Confidence Beats Competence


What are the ideal characteristics for a person in a sales position? Great people skills? Strong product knowledge? Add confidence to the list. Continuing a discussion started in Convince With Confidence, there’s more evidence that the average person finds a confident demeanor persuasive, even when the confidence may mask a lower level of competence.

Doctors aren’t salespeople (in most cases), but they are in a position of making important recommendations to their patients. These recommendations require both an analysis of the patient’s situation and matching that with a set of appropriate products and services… not all that different from many sales roles. A study had subjects watch videos of patient/doctor interactions and then asked the subjects to evaluate the doctors. Each doctor began by taking a history and performing a physical exam, confirmed the existence of a heart condition, and then wrote a prescription for antibiotics. In some cases the doctor in the video showed no uncertainty in the need for the prescription, while in others he did acknowledge some uncertainty but went ahead and prescribed them anyway. In one video, the doctor said merely, “You have nothing to lose,” and wrote the prescription. In another, the doctor checked a reference book before writing the prescription.

Here’s the surprise: the physician who looked at the book was judged to be the least satisfying. That may seem illogical – would you prefer a doctor who exercises caution before prescribing potentially dangerous drugs, or has a “What the hell, you have nothing to lose?” attitude? In this study, though, confidence trumped caution and, quite likely, competence.

This research is described in The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, who note:

The self-help literature focuses extensively on the importance of appearing confident. Rightly so: You will persuade more people and consequently have more success (at least in the short term) if you present your ideas confidently.

The authors point out that while faking confidence might be a viable short-term strategy, it likely won’t work in the long run nor will it be effective if so many people do it that confidence loses its signaling value. I’d add another caveat: confidence combined with inaccuracy have a negative effect. I’ve had salespeople confidently tell me things I knew weren’t accurate. I immediately dismissed them as phonies. Had they expressed some doubt or offered to check the facts, I would have stayed engaged. Then again, perhaps they didn’t get caught often enough to force a strategy change.

So, how should one build confidence into a sales team? I’d start with a few principles:

Hire confident people. While you are likely doing this implicitly – you likely wouldn’t hire a sales applicant who seemed unsure of herself or qualified the answers to many questions – make confidence an explicit item on your checklist. I haven’t found a good test for confidence, though the interview process itself should be a reasonable indicator. Interestingly, there are some indications that confidence is in part a genetic trait.

Provide Appropriate Training and Resources. Most individuals who aren’t pathological liars or con men will behave in a more confident way when they actually know they are right. Providing product training and knowledge resources will increase confidence when dealing with customers.

Lead With Confidence. In communicating to sales persons, expressing doubt or focusing on complex, nuanced issues may end up reducing their confidence. Starting a presentation with, “We have no idea if the customers will like this, but management said we have to try…” is a prescription for sales failure.

Lest it appear that a “con man” strategy is model sales behavior, I hasten to add that overselling or misrepresenting a product is a terrible strategy. That will damage a company’s reputation long after the salesperson has been fired. Confidence is important in closing the sale, but in the long haul competence will build the business.

Image via Shutterstock

  1. Gregg Swanson says

    Hi Roger – Great post! Being in sales for over 20 years and now a mental strength coach I agree with you 1000% on confidence. I also really like your position on providing appropriate training and recourses. In my experience many managers simple tell the sales person to be more confident and might even go as far as to recommend a book. But to really allow a person to develop their unique state of confidence professional training and coaching works wonders. You mention that “Confidence is important in closing the sale…” I would add the confidence is critical in opening the sale.
    Again, fantastic info!

  2. Alexandre Bigaiski says

    I think that confidence is the most important feature for sailers and other types of professionals. If you don’t trust in yourself, who will?

  3. Brendon Clark says

    Good post ROger, thanks. I would also add resilience. It’s an old chestnut that the more sales calls you make, the more sales you make. Good salespeople make more sales, but also tend to get more rejection, just because they make more calls. The difference between them and a not so good sales person is often in how the bounce back from “No!”.

    Some useful angles in here for attribution theory in thinking about why prospects might say No, and how good salespeople deal with it too.

  4. jam says

    Well, I have a different take on it. Having people confidently tell me things makes me suspicious. I always ask “Oh really? How do you know that?” If the answer is some version of “I have been doing this for years”, then I know they are lying, or at least exaggerating their knowledge. I avoid such salespeople if I have any choice. If not, I ignore them completely and decide whether to buy after tuning them out. There is almost always a competitor, and at least someone who will not attempt a snow job, so I nearly never buy from a salesperson who expresses high confidence.

    If they look something up, I take that as an invitation to look at the reference myself. If they show it to me, and it confirms what they said, then my estimation of them goes up, a lot. If they refuse to share the reference, I walk out the door.

    So…this may work on some people, some of the time, but I am much more responsive to the person who acts cautiously, checks facts carefully, and avoids puffery. A doctor acting like some used car salesperson? Run out of the office.

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