The Curse of Knowledge in Selling

The Curse of Knowledge in SellingEver hear a sales rep come back to the office and say “We almost got it but the prospect just doesn’t get it.”  When you ask them to explain, they do (what sales rep doesn’t?).

“We had great chemistry. I understood what they needed, which was all in our solution. I covered benefits then features, and then deliverables. But the prospect just didn’t understand why we designed our solution the way we did.”

This is the curse of knowledge.

For the prospect to understand your solution, it requires some degree of knowledge, which may be conceptual, technical or experiential. It’s often complex, advanced knowledge.

Obviously you have this knowledge. So when you present your solution, you believe your prospect has that same core of understanding.

Until you get to the price, when your prospect can’t justify what they get for what it will cost. They can’t make that connection between your solution and how it will get them to where they want to be. They lack the knowledge you built your solution on.

The Curse of Knowledge is Real

Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student, studied the curse of knowledge in 1990 using a simple game. She assigned people to one of two roles. One role was asked to tap out the rhythm on a table of a well-known song (a “tapper”). The other role was to listen and guess the song ( a “listener”).

The results were surprising: “Listeners” only guessed three out of 120 songs correctly. Yet the “tappers” predicted the “listeners” should recognize the songs 50% of the time, compared to the real success ratio of 2.5%.

This is what happens with the curse of knowledge. The “tappers” can hear the song in their heads, a full symphony even. The “listeners” only heard the taps.

One Workaround to The Curse of Knowledge in Selling

When sales reps work from a core of knowledge, without which prospects are confused or lost, their success ratio may resemble the “tappers” and “listeners”.

Here’s a workaround that can help sales reps.

During the fact-finding phase, before the presentation, ask the prospect what success looks like to them. Get them to describe what they’ll see when a solution really works well.

Don’t let them off the hook with something vague or ambiguous. Ask them where they’ll see it, when, and how long will they see it for.

Is it a change in behavior of others? Who?

Is it a change in something physical? What does it sound, feel, smell like?

You need to get a concrete and specific description from them.

Now, after you’ve designed your solution, during your presentation, you playback to them the description they’ve given you.

Their description becomes your benefits description, the result of their buying your solution.

You are describing how your solution will deliver their results, and describing it exactly as they’ve seen it already.

By doing this you create a bridge between your solution and what they want to receive. You’re not attempting to educate them at that moment, it’s too late for that. But you are giving them the opportunity to make a decision to get results and outcomes, which you’ve just described in their terms. People buy on emotion and justify with facts. You have the facts and have just given them the emotion to buy you.

This workaround does involve trust and credibility. But you’ve already gotten over most of those hurdles by getting to the presentation stage.


The curse of knowledge is invisible, it’s unseen until it strikes, and then it’s lethal. It’s a 2.5% success ratio of “tappers” and “listeners.” No sales rep wants that.

Avoid the curse, make the prospect’s vision your deliverables. Give them a connection they can walk on from your solution to what they want to buy.


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