You must demand the highest level of knowledge from your salespeople--and train them to make that happen.
Yesterday I went to a store that specializes in mattresses to purchase a mattress pad. One of the three sales associates took me to see the hypoallergenic pad I asked about, and on the packaging of the display sample, I noted that it was available in the size I needed. When I asked to order it, the woman helping me told me that it did not come in the size I wanted. Pointing out that the label showed the manufacturer indeed made that size, I was again met with denials by another associate who could not find it in the computer. In a failed attempt to make the sale, she suggested that the standard size would do just fine because it was only "a few inches shorter." I was frustrated by the associates' lack of information about the products and--after I checked online that the right size did exist--I thought carefully about the importance of knowledge in growing a business.
So if you have not thought about your knowledge management process lately, it's time to get on it. Here's what I mean.
Knowledge is king.
As business owners, it is our responsibility to be sure that anyone who represents our companies is well-trained. Not one of the three mattress associates I mentioned knew enough about the product to be working in the store--and, as a result, the company lost a $150 sale. Given the current state of the economy, businesses, especially small ones, cannot afford to let that happen. You can have the nicest sales people in the world, but if they don't know your product, they are simply useless. For my company, this means an incoming rep will spend weeks learning the products--ours first, then our competitors'. She will be taught, quizzed, observed, and tested on these products. She will be asked to write comparisons between our products and similar ones available elsewhere. She will be asked to role play problem encounters where using product knowledge is the only way to resolve the situation. All of this will happen before she can ever speak to a customer. Whether the new hire comes to us with "industry experience" or not, there is no exception to this training. We ask her to start over and learn everything from the ground up, so there are no gaps, no misconceptions, and no misinformation. The reality is: the only way an unknowledgeable rep makes it to a selling floor is if the business owner has not made product education important enough in the training process, or if he is not doing follow-up to make sure his reps use the knowledge they're expected to learn.
It's not just what you know, but how well you know it.
Face it. The information age has changed the way we process knowledge. We now rely heavily on technology to tell us what we know. Unfortunately, the down side to this is that we often don't truly learn information anymore. We read it, use it, and lose it. Take the example of the sales associates at the mattress store. They insisted that the product I wanted did not exist because it was not in their computer system. At some point, someone probably showed them these products and assumed they had learned them, but clearly that was not the case. Reps should be monitored on a regular basis to guarantee that they did not do a cram session during Product Knowledge 101 in order to graduate to the selling floor--only to quickly forget all the information they studied. It's every good business owner's responsibility to constantly check in with her sales team to see how employees use the instruction they have been given. I ask customers for feedback on my reps, do frequent review sessions on important concepts, and listen to calls in order to hear firsthand exactly how good a rep is at conveying product information.
Learning never ends.
Any salesperson who does not actively try to learn more at all times is not worth keeping. A great rep should be reading industry publications, asking customers questions, keeping up with competitor innovation, and integrating all that she learns into her daily interactions. As business owners, it is in our best interest to inspire and even incentivize this continued learning. When one of my reps learns new information that could be useful to the company as whole, she tells all our team members about it. If she wants to find out more about a new tool or product, she is given the go-ahead to take a class, do research, or just about anything else that will help her get the knowledge she needs--even during company hours. At the end of the year, the reps who get better bonuses and bigger raises are the ones who have learned the most about our products, who have sought opportunities to acquire more product knowledge, and who have questioned insistently.
So when you think about knowledge management and how your company handles it, remember this: You have to demand the highest level of knowledge from your salespeople, and the highest level of training and encouragement, to make that happen.
Read more recent articles by Vanessa Merit Nornberg:
Vanessa Merit Nornberg: In 2004, Vanessa opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009. @vanessanornberg