Can you teach a salesperson to be curious?

A sales executive called the other day. He had watched a webinar I conducted on value selling and was thinking about how to implement it in his own organization.  In the presentation, I discuss how salespeople accustomed to solution selling need radically different capabilities to sell on value. The caller wanted to put a training program in place to teach those skills to his reps. He wanted to get started right away and asked how many days our “off-the-shelf” training program would take.


While I was glad the webinar had influenced his perspective on value selling, I also had to give him the hard truth that not all capabilities are teachable.  Many of those required for value selling – such as problem solving and adaptability – depend on deep-rooted personality attributes that every person has to greater or lesser degrees. For example, sellers who tend to be uncomfortable in ambiguous situations will avoid discussions that move into grey areas. Rather than explore a buyer’s true motivation, they will insist on keeping the conversation squarely in the solution portfolio comfort zone.  That’s not value selling.


To which my customer said: “Well, surely, you can teach people how to become better at doing those things.” To some degree, but not to the extent required for sustained success. A born-again value seller may try uncomfortable new behaviors for a few weeks but will invariably revert to doing what is familiar and comfortable, and find ways to avoid doing what you’ve asked.


And that’s not just my opinion. I can give you $20 billion worth of proof. That’s how much U.S. companies spend each year on sales training.  Companies are not getting the sales force productivity results they seek and it’s not because the training is bad. In large part, it’s because sales reps are sent for training (and retraining) for the wrong reasons – to instill behaviors that they simply lack the aptitude or interest to integrate into their day-to-day work lives.


Take curiosity, for example.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog, value-oriented sellers have to fully understand the nuances of the targeted organization.  That means going beyond D&B basics to uncover high-level strategic issues and “below the surface” business obstacles. I can teach a sales rep to read a balance sheet. I can create a course that develops the financial acumen needed to uncover the nuggets in a 10-K filing. But I cannot teach someone to have a natural curiosity about how things work and why. And without that, the rep will not be a successful value seller.


You need to assess potential hires for a range of personal attributes that are critical to value selling before you bring them into your sales organization. Look for people who score higher on certain measures. Here is a sampling of must-have attributes.


Conversely, there are many value-selling capabilities that can be developed through focused learning, such as:



What if you conduct an assessment of your current reps and discover a number of middling performers who appear to be not inclined to true value selling?  What do you do? There are two basic options.


Accept the status quo. Understand that this rep is capable only of performing at his or her current level. Don’t waste time and money trying to “train in” the behaviors that are lacking. Either lower your expectations or move to option 2.

Find another role. Someone who is not a good match for value selling may still contribute to the sales process in a different role. Perhaps, the rep is brought in to perform initial prospecting or manage an account once the business need has been defined.  Alternatively, a rep more focused on feature selling may be better suited in a product/service specialist role.


So, going back to the original question: Can you teach a salesperson to be curious? My answer is probably not.  But, wouldn’t it be easier to identify people who are naturally curious instead, and then focus on developing capabilities that are trainable?


How about you – have you had a similar experience? Does it feel like you’re trying to push a rock up a hill to get some reps to develop value-selling customer relationships? How have you addressed the problem?  I would love to hear your story.  Comment below or drop me a line at



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