How Automaticity Is Messing Up Your Sales Training—and What to Do About It

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sometimes it sucks to be my husband. Let me explain. Alex is from a country that was part of the former Soviet Union. Apparently, manual transmissions work differently over there. We discovered this when I needed to hop out to shift my car into reverse before we slowly slid into a parked car while he was driving. Admittedly, it didn’t help that some not-too-helpful mechanic had gorilla-glued the knob on the stick shift upside down and backwards the last time it popped off.  

To avoid another close encounter with a parked car, I carefully outlined the gear pattern on the back of a napkin for Alex the next morning over breakfast. I thought we were all set, until the incident repeated itself as we headed out an hour later. I hopped out once again and smoothly shifted into reverse as Alex watched dumbfounded. I had mistakenly drawn the gear pattern incorrectly and he had the crumpled up napkin to prove it. 

Really, I was not trying to sabotage my husband. Rather, I’d fallen prey to a phenomenon known as automaticity. “Automat –what?” you might be thinking. 

Automaticity is a scholarly term used to describe what happens when a routine procedure becomes internalized through practice or repetition. The expert performs the procedure without thinking about the individual steps. In fact, in some cases of automaticity, the expert can become unable to break the procedure down into its component steps.

As you can see, automaticity causes problems. The most common problems are that the expert: 

  • skips steps
  • arranges the steps in the wrong order
  • gets the steps wrong altogether
  • fails to communicate important information necessary to perform certain steps. 

Shifting a car into reverse is a pretty straightforward, simple procedure. Can you imagine the potential impact of automaticity on a more complex procedure, such as managing sales objections or closing a sale? To say that information could be missing when sales experts teach these skills during boot camp would be an understatement. It’s no wonder that many new sales reps struggle to meet quota. 


So, how do you counteract the impact of automaticity? Here are five ideas.

#1: Flowchart the procedure, including not just steps, but decision points.

By identifying decision points, you start to identify places where information critical to performing the procedure might be hiding. You can use the flowchart as an interview guide to get at the 5Ws (what, when, where, who, why) and 1H (how) behind every step and every decision.

#2: Work with someone trained in the art of fearlessly interviewing.

This person (ideally, a non-expert in the subject at hand instructional designer) will ask the “stupid” questions that help surface missing steps and critical information that would otherwise be lost to automaticity. They can then incorporate what they’ve learned in the development of the training materials.

(Notice that I said “fearlessly.” This person has to be able to withstand withering looks and condescending tones from subject matter experts in the pursuit of answers to those “stupid” questions. )

#3:   Get learners in on the action.

During the training, have the expert do a live demo with a real customer or record this in advance. Then, set the new sales reps free to ask “stupid” questions that get to the heart of the expert’s thinking and help them break down their process. (This requires that the facilitator knows how to and has created a safe environment conducive to learning.)

#4:   Build in mentorship opportunities.

Sometimes information lost to automaticity only comes to light when experts see novices doing something “weird.” So, as much as practical, have experts observe and provide feedback to newbie reps. This observation doesn’t have to be live. It can be a quick review of a recorded phone call, for example.

#5:   Develop a library of best practice job aids.

The library can consist of presentation decks, audio recordings, videos, templates, and checklists. Make sure that you include notes along with every resource about why it is a best practice. The notes don’t have to be extensive. But, they should explain the rationale behind why this resource was included in the library as a best practice and go into the thinking behind the design of it.


About the Author
Diane Valenti, founder of Applied Performance Solutions, Inc., uses her instructional design ninja skills to help companies reduce their sales onboarding ramp time and help sales teams rapidly acquire product knowledge. She works with Fortune 500 and startup companies, alike. Get Diane’s checklist to learn if you are making these 10 incredibly common mistakes that slow sales onboarding.
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