How the 4 Stages of Learning Can Help You in Sales

I live by the idea “Always Be Learning.” One of my favorite authors, Stephen Covey, calls it “sharpening the saw.” In short, knowledge is a lifelong journey to engage in continually, not a destination to reach. I teach the 4 stages of learning at the beginning of every single coaching and consulting relationship.

4 stages of learning

A lot of people don’t understand why they’re not growing. The answer is always that they need to be learning more. No matter what you need to learn, there are 4 stages you’ll progress through each time you encounter new knowledge. Understanding them is key to mastering the knowledge at hand.

A client of mine sells a product called load cells. Load cells measure force, so when you do anything with force and you need to put a precise amount of pressure on it, load cells measure that pressure to ensure that you get the desired result. Before working with this client, I was completely unaware that such a thing even existed.

Now, I see them everywhere! When your Keurig machine pops a hole in a coffee pod, there are load cells at work there. They are 1,000 miles in the air in outer space and one mile underground for fracking. They’re under rocketships measuring the pressure under each rocket booster and making sure it takes off smoothly.

As I was learning about load cells so that I could properly serve my client’s needs, I went through 4 stages. These are the stages we all go through when learning any new skill.

The 4 Stages of Learning

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Ignorance is bliss. In this stage, you simply don’t know what you don’t know. This is the spot you’re in when you’re starting in a new industry or meeting a new prospect that you need to learn more about.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

At this point, you’re now conscious or aware of the “thing” in question. This step is where you decide what to do about it. You’re still incompetent because you don’t know much about it yet, but you make a purposeful decision to embark on a journey to become proficient.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

At this point, you’ve chosen to learn the skill, but it doesn’t come naturally yet. You have to stop and think through the steps in order to complete the task. Practicing regularly and receiving encouragement are the keys to success here.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

At this point, you have become a pro. Whatever the task is, you can do it without thinking; it’s second nature. It will appear to others that you’re a complete natural.

Stage Jumping and Teaching

You can and will move among these stages throughout your life. Let’s look at an example.

Driving a car—for most drivers—is a stage 4 task. But as soon as you drive a friend’s car or a rental car, you go back to stage 3.

You know how to drive, but you don’t know exactly how to drive this car. You have to approach it consciously. (Where are the turn signals? How do you operate the wipers? Where is the gear shift?)

If you’re from the USA and you travel to a country where they drive on the left-hand side of the road (like my recent trip to Turks and Caicos), then you have to go all the way back to stage 2. You know what skill the task requires, but you clearly do not have it. You have to learn it. (OR… you can do what I did and let your spouse drive while you shout out stay to the left “encouragements.” What can I say? I’m a great coach!)

In these kinds of situations, it can be helpful to recognize which of the 4 stages you’re currently in and be aware as you move back and forth through the stages.

The 4 Stages of Learning in Sales

Applying this to sales is easy. You know how to overcome objections, right?

Say you have an objection thrown at you that you don’t know how to overcome. You go to your sales manager (or sales coach!) and say, “I just got this objection. How would you handle it?” Your manager tells you what to do. When you ask them how they knew to do that, they may not be able to tell you.

The difference between stage 3 and stage 4 is huge, which can mean it’s hard to teach someone else something that is stage 4 knowledge for them, but stage 3 knowledge to you. While it might be second nature to your manager, it’s important that you learn how to do it yourself.

Whatever the task is, ask them to walk you through it. What you’re asking your manager to do at that moment is go from stage 4 back to stage 3 with you so that you can learn what they know.

When you’re learning something new, don’t be overwhelmed by the complexity of the thing. The product or concept may be unique, but no matter what, it can be learned.

You can learn to sell anything. For over 40 years, I didn’t know load cells existed. But I could go on a sales call and sell them today.

Believing you can get to a stage of proficiency is key in undertaking any new skill. You can even use this framework to hone the skills you already have. You’ll do so by revisiting stage 3 and consciously learning how to improve and practice the skill before getting back to a more confident stage 4.

Learning is a process you’ll be engaged in as long as you’re breathing; don’t let it intimidate you. View all new skills as manageable when taken step by step.

Until next time—go sell some stuff!


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