Some days, I think my business ought to be a case study in ‘making things a lot harder than they need to be.’
The classic business advice is to find a problem that people have, devise a solution, and voila! A business is born.
I followed this advice. It’s been working pretty well.
But there’s a nuance to this advice that I didn’t recognize when I started:
If your potential customers don’t know they have a problem, you’re going to have an uphill battle. You will have to invest a lot of time and effort in educating your market, before you can hope to see significant business growth. And even then, the odds are stacked against you.
That’s the part I didn’t get.
Of course, when I started to realize I was faced with an education and training challenge, things started to get a lot clearer. I started to recognize models from the teaching and learning world that helped me to understand why, exactly, my business was struggling and how, exactly, I needed to shift my approach to better address those problems.
Today, I want to walk you through one of those models, and show you how your Customer Competence Matrix should affect your business strategy.
But First: What Is a Customer Competence Matrix?
In the 1970s, Gordon Training International employee Noel Burch was looking for a way to model the learning process. He proposed that there are actually four stages of competence.
- Unconscious incompetence – when you don’t know what you don’t know, or why it would be important to gain a new skill
- Conscious incompetence – when you know that you are lacking a skill and are convinced it’s important to address this lack
- Conscious competence – when you can do the skill, but it takes a lot of concentrated effort
- Unconscious competence – when you are so good at the skill that it becomes ‘second nature’
Just like a customer timeline helps us recognize what products and services we should be offering, modelling which competence stage our customers are in can help us map out how we can best help them.
Let’s look at how this works in practice, at each of the four stages of competence.
People who are unconsciously incompetent generally fall into one of two categories:
- They ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’ They don’t even recognize they’ve got a problem, never mind trying to find a solution.
- They recognize that there’s something they don’t have, but they don’t value it because they don’t see how it can help them.
Here’s the bitter truth: when your prospective customers are in this stage, you can’t sell them anything.
The hardest part to accept when you are targetting an unconsciously incompetent market is that you can educate them, provide resources, share insights, and try to teach them about the problem you solve …
… but they’ll never move into the second stage until they are internally motivated to do so. And until they recognize that they have a problem that needs solving, they’ll never buy.
The best you can do is to focus on the problems that your market does recognize they have, and then eventually, over time, transition them from giving them the information they want, to giving them the skills and knowledge they need.
Remember: your goal with people in this segment is not to get them to buy; it’s to get them to conscious incompetence.
Once someone has had the epiphany that ‘yes, I am lacking this skill’ and ‘yes, having this skill would make a difference for me’, they’re in the second stage.
Consciously incompetent markets know they have a problem, and they’re painfully aware of how it’s affecting them. They are actively looking for solutions, which makes this the perfect opportunity to start making some sales.
The challenge in this stage is the incompetence part. While you can create and sell training to address the incompetence, the truth is, it’s not an instant fix. And so you have to be careful in your positioning; you want to make it clear that you can help provide a solution, but you can’t guarantee it will be fast or easy. Otherwise, your buyers will be left confused and frustrated when things don’t go as easily as planned.
The key insight here is that no one can move out of conscious incompetence without making mistakes – lots of them. And so when you are trying to address the needs of buyers in this stage, you need to really make the effort to provide a safe, supportive environment for people to experiment and make mistakes. Give people a chance to work through examples, test out theories, and most importantly – help them be patient with themselves.
The only way to help someone move out of this stage is by helping them to keep going, even when it feels like they’re failing more than they’re succeeding. Quick wins and harnessing motivation are what you need to emphasize.
Now, you can’t just leave someone in conscious incompetence and expect them to be happy about it. Especially not if you’re promising high-value, premium products and services.
To really satisfy value-focused buyers, you need to promise that you can help them get to a level of conscious competence.
This is the level where you know how to do something, though it still takes quite a bit of concentrated effort. You may need guidance or help through some of the harder spots, and you’ll still make mistakes but they’ll be less frequent and less dramatic.
Unfortunately, because of the curse of expertise, most online courses and digital products fail miserably in this regard. They don’t provide a step-by-step system that breaks things down into bite-sized processes that you can follow. They spend a lot of time talking about “what” (which is great when you’re consciously incompetent), without really addressing the “how” (which is what you need when you’re consciously competent).
To truly be successful with a consciously competent market, then, and help them get to unconscious competence, you need to be able to help people start thinking through challenges on their own – so they can learn from their own mistakes, and not need hand-holding all the time.
The final stage in the customer competence model is that of unconscious incompetence; this is the point in time where your customers are so good at what they do, they don’t even realize it. It’s like walking; most of us don’t even realize what all happens when we walk. If we were to try to teach it to someone else, we’d struggle to give anything more than a high level overview:
Lift your leg. Swing it forward. Put it down. Shift your weight onto that leg. Now lift up the other leg. Swing it forward. And so on.
But of course, this belies the true complexity of walking. It completely ignores everything that our brain had to learn about engaging the right muscles, interpreting haptic feedback via the nervous system, controlling our center of gravity, and so much more.
And it gets even more complicated: studies show that once you’ve reached the level of unconscious competence, you’re no longer able to anticipate the struggles of those less experienced than you. You’re also less likely to be able to see your own deficiencies or ‘bad habits’ because you literally aren’t thinking about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
In a lot of ways, then, reaching unconsciously competent audiences has the same challenges as the unconsciously incompetent. That’s why it’s extremely important to differentiate exactly what your product or service has to offer. For example, if you’re creating a ‘train the trainer’ type program (like a coaching certification), you need to help the buyers recognize that while they may be an expert (unconsciously incompetent) at their skill or area of expertise, they are likely not an expert in other areas – and that’s where they need your help.
Find the Problem that Needs Solving
Ultimately, the customer competence model is a tool for helping you make sure that your products and services are addressing a problem that needs solving.
It’s a lesson that I had to learn the hard way, when I started trying to sell course design services to online business owners.
While I believed I had identified a problem (“most eCourses suck!”) and could provide a solution (“I can help make them better!”), my target market had no idea. They weren’t staying up at night Googling for “instructional design for niche courses” or “how do I increase my eCourse retention rate”. It wasn’t even on the radar. And when I did reach out to folks, by and large, they didn’t see how investing time, money, resources and effort into paying someone to help them would get results.
I made all kinds of mistakes; in my first posts on the business of learning, all I really cared about was ‘doing things better.’ I believed that better teaching was intrinsicly worth doing; that people should want to design courses based on adult learning principles just because it was the right thing to do.
I still believe it’s the right thing to do.
But I’ve also learned that if you’re going to build a business around this thing, then it’s not enough to have a solution to a problem. You need to have a solution to a problem that people want solved.
Over time, by listening to people like you and really studying what online course creators are struggling with, I’ve made progress in that direction. I’ve shifted my free content to really focus on uncovering the underlying pains that effective course design can solve. Things like choosing the right technology, or fixing low completion rates, or addressing low engagement.
That’s allowed me to start to create paid courses, products and services that are intended to take people from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. To help bridge those gaps, and gain the skills that will make all the difference in the success of their online courses.
It’s still a journey, and still a process. I would probably put myself in the ‘conscious competence’ bucket for this lesson; I still make mistakes, misread my market, and make bad decisions about how and what to offer. But with tools like the Customer Competence Model, I’m making progress every day. And ultimately, that’s all you can ask for.
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