Why “industry experience” and product knowledge are not enough anymore

As much as people want sales to be considered a science, the reality is that it has always combined a collection of facts with human judgments (or estimates).

What this means is that there is no analytic approach that can singlehandedly guarantee sales success. The result: Sales is likely to always be a mixture of art and science. So how do you shore up your success to gain that competitive edge?

For the last few decades when transactional, product-pushing sales was all that mattered, most sales leaders justifiably had confidence in their judgment to employ salespeople with “industry experience” and excellent product knowledge. This worked for a while, when products could be easily distinguished from each other. However, the resulting impact of this “industry experience” approach was that industries ended up recycling the same old people with the same old ideas and the same old results.

Today, with products looking exactly like each other and organisations left with “Me2” salespeople recycling through their particular industries, there is not much left to differentiate one company from the next. What does any self-respecting sales leader look for as an advantage and what do they need to measure to make sure they are getting that competitive edge?

Many of these sales leaders now confess to being less certain that industry experience and articulate salespeople are the right formula. That’s hardly surprising. Sales management has been perfecting the product knowledge playbook for decades. Whilst some new sales techniques were introduced (e.g. consultative selling, relationship-based selling and networking), in the main, salespeople have (and are still) doing the same things to the same markets as they have for decades, with little change in their approach and, yet, with diminishing return on sales effort.

What is the solution? What many sales leaders and sales managers have come to recognise is that simply employing articulate salespeople with industry experience and product knowledge isn’t enough. Providing product-knowledge training alone only perpetuates old habits and leads to further anxiety when price becomes the single negotiable item.

This new generation of sales leaders has come to recognise that sales training without a sales strategy to drive it, won’t sustain focus, or drive improved sales results.

They also realise that sales training, beside the prerequisite soft skills, has to address the Knowledge Diamond – a four-dimensional knowledge base:

  • Knowledge of the customer;
  • Knowledge of the market, competitors and industry;
  • Knowledge of the products, services and their application across multi dimensions such a business case, environment, OH&S, distribution, etc. – not just product efficacy in itself;
  • Knowledge of the organisations strategy, vision, purpose, core message and value proposition.

If the sales force doesn’t have a complete understanding of all four knowledge dimensions and, more importantly, is unable to use this knowledge in practical ways to support customers and prospects and their achievement of business results, it is unlikely that sales will do more than stumble along into oblivion.

On the other hand, the converse is equally true. When sales forces have the knowledge and know how to use it to help their customers, when the efforts of sales are focused and driven by a sound sales strategy that has clear purpose and goals; sales ramp up regardless of competitive intensity.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments. Her business Barrett P/L partners with its clients to improve their sales operations. Visit www.barrett.com.au


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