How to Make Selling Complex Solutions Simple

By Andy McGinn June 12, 2007

Poor product training often results in low sales revenues and slow take-up of new products. the dilemma is that customer-centric sales people (ie., not product specialists) need to spend as much time as possible in front of customers and not in training sessions. however, the more they know about how their company's products and services solve their customer's business problems, the more opportunities they'll create.

Sales people often avoid any product training, feeling that it is a waste of their time. product managers and marketers often feel frustrated by  the lack of interest in training and poor results out in the field.

This article explores why product training fails and what can be done to succeed in this area.

Introduction

Any discussion of product training needs to define two concepts, as these concepts hold sway in today's high-tech marketplaces. the first concept, not surprisingly, is 'product training, ' while the other concept is 'solutions.'

Product training--or more precisely, effective product training--is defined as: distinct, proprietary content, or knowledge about a product or service that significantly helps sales people sell more.

It is important to note that this definition is independent of the delivery mechanism--meaning, depending on circumstances and an organization's preferences, effective product training can be delivered in a variety of ways: one-to-one, classroom, seminar, e-learning, the company intranet, or a booklet.

The key is not how the product training gets to the sales team, but what real, tangible value there is in the content they are given.

Solutions--The whole high-tech industry is obsessed with the idea that they no longer sell products, they sell solutions.

Our definition of a solution is simply: any combination of products and services that solve a customer's problem. So cutting costs by moving Human Resources offshore is a 'solution.' Improving productivity by providing a long-life laptop battery is also a 'solution.' What counts for the customer is not how complex the solution is, but whether their business problem was solved and how well it was done.

If you're into solutions in a big way, don't worry. Product training is relevant to the whole universe of sales, which includes selling:

  • Solutions
  • Services
  • Products

We're not being lazy here. It's just a realization that, in today's world, sales categories have become increasingly blurred.

Why bother with product training?

Why indeed. Especially when product training is viewed by most sales people as a waste of valuable golden selling hours and by most product or marketing executives as the poison chalice. So why bother with it at all? Because, when product training is done properly, the business can clearly see and track three main benefits.

  1. An increase in pipeline activity
  2. A reduction in the time from product launch to volume sales
  3. Improvement in qualification of sales opportunities

These benefits, in turn, translate into higher profits because of increased revenues and lower costs of sale. So, at this point, it is worth considering in more detail exactly what effective product training is, and how to recognize it.

Exploring effective product training

It's one thing to claim that most product training courses don't work (and we'll explore the claim in the next section), but it's important to detail some key characteristics of effective product training. Effective product training does the following:

  • Increases the sales team's comprehension of what the product is, how it will benefit their customer's business and robust methods for actually selling the product.
  • Enables retention of the proposition, so that the sales team have enough credible information to identify or create a sales opportunity.
  • Motivates individual sales people to actually go out and sell more product.

Effective product training is built on three pillars of: comprehension, retention and motivation (CRM for short).

Comprehension is where a product training simplifies the complex features of the product offering, and fuses those features into a unique value proposition(s) that the sales people can understand and use.

Retention is the ability of good product training to create compelling product stories, appropriate product analogies and memorable product metaphors. That takes talent and hard-won sales experience.

Motivation is the key here. If sales people believe that selling your product will give them a higher return on their time (investment) than a alternative, they will 'move heaven and earth' to understand and retain the information required to make a sale.

Motivation is far more complex than just waving a $ sign in front of them. Experienced sales people especially will weigh that $ return against the likelihood of a sale, the time needed to be invested, the risk to their reputation, the risk to their customer relationship, etc.

If there is any sign that your product or service won't produce a good return on investment (e.g. if there doesn't appear to be easy access to background information, etc.) the seasoned salesperson will just look elsewhere for an opportunity.

The more choices your sales audience has to meet their target, the harder you have to work at motivation (e.g. if you need the sales team to sell software but they can just as easily make target selling hardware, you may need to work at motivation).

Why 95% of product training fails

It's important to look at both sides of the fence when analyzing the success or failure of any sales effort. From the Product Marketing side and senior management we often hear these statements:

  • Our sales people can't sell solutions!
  • Our sales people just shift licenses/boxes/minutes, etc.
  • Our sales people are lazy. They never seem to actually study the new products/services properly. How can they expect to sell them?

