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    How to keep representativeness bias from killing your sales results

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    Some of the worst mistakes we make in life we make without realizing their implications at the time. Sometimes, we don’t even know we’re making the mistake, and we may never know we made the mistake - but its effects will impact us regardless.

    The representativeness bias is a little-known but extremely common cognitive bias that causes us to make mistakes about people and situations without realizing we are making those mistakes. And when it is left unattended on a sales team, it can kill results without leaving a traceable trail.

    Here’s what you need to know to prevent it from killing your sales results.

    What is representativeness bias?

    Representativeness bias arises from a mental shortcut that we all take in decision-making called the representativeness heuristic. The representativeness heuristic allows us to draw quick conclusions about a person, situation, or place based on our experience with similar people, situations, and places.

    This is very helpful when one is, for instance, renting a hotel room for the night. If you have past experiences renting from hotels in dangerous parts of town, you might correctly assume that a motel that is substantially cheaper than hotels in the region is not a good, clean, safe place for you to be.

    You have used the representativeness heuristic to draw the conclusion that a very cheap hotel room is probably not as good as a more moderately priced one. You are probably correct.

    However, the heuristic becomes a cognitive bias when we apply generalizations in ways that are not productive. For instance, if you knew someone named Biff in high school who was mean and vindictive, and you forever after assume that all people named Biff are mean and vindictive, that is a problem.

    Though the example may seem extreme, in many cases the application of representativeness bias is more subtle, and almost certainly present on your sales team. Here’s how.

    Representativeness bias among salespeople

    Salespeople constantly make judgments about the people they are interacting with on a daily basis. When they ask the right questions in an unbiased manner, they can quickly get to the heart of which prospects are valuable opportunities, and which are not.

    However, in many cases, salespeople rely on “gut feeling” to decide if an opportunity is worth pursuing, and this creates problems thanks to the representativeness bias.

    For instance, a salesperson may assume that because a prospect is gruff, that they are not a good prospect. This is likely based in previous experience with gruff people whose gruffness indicated a short temper and unwillingness to have conversations.

    However, if the salesperson happens to have reached someone on a bad day or if the person is simply gruff by nature but actually in a strong position to buy, dismissing the prospect can cost your company money.

    On the flip side, salespeople often make the mistake of spending too much time with unqualified prospects because the prospect is friendly and warm. Historically, in life, the salesperson has probably found friendly and warm people to be more open to conversation and more rewarding to spend time with. The representativeness bias tells them that, therefore, it’s more productive to spend time with these people.

    But if the friendly and warm person has no authority, no budget, or is simply a bad fit for your product, then that is wasted time from a sales perspective.

    The representativeness bias can make salespeople spend too much time with the wrong people.

    Representativeness bias among managers

    Likewise, managers can make mistakes about the people on their team based on representativeness bias. They may assume someone is more competent because they share traits such as hair color or height with someone the manager used to know who was highly competent. Or they may think that some salespeople are less competent due to gender, race, or other diversity factors.

    When representativeness bias is based in racial, gender, disability, and other marginalized identities, it can contribute to discrimination without the manager meaning to be deliberately bigoted. In fact, a manager can think that they are completely unbiased, and still act out of implicit representativeness bias.

    When this happens, some of the best team members can be neglected or overlooked, while less competent peers are promoted and celebrated. This is demoralizing to the team, and leads to worse results, in addition to being ethically problematic.

    How to overcome representativeness bias on your sales team

    To combat any cognitive bias on your sales team, apply the five scientifically validated approaches discussed by Carey Morewedge in this interview.

    Those five approaches are:

    1. Learn about cognitive biases
      In this case, simply educating your sales team about the existence and impact of representativeness bias can dampen its impacts.
    2. Learn about the “directionality” of bias
      The directionality of representativeness bias is toward preferring those who remind you of previous positive interactions, and rejecting those who do not. Understanding the directionality can help sales teams to compensate for its effects.
    3. Get feedback on decisions
      For representativeness bias in sales, one of the strongest antidotes is data-based decision making. Track the impact of decisions on a granular level, such as which factors most impact whether a prospect becomes a sale. When you know which factors impact sales and which don’t, you can control against salespeople prematurely abandoning projects or overinvesting
    4. Coach and train
      Salespeople and their leaders must be trained in cognitive bias, and coached. Role playing and anti-bias education can be effective tools.
    5. Watch others making decisions
      Watching video re-enactments of people making good and bad decisions based in representativeness bias (or not) may sound cheesy, but research shows that it’s an effective way to combat bias.

    Representativeness bias is a silent killer of deals. You probably don’t even know how much it’s impacting your team or your results.

    One of the things we are proud of at Membrain is how our tools help managers and their sales teams identify what really matters in prospecting, opportunity management, and account growth - and to focus on those things, so that bias doesn’t have a chance to root itself into the process.

    We’d love to show you how - book a time to meet with us today.

    George Brontén
    Published March 17, 2021
    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. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.

    Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn