Neuroscience Should Be Changing the Way You Design Sales Training
BY MARGIE MEACHAM
Suppose you had the chance to be present at the very moment of a world-changing discovery? Imagine sitting next to Marie Curie in her lab as she discovers the power of radioactivity or walking with Neil Armstrong on the moon. Maybe you are seeing the DNA double-helix for the first time with Watson, Crick, and Wilson. If you had the chance to be a part of one of these great moments of discovery, would you take it?
Right now, we all are embarking on a great adventure. We are discovering how the brain really works by watching it in the very act of cognition. We are expanding our understanding of how the human brain, a quivering bundle of more than 400 billion neurons, uses electrical charges to transmit and store sensations, feelings, decisions, fears, thoughts, and even our sense of self, on a constant and ever-changing basis. Someday soon, we’ll unlock the code that allows our brains to retrieve the sights, smells, and sounds of your seventh birthday as vividly as the first time you experienced it. And we’ll start to figure out what this wonderful, beautiful landscape of neurons, dendrites, and axons means to those of us who strive to help people learn.
For the past decade, advances in neuroscience have shed new light on how the brain learns. While this science is still in its infancy and there are more questions than answers right now, many teachers, instructional designers and trainers are implementing brain-aware techniques into their work as educators. Yet a quick review of the top 20 sales programs in 2016 offers pretty much the same solution selling approach that has been in vogue for decades. While the rest of the education and training profession is finding new ways to apply the expanding understanding of how brains work, sales trainers often seem stuck in the past. This would be fine if the selling techniques of the past were actually working, but new research shows that people often make a major purchase decision in spite of the sales person, rather than because of him or her. If you want to give your organization a competitive advantage, here are some practical applications of brain science you can use today to revitalize your sales training programs.
TEACH SALESPEOPLE HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS
Think about a major purchase decision you made recently. You probably conducted careful research online, compared feature sets, searched for product reviews, sought out the opinion of friends and colleagues, and ultimately, made what you consider to be a logical decision. At least, that’s how you felt during the process. But you might be surprised to learn that the brain processes emotional and purchasing decisions in the same place — revealing that our emotions factor into any major purchase.
Recently, two different research teams at Duke University discovered that they were studying the same part of the brain to understand two brain functions that were previously thought to be completely unrelated: emotion and high-value purchasing decisions. The region that is getting all this attention is the vmPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), which is located between the eyes in the front of the brain. By watching this region while people are making decisions, scientists have discovered that it’s most active when the subject is asking questions such like: “Is this product or service really worth the price I would have to pay to acquire it?” “Will I regret this decision later on?” “Is this really the very best choice I can make in this situation?”
In answering questions that appear to be about discoverable facts, the vmPFC considers some expected factors, such as the cost of one product compared to a similar product with similar features, expected financial benefits from the acquisition and use of the product, and so forth. But it also factors in some less quantifiable considerations, including status, emotional satisfaction, excitement, and small rewards such as snacks or prizes. This was quite surprising, because the scientists expected to see the cerebral cortex, the seat of our conscious thought, running the show. It turns out that the cerebral cortex doesn’t become involved in the decision until much later in theprocess. What’s considered the logical part of the brain starts coming up with reasonable sounding explanations for a purchase decision after it has been made at an unconscious level. In other words, by the time you can explain the pros and cons of two competing products to yourself or another person, your brain has already decided.
So, did you buy that expensive human capital management application because it would give you more hard data about the effectiveness of your leadership development program, or because it would make you feel smarter than your peers? The answer is most likely a bit of both. If sales people are too focused on making a logical case for their customer, they may miss significant opportunities where the buyer is responding emotionally to the perceived benefits of a particular choice. As a sales professional myself, I am imagining a few readers right now nodding their heads and thinking, “Ah, so that’s what happened to the sale I was sure I had sewn up.”
As early as 1994, Antonio Damasio made the case that emotions are a critical part of the brain’s decision-making process. Because emotions and logic are linked in our decision-making process, we must teach our sales people to allow time for buyers to process the emotional content related to their decisions. Remember that these emotions are happening at an unconscious level, so it may take some prodding to help the buyer bring these feelings up to the surface where they can be examined and discussed.
TEACH SALES PEOPLE THAT THERE REALLY IS POWER IN POSITIVE THINKING AS LONG AS IT’S GENUINE
Many sales training programs focus on the skill of influence. The reasoning is that if you can persuade the buyer to have the same enthusiasm for your product that you display, he or she will be buy it. An interesting study has studied the process of influence by observing brains trying to sell ideas to other people. One group was assigned the role of the intern. Group members were told to bring movie ideas to members of the other group, the producer, and convince these people to make movies from their ideas. Interns were assigned these ideas, which they were supposed to sell.
