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    5 questions from psychology you need to ask your sales team

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    “There are five questions that determine whether a person will do something or not. These five questions have been heavily investigated at the individual psychological level, the psychobiological level, all the way down to cells and molecules. If you know the answers to these questions, you know whether the person will do something or not.”

    That’s Mårten Bernstad, MSc, psychologist and human behavior expert, and Senior Advisor at Prosales Consulting. Bernstad has spent his impressive career applying academic research into human behavior, psychology, and neurobiology to the practical world of human resources and sales.

    We spoke recently on the topic of sales enablement, and specifically how five questions from psychology can form the foundation of developing a system that truly enables sales teams to perform at their highest potential.

    Here are those five questions, and how to use them to better support your sales teams.

    1. Do I Know What?

    “In order to act, people must have the experience of knowing what to do, and what is to be achieved by doing it.” ~Mårten Bernstad

    This question has two parts. It is both, “Do I know what to do right now?” and “Do I know what my actions are intended to accomplish?”

    In cognitive psychology, “external scaffolding” are structures that enable people to think and act in certain ways.
    Mårten Bernstad

    Often, salespeople understand what outcome is expected of them, but not necessarily the individual actions required to accomplish that outcome. An example Bernstad provides is salespeople who know they need to generate more revenue but think that in order to do it, they need to increase their prospecting numbers, when in fact they would have better results from selecting better-qualified prospects and performing specific actions with them.

    At the same time, it is critical that salespeople know not only the actions they are supposed to take but what those actions are intended to accomplish.

    “Humans generally won’t act if they don’t know what is to be accomplished by acting,” says Bernstad. “Knowing this is an absolute foundation for enablement.”

    For this reason, simply telling salespeople, “Do this and this and this” won’t by itself motivate them to do it.

    “This is about knowing both the outcome desired, and the activities to engage in to get to that outcome,” says Bernstad.

    2. Can I Do It?

    “Does the person have the knowledge, skills, tools, and abilities to take the action?” ~Mårten Bernstad

    The answer to this question becomes quite straightforward once you have the answer to the first question. On the other hand, if you don’t know “what” the salespeople should be doing (or if they don’t know what), you can’t know whether they have the ability to do it.

    “Our work is becoming more and more complex,” says Bernstad. “What used to be the work of sales has been taken over by machines and systems, and now salespeople need to have very good skills and tools, and to be able to do their jobs within an extremely well functioning system.”

    In cognitive psychology, there is a concept called “external scaffolding,” which refers to structures outside the person that enable them to think and act in certain ways. This external scaffolding can take the form of content management, sales process, and anything else that helps the salesperson answer the “Can I” question affirmatively.

    “Membrain is an example of external scaffolding,” says Bernstad. “It provides the structure necessary to help salespeople know what to do as well as to find the resources so that they can do it.”

    3. May I Do It?

    “This question refers to feeling the mandate to make the decisions and the calls necessary to achieve what you want to achieve.” ~ Mårten Bernstad

    This question may seem elementary. Sales managers are often frustrated by salespeople who feel they’re not “allowed” to do something that, from the sales manager’s point of view, they clearly are allowed to do.

    The problem can go the other way too–salespeople can take actions that they in fact are not supposed to take, such as offering discounts or making promises that can’t be fulfilled.

    “A helpful conversation to have with salespeople,” says Bernstad, “is to find out where they feel they don’t have mandates to take action, and to be clear with them about where they do and don’t have that mandate.”

    4. Do I Want To Do It?

    This and the next question are interesting because an affirmative answer to the first three often result in an affirmative answer to these two.

    This question can also be stated as, “Do I value this work?” “Do I want this outcome?” or “Do I value what the company is accomplishing by my taking this action?”

    Of course you cannot answer those questions if you have not already answered the “what” question. But once you have, it becomes much easier to get a motivational attitude. Salespeople who understand what to do, what the action will accomplish, who know how to do it, and who feel empowered to do it, are very likely to also want to do it.

    Furthermore, you can use the answers to the previous three questions to get the right people on board, people who value the work and have the right skill sets to do it. This is far more effective than trying to muster enthusiasm and capabilities from people who don’t actually want to do the work.

    5. Shall I Do It?

    This question refers to feeling the responsibility and the motivation to complete the work. Like the previous question, it can be an outcome of affirmative answers to the previous questions.

    When you know what to do, what it will accomplish, how to do it, that you are allowed to do it, and you actually want to do it, then it is very likely that you will do it.

    A negative answer to this question, however, usually indicates a negative answer to one of the previous questions, and bears further investigation.

    Putting It All Together

    These five questions can form the basis for a sales enablement system.

    “When you work on all five questions,” says Bernstad, “you get more engagement. You get more action and more effective action.”

    To apply it to sales enablement directly, it can be approached from a high level, in addressing the “what” of the organization, and it can be worked straight down to the most granular level.

    Recall Bernstad’s statement quoted at the start of the article:

    “These five questions have been heavily investigated at the individual psychology level, the psychobiological level, the neurological level, and all the way down to cells and molecules. If you know the answers to these questions, you know whether the event in question will occur.”

    You can ask these questions at every level of the sales organization, from the most strategic decisions down to the “cellular” level of every step of the process, and every activity within that step, for every salesperson.

    We believe Membrain provides the ideal tool for investigating your organization in regard to all five questions, and providing the “external scaffolding” to support true, effective behavioral shifts that lead to better performance. Contact us for a demo.


    marten_bernstad_headshotMårten has more than 20 years of experience from bringing strategy to life through people. Before joining Prosales, Mårten has been a VP, and senior leader in the blue-chip companies Sony and Maersk and a Senior Advisor to Management Consulting companies specialized in commercial excellence and people performance.

    Mårten is a chartered psychologist, specialized within the field of organizational psychology and an expert on strategic thinking. From working in different leadership positions in HR, Mårten has deep and extensive experience from leading change, such as global re-organization and restructuring programs, comprehensive development programs, and global system implementation programs.

    Mårten has long experience from developing commercial excellence with many different clients. His work has ranged from creating go-to-market strategies involving product development, marketing, sales and customer services, to agile optimization and building scenarios of activities within the area using sophisticated statistical analysis.


    George Brontén
    Published October 30, 2019
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.

    Find out more about George Brontén on Twitter or LinkedIn