Sales Effectiveness Through Knowledge

I’d like to continue on the idea of modernizing our sales processes. Part of this modernization has been the focus on de-spreadsheeting selling. As we all know it started with sales force automation, or SFA, but the trend is alive and well and, if anything, gaining momentum.

It’s hard to believe that not that long ago selling was managed out of a salesperson’s head — intuitively you knew who was serious and who was not, what was in the pipeline, when it would close, who the competition was and a lot more.

You kept a Rolodex and a bunch of business cards, mostly as mnemonic devices. I never wrote anything down largely because I didn’t want to mess with all that paper, but possibly also because I knew my knowledge was power and in a tenuous job environment, it was security.

More Help Today

I wouldn’t want to try that today, and maybe that says a lot about the graying of the sales force, but it also says a lot about how far selling has come. Selling can still be a grind, but there’s much more help for the representative today. There are more ways to generate and nurture quality leads than ever before, and it’s easier than ever to identify who to approach with your products and ideas.

Selling is also much more of a team sport than ever before, which in some ways is ironic. Sports metaphors have always been part of selling, celebrating the efforts and accomplishments of the individual.

Today, there is greater opportunity and need to focus on the shared responsibilities of the team as well as the accomplishments of the individual. As a result, new tools that focus on the idea of sales knowledge are coming to the forefront.

Sales knowledge is one of those topics that has been around for a long time but, unlike other areas of selling, it does not lend itself to partial automation by spreadsheets. As a result, an organization’s attempts at providing a comprehensive sales knowledge solution for its practitioners are most likely even more primitive than a spreadsheet-based sales compensation management “system.”

There are two parts to sales knowledge. Part one is everything a company collects on its market: the competition, target customers and the like. Part two involves everything a company produces about itself. What makes it all work is a third part that is often unaccounted for — e-mail. It takes a significant amount of e-mail to coordinate this information from company to representative and from sales rep to sales rep, and often it is done at the last minute.

E-mail with subject lines that summarize their content or their author’s needs such as “Competing with company X,” “Our positioning against Y,” “Newest Corp. Preso” or “RFP Ans for Z” routinely make the rounds.

Beyond Spreadsheets

Rather than being contained in spreadsheets, these individual documents accumulate, clogging disk drives and causing confusion because no matter how old and out of date some of these documents are, sales representatives are loath to get rid of them for fear they might be needed at some future point.

The result is predictable — no single version of the truth and no point of control, which makes it hard for organization veterans and nearly impossible for newcomers. A top-down hierarchical approach is not much of a solution here since so much that is valuable comes from the experiences of people in the field, so some method of coordinating information becomes essential.

The thing that a sales knowledge system has in common with other sales effectiveness solutions is the use of a database to coordinate what a company knows about the world and what it knows and shares about itself.

Indexing Information on a More Granular Scale

More than simply providing a central repository for all of this information, the knowledgebase provides the checks and balances needed to maintain a single version of the truth. There can only be one current corporate presentation, for example, and it serves no one if a sales representative must compare multiple ones to figure out which is right — that’s the power of a repository.

Some organizations and their sales knowledge systems have taken this a step further. Rather than grouping things by presentations or whole responses to RFPs, they index information on a more granular scale, such as individual slides or statements.

The power of this granularity is that it can be selected and used on an individual basis so, for example, a sales representative can more easily customize a presentation for a client and the organization can stipulate that, no matter what, certain information should always be conveyed in a specific manner.

At the same time, the people in the field can also have the ability to contribute their knowledge through an organized and simple process. Rather than individuals gathering competitive information through e-mail, they can simply query the knowledgebase, saving time that can be redeployed to customer interactions.

The repository-based sales knowledge system is not a perfect solution, but it makes an important contribution to the way we sell today. Coupled with other effectiveness solutions, it is changing the way we sell for the better. I only wish we had them when I was selling.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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