapping and both are listening. When the salesperson talks, they have the curse of knowledge – that is, they have a tune playing in their head that the prospect doesn’t hear. As the “tapper” salespeople have the benefit of knowledge that the buyer doesn’t have like how their product works, the value it brings, what problems it solves. It can be difficult to put yourself in the buyer’s position and to understand they don’t have the benefit of your knowledge.

If you’re a salesperson, you shouldn’t assume buyers will know what you mean when you use industry jargon. You shouldn’t assume they’ll know what you mean when you describe a problem that your company can solve. Be specific. It’s not enough to say, “We can help you move deals through your sales process.” You know what that means but will the prospect?

Conversely, when a prospect describes their needs to a salesperson, they are now the tapper and the salesperson is the listener. It is the prospect, in that instance, who suffers from the curse of knowledge. For example if they say, “we’re having a problem getting our salespeople to input data into the CRM system,” they know what they mean. The salesperson won’t necessarily understand what they mean, because they don’t have the benefit of knowing what the prospect is thinking. The prospect could mean, “When salespeople are in the field they aren’t able to find Wi-Fi hot-spots when they need them.” Or, they could be saying that, “Salespeople refuse to use the CRM system.”

As a salesperson, it’s your job to clarify, clarify, clarify. Remember, you’re only hearing the prospects’ tapping. If you don’t ask questions that uncover the “music” buyers hear in their heads, you will likely head down the wrong path. And that’s where the disconnect occurs. Salespeople are always at risk of focusing on the wrong thing and when that happens, they come across to the buyer like they aren’t listening—which gets us back to the statistic at the beginning of this post.



[1] Forrester Research

Nancy Nardin is the foremost expert increasing sales productivity through the use of tools. As President of Smart Selling Tools, she consults with many of the top sales productivity software vendors as well as end-user organizations looking to select the right tools. Click to get Nancy’s What & When weekly digest with invitations to complimentary webinars and informative publications. Follow Nancy on Twitter @sellingtools or subscribe to her Sales Productivity blog. Nancy can be reached at 916-596-3035. To schedule a free 30 minute consultation click here.

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