Remember how you felt on the last day of college? As you tossed your cap into the air, a jubilant thought popped into your mind: “I’ll never have to take a class or test again!” With school in your past, it was now time to join the workforce.
But today, school and work aren’t diametrically opposed. In fact, they’re tightly interconnected. HR experts advise those who want to get ahead in their careers to continuously learn new skills and take on boundary-pushing projects and responsibilities. So if you think you can completely abandon the books and lessons on graduation day, think again.
Jill Konrath is one of the most vocal proponents of lifelong learning in the sales community. Her book Agile Selling not only explains why learning is critical for sales success, but also lists numerous strategies to get up to speed in record time when you're selling something new. In this interview, she discusses how and why to invest in learning beyond your college years, dives into the neuroscience behind learning agility, and even reveals her own personal learning habits.
You’ve said that agile learning is the only competitive advantage for salespeople today. Why?
Jill Konrath: Today our products and services have pretty much been commoditized and prospects realize they can easily get something similar from somebody else. So as a salesperson you’ve become the primary differentiator in the sales process.
There’s an old saying in sales: ‘All things being equal, people buy from those they know, like, and trust.’ That is maybe the stupidest thing I ever heard because your job as a salesperson is to make things unequal. And you do that through the knowledge you bring to the sale and the ideas and insights you offer prospects on how to run their businesses more effectively and achieve their goals. Products and services can be replicated, but you can’t.
The other reason it’s so crucial is because everything’s changing all the time, and the one who is able to adjust more quickly will be the one who gains the competitive advantage. The person who can get up to speed faster will dominate.
How should people start to become agile learners?
JK: The first thing you need to do is realize you’re in charge of your own learning and your success depends on it. I don’t mean to be cynical by saying this, but I see people stop learning all the time. So choosing to continue to grow is the number one thing. Committing to do something every day to expand your horizons is crucial.
Also, there’s a need for continual experimentation. The way I look at sales is as a continuum of effectiveness -- on the left side we have not at all effective and on the right, totally effective. Our job in the sales field is to continue to push the continuum to the right side.
So we always need to be looking at what we’re doing and thinking of ways to increase our effectiveness. We need to try new things. For example, you could experiment with different email or voicemail messages, the way you do your demonstrations, and the questions you ask.
Salespeople should constantly strive to find a more elegant way to do an activity that requires less work to hit the same or better results.
How much time do you recommend people devote to learning per day?
JK: I think people should spend a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes a day because it takes us that long to conceptualize. There’s a lot of information out there and it can take a while to find something relevant.
You need to stay up to date on your customers and the marketplace. You need to improve your business acumen. You need to learn more about how other companies are addressing their challenges and achieving the goals. You need to get better at selling and you need to master new technologies.
If you’re not doing that, you’re falling behind. Somebody else is getting better as you’re becoming less valuable. I see so many irrelevant salespeople I want to cry. They stopped learning.
Why aren’t we all naturally agile learners?
JK: We’ve never learned how to learn. Most people have no idea there are specific strategies they can implement that will help them slash their time to proficiency. So they muddle along, doing their best to absorb what they need to know.
Plus, when people take a new job, they assume they will be trained -- and so they abdicate the responsibility for their learning to the company. The truth is, most companies are lousy at onboarding. That’s why you need to take personal responsibility for your own success. The smartest thing you could do is focus on what it takes to rapidly learn the new knowledge/skills you need to be good at your job. It’s a totally portable skill that will help you throughout your career.
By the way, it’s not a statement about someone’s intellectual ability if they’re not a naturally agile learner. They just haven't discovered how yet.
And what makes it even more challenging for us is how our brain works. According to neuroscience research, our brain is constantly looking for patterns it can replicate so it can conserve energy. So when your brain sees you repeating the same process multiple times over a couple week period, it starts automating the process. Before you know it, you’re on cruise control when you’re prospecting, giving demonstrations, responding to questions, and more.
Your brain actually stops you from continuing your education because it’s gotten comfortable. When you do step out of that comfort zone, it raises red flags -- ‘You’re going to look like a fool! It won’t work!’ So you back down and default to what you’ve already learned even though it may not be the most effective way.
To be an agile learner, be aware that cruise control is natural. But growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone. We need to always be stretching. It’s the only way we can personally become the differentiator.
What are some of the common objections you hear when you suggest that salespeople devote more time to learning?
JK: People typically say, ‘I have to learn how to be a better learner? I don’t have time to do my job!’ Yes, salespeople are swamped. But look at your failure rate. You have to realize what you’re doing is not the most effective way.
Take a look at the number of calls you make in order to get a meeting set up or the number of initial client meetings that turn into second meetings, and determine the failure rate.
With so much failure built into your job, even a slight change because you’ve taken the time to be more effective and learn more can significantly alter your success. To me, that’s phenomenal. Take some of the time you’re spending on failure and invest it at becoming more proficient at one sales activity that would get you significant returns on your time.
What are your own personal learning habits?
JK: I’m a sponge. I actually have to control myself because I have such curiosity. Right now, neuroscience fascinates me. The field is uncovering so many interesting things about how the brain works and what that means to all of us. When you know this, you can change what you’re doing to maximize your potential. That’s how you stay on top of your game – and stand out from your peers.