I was recently having a conversation with a colleague regarding the implementation of role play in his training sessions.  We discussed how role-playing can sometimes send shock waves through a team of sales associates, and how often this critical step is completely missing from a Performance Improvement plan.  It was through the course of this conversation that I reflected on the Conscious Competence adult learning model developed by Noel Burch.  It is primarily a psychological model that lays out the progression of competence, in four steps,  as one is introduced to a new skill through the mastery of that skill.  This progression in sales skill is happening (or not happening as the case may be) in our retail store locations everyday.  As a leader, manager, trainer or owner of a retail store, it is important to study the science of learning.  With my experience exclusively in the brick and mortar channel, I feel that we are threatened if we don’t develop a thorough understanding of how our associates learn and how we can better educate to serve the customer with an experience that they would never receive elsewhere.  More importantly, we need a methodology to move average performers to superstars, and this will never happen if something doesn’t change in the skills and behaviors of the sales associate.

In the illustration below, you can see the 4 stages of the conscience competence model, along with the training activities in arrows going from left to right.  In the blue boxes are the individual and cultural indicators related to the four stages that one may observe in a retail furniture setting.  Along the bottom is the progression of performance as more competence in the skills are developed.

Level 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Level 1 is the associate that simply doesn’t know what (s)he doesn’t know. This may be the new associate, or in some cases it may be a veteran associate in a situation where very little is measured and/or little is required.  For the new associate, this can be very overwhelming especially if performance standards and behavioral expectations are in place.  For the veteran associate that lacks either, they will move along at whatever pace they feel comfortable.  It would be unreasonable to expect much change in their performance, and the customer experience will be highly inconsistent from one associate to the next.  To move from Level 1 to Level 2, the performance standards (Sales Goals, Closing Ratio, Protection Plan %, Bedding %, Attachment Rates) are clearly communicated and frequently measured.  Behavioral expectations (how we greet the guests, offer products and services, enter an invoice, answer customer concerns etc.) are aligned for the organization.  The first step in creating an effective training initiative is to define what it is that associates are supposed to be doing/producing, and what is it that they are actually doing/producing.  It is critical that these expectations are communicated clearly to the individual associates so that any performance gaps are in recognizable and improvement may begin.

Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence

In Level 2, the associate recognizes that there are areas to improve and the need to develop skill or knowledge in order to excel.  With the new associate, you may hear things such as “there is so much to know” or “I wish I could just soak up all your knowledge”.  It may occur when conducting a performance review when reviewing sales figures and key performance indicators with a veteran associate.  Too often the performance review is a rehash of the obvious with no effective training to improve any performance gaps.  I have heard this “driving forward while looking through the rear view mirror” technique.  Obviously this is foolish and frustrating for the associate.  During Level 2, we must put on our coach hat and provide accurate and specific feedback on the behaviors we observed that contributed to the performance.  Always remember that we provide specific feedback for both good and bad behaviors and related good and bad results.  All too often we only coach poor performance and miss a huge opportunity to provide specific reinforcement coaching for great work.  Work with Level 2 associates on specific learning objectives and build a written plan for improvement.  Training is identifying performance gaps, developing learning objectives and designing effective ways for people to learn.  A lecture isn’t training, nor is watching a video.  Write out activities that the sales associate can DO to learn more or practice a new way of selling.  Providing prompt and supportive feedback as the sales associate is trying on new skills is very important at this stage.

Level 3 – Conscious Competence

This is the “trying on” phase when the associate is working to remember or incorporate particular skills.  If properly constructed, the associate (new or veteran) has one or two new skills that they are working to include in every guest interaction.  Perhaps it is mentioning bedding, asking for the sale or asking for email addresses.  At this level, the associate may get tongue tied or occasionally forget.  This is also why the associate does not like to role play for fear they will make mistakes when they are at Level 3.  It is also important to note that most sales associates will give up on new ways of selling if the behavior is not repeatedly practiced both with real customers and in role play.  It can be said that Level 3 is the most important of all learning levels.  This is an extremely important stage to have the trainer or manager involved in sales interactions and role plays to model the desired approach.  Let’s pretend for a moment that you desire to become a pilot.  You learn all about aerodynamics and study piloting textbooks. You then decide to enroll in ground school and pass the FAA exam with flying colors.  You have a pretty solid knowledge of piloting a small aircraft and can answer questions about what to do in certain situations with great accuracy.  Is this enough then to “know how to fly a plane”?  Obviously (and thankfully) not!  When you are in the pilot’s cockpit the first few hours with a flight instructor, you are white knuckled while your right eye is on the gauges and the left is on the horizon.  You have to apply counter-intuitive skills such as pointing the nose down to pull out of a nose dive.  Although you are consciously competent, you have yet to apply the skills repeatedly so they are etched into your behavior.  In order to move to Level 4, we must practice the new skill until it is as natural as breathing.

Level 4 – Unconscious Competence

Malcomb Gladwell, in his book Outliers, popularized the notion that 10,000 hours of focused practice was the “magic number of greatness”.  Although there has been subsequent banter about other factors influencing greatness, most all agree that no less than 30% of performance improvement is due to practice.  Are we practicing on our customers, or are we providing a safe and well planned role play session daily to reach Level 4 as quickly as we can?  Level 4 performance is the correct behaviors and techniques delivered in a natural and confident way somewhat like a reflex.  Top performers unconsciously behave in ways that engage our customers, and often times cannot describe what it is that they are doing.  On closer inspection we can observe that they are excellent listeners, they ask provocative questions, they understand the product they are selling and can match the benefits of the product to the specific needs of the guest.  They smile, they are professionally dressed, they offer all of the products and services of the store, they service their clients well after the furniture is delivered and they are goal setters.  All of these behaviors, and many more can be taught provided that we don’t stop until mastery is attained in Level 4.