Friday, January 4, 2013

The New Salesman: Product Knowledge

Product Knowledge – The foundation of selling
In preparation for this discussion, I asked a number of successful distributor salespeople to stop, step back and relive their first days in their territory.  For many of these folks, this was quite a task in and of itself.  Each had a number of things on their minds for the first days of selling.  But, as we pealed back the years; they all said the same thing.  Early on, I had a heck of time deciding exactly what I needed to know.  Even for those who launched their careers based on Engineering (or some other technical) Degrees, being conversant on a whole range of products was daunting.
My next set of conversations took place with a group of highly motivated young sales people who were making great progress but could still be easily referred to as “newbies” in the selling game. One by one, they shared the overwhelming feeling of doubt faced around understanding the tens of thousands of products in the catalogs lining the walls of their office.  In spite of all the reassurances in the world, they wonder if they will ever digest the intricacies of the products they sell. 
At the same time, I still run into sales guys with 2, 3 or even 5 years of experience to tell me they don’t understand their products.  The major difference: this group has given up.  Somehow they have managed to grow their sales.  Often it was price; sometimes via relationships.  But they have managed to convince themselves, they don’t need product knowledge.  This brings us to a couple of good points.
First, the late Zig Ziglar was one of the first superstars of sales training.  I doubt if all of what he said makes sense in the knowledge-based distribution industry; however, I do put a great deal of stock into one of his quotes.  
"Enthusiasm for the product or service comes from product knowledge. How can we develop enthusiasm for something about which we have little or no knowledge?"
Second, as distributors dedicated to producing margins higher than our competitors, we need to provide and prove the value of the solutions we provide.  Unless we can adequately apply our products and services to customer problems, we will never be able to provide solution suggestions. 
So Product Knowledge is important.  The question becomes; what should we do about it?
According to work sited in the best-selling book: Super Freakonomics, expert performers in any profession - whether piano players, computer programmers, rock scientists or salespeople - are made not born.  Mastery arrives based on what Dr. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”.  Deliberate Practice has three main ingredients:  1. specific goals, 2. immediate feedback, and 3. concentration on technique rather than outcome.
We will lay these thoughts over many of the points we make during our discussion of “on-boarding” but we found an undisputable parallel during our review of the best practices for product knowledge. 
Best Practices for Product Knowledge
  • Distributor sales managers set measurable expectations (goals) for product expertise over a prescribed timeline.
  • The sales managers tested the expertise along the way and provided feedback on the progress of the salesperson.
  • The sales managers asked the new sales guy to apply what they had learned to real life customer situations.

Measurable product expertise goals with timelines
Out of the thousands of products filling the giant stack of catalogs over near the inside sales bullpen, some are important, others no so much.  A new sales person can only guess.  In our time we have heard of salespeople learning products based on alphabetical order, attention from the factory rep, offhand input from other sales people and random chance.  Standing on the sidelines, the whole concept sounds goofy.  But without some kind of expert guidance, how can a new guy understand what’s really important? 
What would happen if you outlined a learning matrix that looked like the one below?
(We have used Lighting Products as an example to illuminate, pun intended, the topic.)
Sample Product Skills Checklist
Month 1
Incandescent Lighting
10-200 W bulbs
Fundamentals of operation
Catalog selection of office uses
Hours of life
Color rendition
Fluorescent Lighting
13-100 W straight tubes
Fundamentals of operationCatalog selection
Hours of operation
Lighting Principles
All Products
Fundamentals of operationHow hours of operation are measuredLighting output / Lumens
Month 2

LED Lighting
Fundamentals of operation
Catalog selection
Month 3

Incandescent, Florescent, LED
Environmental concerns
Lighting output comparisons
Hours of operation comparisons
Relative cost of operation comparisons
  Jumping Ahead

Month 12


Lighting layout
Laying out lighting plans for contractor customers
Energy studies
Notice how each month contains products to be learned as well as the level of detail needed for each of these products.  Our example is simplified and limited to just a few examples understood by the general reading population.  Your own set learning guide will include more products and specific skills judged to be important to your own type of customer.

Feedback on product growth
Without an established set of expectations, objective feedback on learning the products is impossible.  Comments like, “you need to learn more about our products” have no meaning.  Building a Skills Checklist with a time line provides an opportunity for the employee to manage their own growth, but the benefits transcend this meager accomplishment.

Along the way, the manager, product specialists, and others can provide meaningful feedback.  For example, following a new product launch, discussions can be held to contrast the new product against products already mastered.  When opportunities present themselves, the new seller can be asked to make presentation (internally focused or customer oriented) on products already mastered.  Definitive coaching points can be provided by way of others on the selling team.

Application of learning
For us, targeting is a critical element of any successful sales program.  More on that in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about how targeting might assist us in refining the new guys selling skills.

As the skills develop, the salesperson can be directed in their abilities to match product knowledge to their customer’s needs.  In each of these cases, the manager is offered the potential for coaching on how the products are applied to solve problems.  Discussions of competitive situations take on new meaning.  The seller’s ability to progress in the selling world accelerates. 
Acceleration is the name of the game 
According to research in a number of lines of distribution, the time required for a new seller to reach maximum potential ranges from 3 to 5 years.  If we can shrink this time, everybody wins.  In our next post we will explore the art of accelerating territory growth one individual at a time.

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