By viewing a live MRI scan during the experiment, scientists discovered that they could accurately predict whether or not a producer would buy an idea by looking at two responses in the brain: anticipated reward and what’s considered the salesperson effect. If the intern believed that her idea would be accepted, her brain anticipated this success and produced dopamine, delivering a positive feeling of success. She literally experienced her success in her mind before it happened. If the intern did not believe the idea would be accepted, it generally wasn’t. This is pretty much what common sense might tell us, right? We’ve all been told that positive thinking yields better results than negative thinking, and this research confirms that intuitive belief.
In addition to the reward-behavior predictor, scientists found that some people were just more convincing than others. When these people spoke about their ideas, the same area of the brain was stimulated in the intern’s brain and in the producer’s. In other words, the presenter was able to trigger the reward stimulus in another person’s brain. The scientists called this the salesperson’s effect.
It isn’t clear if this effect is the result of some sort of innate ability or brain structure, or something that can be developed over time. Further studies likely will answer those questions.
Soon it may be possible to hire salespeople by watching their MRIs as they attempt to sell something to another participant. We might be able to determine a leader’s communication skills by measuring the strength of his salesperson effect on team members’ brains. If we can discover the mechanism that is triggering this effect, we may be able to even train people to enhance this ability. What we do know is that when two people are communicating well, they are literally in sync, in that their brain waves produced by the electro-chemical communication between neurons is modulating at the same frequency. In a video from a neuroscience conference in Amsterdam, several pairs of people sit quietly and use the feedback coming from sensors that picked up their brain waves to synchronize, which is indicated by the color (or wavelength) begin produced by their brains.
Daniel Goleman, expanding on his initial work in emotional intelligence, has discovered that the brains of two people who trust each other have a remarkable symmetry — their brains are so in sync that they exhibit high levels of brain activity in the same parts of the brain at the same time. The same synchronicity has been found in couples dancing and musicians playing together. Many successful sales professionals have sensed this syncing of brain waves when things are going extremely well in the sales process.
TEACH SALES PEOPLE TO BUILD TRUST THROUGH GENUINE CONNECTIONS
Neuroscience suggests that the less we trust the salesperson, the riskier we believe the purchase decision and the less likely we are to act, regardless of the product’s benefits. Approach-avoidance conflict is a term used to describe a major decision that has both appealing and unappealing elements to it. Since most people inherently mistrust salespeople, nearly every major purchase decision falls into this category. How can we feel good about a deal we’ve just made with a perceived devil? Neuroscientist Paul Zak was one of the first to identify the neurotransmitter oxytocin as an indicator of a high degree of trust toward a stranger, as exhibited by heightened levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin and other “messenger molecules” are released in response to internal and external stimuli, flooding specific parts of the brain and triggering specific emotional reactions. Zak found that the more oxytocin is coursing through your brain, the more likely you are to trust people. It stands to reason that if we can stimulate oxytocin in the buyer’s brain, we can overcome the deeply ingrained tendency to distrust a sales representative. Here are a few behaviors that stimulate oxytocin and make us believe that an individual is trustworthy.
The Power of Touch
Being touched by another human being stimulates oxytocin and other transmitters and increases the feelings of trust toward that individual. Zak found that hugging, in particular, generates high degrees of trust in both participating brains. Handshaking can also improve the degree of trust between two individuals and make the prospect of striking a deal more likely.
Storytelling Builds Trust and Connection
Stories have a profound effect on the brain. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we are immersed in a story, our brains respond as though we are the protagonist of the narrative. Therefore, stories about others buying and using the product can help buyers see themselves making the purchase decision and generate positive emotions about the product and the salesperson.
You Can’t Fake Trustworthiness
Some sales training companies try to give sales representatives a list of behaviors which, if practiced, will increase their ability to generate trust and build relationships. If only it were that simple. In “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins explains that our brains are highly tuned survival machines, so at some point in our evolution it must have become necessary to detect lies in order to stay alive. Today, our brains are capable of detecting false statements or actions within milliseconds. We may not be able to express the reaction in words, but we know at “a gut level” (really a brain level) that some people are not genuine. Trustworthiness cannot be faked; your buyer’s brain will detect the falsehood every time. Turning again to my review of the top 20 sales training organizations, I see a familiar pattern. Their content seems to focus on external behaviors that will make salespeople appear more credible. Neuroscience tells us that we should focus instead on teaching sales professionals to be genuine, sincere, and trustworthy — a much bigger challenge with a much greater potential payoff.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
We’re still figuring out how to use the exciting information coming out of neuroscience, but we can start applying these and other insights now, to make our sales training – and all our training programs – more brain-aware. It’s a brave new world and learning professionals have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to continue to adapt as new information becomes available. Whether we realize it or not, we are observers to one of the greatest eras of discovery in the history of the human race. We’re living in the early days of the age of discovering our true selves, and it is going to change not only how we view the sales profession, but how we understand ourselves.
—Margie Meacham is the Chief Freedom Officer, Learningtogo. She helps people learn and improve performance by applying our evolving understanding of how the brain works, as revealed through neuroscience.