The problem of the self serving ‘sales patter’ inflicted by many salespeople on their prospects, stems from sales training and inductions for new recruits still being too focused on product features and benefits, rather than the problems and issues that clients have.

I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago, selling scientific instruments in England. During the first couple of weeks I was sent to the laboratory to learn the product. I soon knew the product range inside out and couldn’t wait to impress an unsuspecting customer with how much I knew.

A full demonstration took about half an hour. It took me a while to figure out that success of a sales call was inversely related to how far I got through the demonstration! Understanding the problem the client was trying to solve, and demonstrating the relevant features of the analyzer was a much more successful strategy.

In the book Business Think, a story is told of a furniture store that found its salespeople became less effective after 18–24 months on the job. Researchers found that it took about six months to gain good product knowledge. For new salespeople with little or no product knowledge, they were keen to have conversations with clients, and asked lots of questions. For the experienced salespeople, they spent their time trying to impress clients with their fountain of product knowledge.

In the end management attributed the problem to too much product knowledge. They solved the problem by rotating salespeople every 18 months to a new department to keep curiosity alive.

I don’t think the problem was too much product knowledge. Salespeople can’t have too much product knowledge, but they can misuse their knowledge.

No one wants a meeting with a walking/talking brochure. Brochures are for reading and on a first meeting, the feature and benefit information is usually best left in the brochure for the client to read in his own time.

Product knowledge should be used by salespeople to enhance the conversation about your client’s business:

  • By building the perception of value in the mind of the client
  • By asking insightful questions
  • By answering questions with an informed opinion
  • To further the conversation in the interests of both the salesperson and the client

Product knowledge – aim to express, not to impress!

Paul Newsom is a Change Agent at Young Enterprise Trust.

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