The Ladder of Sales Competence

In psychology there’s a model called “the four stages of competence” that explains how people move through different stages when learning new competencies. I find this model interesting to have in mind when it comes to sales competence and sales technology.

With Internet at everyone’s fingertips, sales knowledge is easily available. But how do we go from knowledge to competence – from theory to practice? Let’s look at how Linda, a young sales professional, moves through these stages (like the rungs of a ladder) in regards to the classic questioning sales methodology SPIN by Neil Rackham.

1) Unconscious incompetence

In this state of blissful ignorance, Linda does not know what she does not know. She has never heard of the SPIN questioning methodology, nor does she understand the value that SPIN could provide. One day, when speaking to a successful colleague, Linda is given the advice to learn about SPIN, taking Linda to the next rung of the competence ladder:

2) Conscious incompetence

By hearing the story from her trusted friend, Linda now knows what she didn’t know before and has been convinced that she’d benefit from this competence. She orders Neil Rackham’s classic book from Amazon and is eager to learn this methodology.

3) Conscious competence

When reading the book and trying the methodology out with her friend as her mentor, Linda is putting knowledge into action and soon starts using SPIN in her daily conversations with customers. She now knows that she knows SPIN, but constantly needs to remind herself when and how to use it. She realizes that she has more work to do before becoming a master at it. By continually practicing SPIN, Linda works her way to the next stage:

4) Unconscious competence

When having used SPIN for a longer period of time, it has become second nature to Linda. She’s now asking the right questions at the right time without even thinking about it – it’s like riding a bike: once mastered it, it sticks. For Linda, the new skill creates more meaningful dialogues and helps her gain trust and business from more clients.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”


In the model, this fourth level is the highest state of competence. However, there’s a risk that Linda becomes complacent and treats this state as a constant, instead of further fine-tuning her approach, maybe by using specific language matched to the personality styles of the people she’s talking to. Inspired by the blog article “the mindful leader” from azzur (, I think a fifth layer should be added:

5) Mindful competence

By being mindful to how you do what you do and the responses you get from other people, you can find nuances to improve. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer (with colleagues Timothy Russell and Noah Eisenkraft) has done research into the positive effect of mindfulness on performance. Orchestra musicians were asked to replicate a classical performance with which they were satisfied (mindless) and then make the piece new through subtle adjustments they each chose (mindful). Not only did the musicians prefer playing mindfully, on playback audiences judged the mindful piece far superior. In the same way, sales people can be coached to raise the bar of their performance.

The classic pitfall – getting stuck at conscious incompetence

How often do we order books and don’t read them? How often do we read books and don’t go from theory to practice? How often do organizations send their sales people to training classes only to be disappointed when they revert back to old behaviors just weeks after the training? As much as 87% of what we learn is forgotten if we don’t go through stages 3 to 4. In simpler words – there will be no results without practice and reinforcement.

The role of process and technology to increase sales competency

By including educational content and checklist steps within the context of a staged and milestone-centric sales process that is easy to follow, sales managers can make knowledge actionable and help sales people climb the ladder of competence quicker. This is especially helpful when ramping up new sales hires and can save companies large amounts of money. Or when we introduce a new product line and can’t rely on sales people having the best sales behaviors in their backbone.


By | 2017-11-04T15:25:15+00:00 oktober 9th, 2015|Sales Proces|0 Comments

About the Author:

Ik ben partner bij SalesBreakThrough met het specialisme Mindset en Sales. Ik heb jarenlang ervaring in Salesmanagement in verschillende branches. Zo lang ik mij kan herinneren heeft het menselijk gedrag en denkpatronen mij enorm geïntrigeerd. Binnen SalesBreakThrough breng ik Mindset en Sales samen. In mijn werk geeft ik organisaties en hun medewerkers een kijkje in het menselijk brein. Waarom doen we wat we doen? Wat houdt ons tegen om succesvol te zijn. Belangrijke elementen zijn mentale veerkracht, hoe herstel je als Sales van een “nee”?. Ook focus is een belangrijk element die steeds vaker op de proef wordt gesteld. Een van mijn doelen is een mentale veerkrachtige en succesvolle salesomgeving. Met behulp van inzicht in psychologie en de juiste mindset kunnen we voor alle sales generaties een positieve en effectieve werkomgeving creëren. Daar zet ik mij graag voor in.