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Is working memory capacity the real reason why sales training fails?

by Bruce Lewolt on March 29, 2011


Salespeople know they should listen more than they talk and if you ask them, they can rapidly list the steps in your selling process.  Yet when they are in front of a client they almost always talk too much and fail to execute properly on the steps in your selling process. Recent neuroscience research on working memory capacity explains why this happens. It also suggests the solution to the problem.

Working memory is the number of items that you can hold and manipulate in your brain for a purpose. For example, the number of steps in a sales process and the number of pieces of information about a client that you can hold in your head and manipulate to determine what you should say or do next.  Healthy adults can normally hold between three to five items in working memory. This means that if your working memory capacity is five, you can hold and manipulate five items at a time: Add a sixth item and the brain is forced to dump one of the items to make room for the sixth.

To experience the impact of your own working memory limitations try to solve the following two problems. Read each problem only one time and then look away as you try to solve them in your head.

  1. Multiply ten times one thousand, then double the number and add ten.


Were you able to solve the problem? Are you feeling confident? Now try the second problem. Remember, you must solve the problem in your head with no pencil or calculator. To get the full experience don’t give up easily. Instead try hard to solve this problem in your head.


  1. Please read the following problem only once and then look away as you try to solve it in your head. Multiply 267 times 431.

Welcome back! How far did you get before you forgot one of the two numbers in the problem? Don’t feel bad – almost no one can do this problem in their head. The question is why? After all, if most people have a pencil and paper they know the multiplication rules well enough to easily solve this problem.

The reason the average person can’t solve this problem in their head is that they lack the number of working memory slots required to remember the problem, the steps required to solve the problem, and the results of each step.

The fact that you couldn’t answer the second question is interesting. However, the epiphany comes when you ask yourself how you were able to answer the first question. After all, if you use the rules of multiplication the first problem actually involves more steps.

The reason you were able to answer the first question is that in school most of us mastered the use of 10’s. Mastery means that your brain wrote a separate program for solving problems involving 10’s in the same way it wrote a program for riding a bike. Since mastery-based programming runs automatically without using working memory capacity, you had slots available to remember the components of the problem and still solve the problem. When you read multiply 10 times 1000 your brain subconsciously ran the 10’s program and placed 10,000 in one of your working memory slots.

Now let’s examine the brain of a salesperson that just completed a sales training event. The next week they are out in the field trying to recall and use a specific strategy for overcoming objections. In this case it is an objection that a customer just raised in the form of a question.

To properly respond to the objection, the sales person must keep the following items in working memory:

  1. Hold the question the customer asked. (One slot if it is a simple question, two or more slots if it is a multipart question.)

Minimum: 1 slot

  1. Recall and hold the strategy for effectively answering client objections. (One slot for the current step in the process and one slot for remembering where you are in the process.)

Minimum: 2 slots

  1. Recall the facts about your products or services and determine which ones to use in your answer. (This requires a minimum of two slots in order to compare one item to the next.)

Minimum: 2 slots

Danger – at this point most sales people are already out of working memory capacity. The next thing they bring into working memory leaves the brain with no choice but to dump something to make room for the new item. Often this is a critical part of the client’s question.

As bad as this seems, it is actually worse. This is because the salesperson is probably stressed out by the objection. The emotion of stress or anxiety takes up at least one working memory slot if the stress is mild, and almost all of working memory if it is extreme.

Before we leave this exercise, let’s count the rest of the slots a sales person would need in order to effectively execute the ‘overcoming objections’ strategy.

  1. Recall the customer’s primary goals and objectives for needing your products and services in the first place and formulate your response in a way that uses this information.

Minimum: 2 slots

  1. Some systems stress the importance of remembering the personality style of the client and using this information to determine how detailed or brief your answer should be.

Minimum: 1 slot

  1. Use the right emotions .For example, some systems teach a specific method for the level of emotion and energy you should have in your response based on the emotions and energy of the prospect’s question. Of course this must have been remembered.

Minimum: 1 slot

If we count up just the minimum numbers and don’t account for any spaces taken up by emotions, we come in at nine slots. This is far more than the average person’s brain possesses. Yet, everyday millions of sales people effectively execute on this and similar strategies for overcoming objections. The reason they can exceed their working memory limitation is the same reason you can do mental math involving 10’s. The salesperson practiced the strategy on enough different days to stimulate their brain to grow the connections required to reach mastery.

Of course, if the sales person hasn’t mastered the strategy disaster often strikes.  Instead of listening to the customer and effectively executing on the objection handling strategy the sales person interrupts the customer mid-sentence to blurt out information.  The sales person does this out of fear that they will soon forget the important point – which they will as soon as the next thought enters working memory and bumps out the important point.

The most important conclusion regarding working memory is that nothing should be taught in your sales training courses unless it is important enough to teach to the point of mastery. Lots of extra nice-to-know information might make your sales training seminar seem more interesting, but in the long run you are doing your sales people a disservice because during the pressure of the selling situation these extra, un-mastered pieces of information or strategy tips will take up too much working memory capacity. 

Topics: Overcoming objections, Sales Training, Working Memory