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The role of salespeople is changing. The role is no longer about cajoling a prospect into signing a contract, nor is it even about telling the entirety of the story to the prospect. It’s now about providing value to the customer – helping the buyer fill in the blanks in his or her knowledge. That means providing in-depth knowledge that fits the customer’s context – his or her sophistication, industry, progress down the buyer’s journey, and so on.
The short way of describing this change goes like this: customers now expect salespeople to be subject matter experts. They complete much of the buying journey through research, then reach out to salespeople when they need specific clarifying information to finish the decision-making process. The sales reps who win can provide that knowledge.
But, as products and product mixes become increasingly complex, it’s less and less likely that a salesperson can carry the needed knowledge in his or her head. Fluency in all products, all the time, even as new features are added and pricing evolves and new bundles are created, is nearly impossible unless you give your salespeople some help.
Luckily, even as the role of the salesperson has evolved, so have the tools for helping them achieve the status of subject matter experts. Here are five practical steps you can take to help create the smarter, more authoritative sales force of the future:
The sad secret haunting many marketing departments is that they create an immense amount of content, but not much of it ends up getting used in the sales process, and thus the information contained in it never gets to the salespeople to build their expertise. A study by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs revealed that 69 percent of companies created more content in 2015 than they did a year ago, but at the same time Sirius Decisions estimated that 70 percent of content created by B2B marketing teams is never used.
Why is this? Sometimes, it’s based on the subject matter in that content, and sometimes it’s because the content isn’t well executed. But most of the time, it’s because the content is simply inaccessible. Without a well-structured sales enablement solution, your “archive” of material only extends back as far as the memory of your sales teams. With a well-structured enablement solution, sales can find what it needs when it needs it, and it can get the most effective or latest content first. Simply exposing sales to this content in the course of a sale is useful; what’s even more useful is providing it in an accessible and ranked way so sales can access it during the research process for a deal.
In most sales organizations, training is something you do during on-boarding, and it tails off as sales people become more “productive” and are thought to need less of it. But if you want subject matter experts on your sales force, you need to make learning a long-term project, not something you do only at the start of a rep’s tenure.
According to a study done by Sales Performance International, without systematic, ongoing learning and reinforcement, around 50 percent of training content is not retained beyond five weeks, much less applied. After 90 days, 84 percent of what was initially learned is lost. That means that much of what is taught in the initial onboarding process is forgotten.
The flip side of this is that ongoing training is proven to pay dividends. A study of 540 companies conducted by the Association for Talent Development shows that continuous investments in training and reinforcement result in over 50 percent higher net sales per employee, nearly 40 percent higher gross profits per employee and a 20 percent higher ratio in market-to-book value. Ongoing training also reduces churn in the sales force by increasing their success, thus their commissions and their job satisfaction.
Build training into your sales team’s routine. Make sure that time spent training and using learning assets is not counted against them but that they are rewarded for it, and that a certain percentage of their time is expected to be spent learning.
Getting your sales team to commit to spending time learning is important, but even better is knowing that they’re retaining this knowledge and bringing it with them into the field. Testing the sales team’s retention of information is crucial for ensuring that you’re educating them in the right way, but no salesperson wants to be subjected to pop quizzes. Instead, use gamification to encourage participation, retention and reinforcement.
Your sales team can earn points for taking courses and clicking through on content pushed to them. Then, ask pertinent questions taken from those courses to up the scores. Award point for salespeople who suggest third-party content that has value. Taking advantage of our natural tendencies to compete (by displaying a leaderboard and awarding badges and other virtual prizes) can help spark greater investments in time by your sales team. The underlying idea here is to build a culture where learning and cultivation of expertise is rewarded even before it starts to translate into increased commissions.
You can’t be an expert on everything, nor will your sales staff benefit from accepting that marketing is the sole source of knowledge about a vertical market or an emerging technology. At the same time, sales doesn’t have the time to search out third-party material in a systematic way. However, if you create opportunities to share the material reps find on their own – and augment it with other material you search out – you can provide a robust library of material created outside your office walls.
The key here is to create a method by which reps can share this material – through a portal or through a collaboration tool or some other easy-to-use technology. If you’re really ambitious, tie this curation back to your sales enablement solution and make it the go-to-source of can’t miss content.
This is the most elemental step of all. If you want a sales team comprised of subject matter experts, you need to hire sales people who have sales talent but who also have a demonstrable talent for picking information up quickly, synthesizing it, and being able to understand it in the context of a customer. This means a different sales process in the past; it suggests some product marketing talent is a useful trait in your salespeople, which means that the successful salespeople of the future may come from different backgrounds than the successful salespeople of the past. Be flexible in your hiring to increase the emphasis on a candidate’s ability to understand complex concepts and to relate to people as an advisor rather than as a persuader.
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