Seven Stages of Sales Expertise

I’ve always enjoyed the concept of “dog years” – a dog ages seven years for every calendar year. The same principle applies, in a way, to online content. A story on social media from 2012 is about as useful as a piece of toast from 2012. But some content endures. Recently a colleague called my attention to an intriguing article that dates all the way back to 1998.

The Seven Stages of Expertise in Software Engineering, by Meilir Page-Jones, contends that, “there are actually seven stages of expertise through which a person may pass on the journey from total ignorance to world-class knowledge.” The seven stages model was formulated with software engineering in mind, but its creators then saw that it had much broader applicability.

The seven stages of expertise described in this article are: Innocent, Exposed, Apprentice, Practitioner, Journeyman, Master, and Researcher. As a research analyst, I thought it was a stroke of genius to make the highest level of expertise not “master” but “researcher.”

Is this a model we could apply to an individual salesperson? Let’s try it out, tweaking the terminology, and understanding that this is a lighthearted experiment, not the findings of a research study. Having said that, here is my take on the seven stages of professional selling:

  1. Clueless: You’ve never been in sales or given the subject any thought, and you’re unaware that the sales profession actually requires a skill set.
  2. Cynical: You’re not in sales, but you’ve been on the losing side of win-lose sales transactions, and you’re on guard against being manipulated by salespeople.
  3. Beginner: You’ve worked in retail, and know how hard selling is and how difficult customers can be.
  4. Junior Rep: You’re part of a sales organization, you see a path to higher earnings ahead of you, and your role models are the experienced professionals on your team.
  5. Reliable Pro: You’ve been doing this for a while and you’re a respected team member. You’ve made good use of some professional development opportunities, you’ve had some notable wins and you have a good track record.
  6. High Achiever: You’re one of the best in your organization or industry. You’ve earned customer loyalty through your knowledge, your competence and your willingness to listen to the buyer and do what’s best for them.
  7. Sales Master: You’re one of the best in the world. Your customers see you as a valued partner. You have a profound understanding of the deeper and broader patterns of the buyer’s decision-making process. The perspective and expertise you provide help the customer achieve a higher plane of success.

Salespeople are less likely than doctors, lawyers, software engineers, etc., to get the respect they deserve as highly skilled professionals who contribute mightily to the global economy. But those sellers who are the top of their game have labored long and hard to get there.

And by the way, contrary to what you might expect, sales is a great field for new college graduates to consider. I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.


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