From the sales people we often hear:

  • I don't go to product training anymore. They are a waste of time.
  • What I want is to understand how to sell it, not be a developer/systems administrator.
  • They don't give me what I actually want.

The reason that most product training fails needs to be explained at two levels: The first level is what is it about the training that doesn't tend to work? The second level is, why does that happen?

Let's look at the first level first. This list of sales feedback to 'traditional? sessions illustrates what it is about product training that doesn't work:

  1. Lack of comprehension
    • I don't understand anything here. It's just too technical
    • I don't understand the sales process. What are we actually supposed to do?
    • I don't understand what's in it for my customer.
  2. Lack of retention
    • It's clever stuff but I can't remember all that.
  3. Lack of motivation
    • I don't see how this will help me make a target.
    • I believe that the competitive information is either unreliable or just unusable. I'd get eaten alive if I tried to use that.
    • I don't believe in the proposition. It just looks like marketing hype.
    • I think this will eat into revenues from my existing products.
    • I don't think this will work with my customer.
    • I can't see any evidence of good collateral and I don't want to have to chase after it. I'm just too busy.
    • I've heard that this product team just point you at 'the web' and you end up sifting through hundreds of pages of useless techie stuff. I'll leave it.
    • I'll end up looking stupid in front of my customer.

So, what is it about the training that doesn't work? It's the insufficient attention paid to the key elements of comprehension, retention and motivation.

Now that we have answered the first level question, let's move on and try to answer the second level question.

'Why does that happen?'

There are two main reasons:

  • Product managers and marketing executives are already too busy (superior product training is hard work) and/or
  • They don't have the skills or knowledge to produce material for this particular audience. Because there is a lack of information/documentation/interest groups, etc. about exactly how to produce product training for this audience, it's unreasonable to expect product and marketing people to be adept at this, and do their day jobs as well.

Neither of these are really the fault of product managers. They are often busy trying to help sales people close business and we've never come across a 'how to do excellent product training for sales people' course at any high-tech organization.

Why does 95% of product training fail? Not enough attention is paid to the three key factors that make it work, and the people who produce product training are either too busy or don't have the specific skills or information required.

Obstacles to effective product training

No company deliberately sets out to sabotage its product training. But as the organizational chart mushrooms, and roles become specialized, somewhere NPD (New Product Development) and Sales & Marketing split off into two different camps.

While such division of labor has fueled the growth of commerce since Adam Smith and his 'Wealth of Nations,' that same specialization is at the heart of what stops effective product training in today's hectic world.

Today, product teams and sales teams speak different languages, which though understandable (they operate in widely different environments on a day-to-day basis), makes communication very difficult indeed. Consider just some of the following obstacles to communication:

  • Product teams have 'deep,' but not 'wide,' product knowledge. They are fantastic on detail, but sometimes find it difficult to see the big picture in the same way the salesperson needs to (eg. will this product cannibalize existing revenue streams?).
  • Most product experts make poor product teachers because they assume everyone has a grasp of the fundamentals (like they do). Again this is not their fault. It happens to anyone who lives and breathes a subject for long enough, including us!
  • Constructing a product-training program is hard, creative and unusual work. The demands of the sales teams and development cycles mean that product training is relegated to the important, but not urgent file, and rushed at the last minute.
  • Good, local case study material is notoriously difficult to get hold of, as sales people are always off on their next opportunity and don't want to be meeting with marketing execs to discuss a 'done deal.'

Now that we have listed some of the common obstacles, the role of effective product training becomes clear.

The job of product training is to be an accurate and sympathetic interpreter between the two camps--to be fluent in product-speak and sales-speak, and to fully understand, not condemn, the cultural differences of both parties.

What sales teams really want

What sales teams really want is product training that helps them exceed target. Basically they are very much like the CEO. He wants improved ROI to keep the shareholders happy.

The salesperson wants the maximum amount of sales within the least amount of time. In product training terms, this translates into a demand for the most useful information in the minimum amount time. This boils down to the following list of 'must-haves? when it comes to product training courses:

  • 'What's in it for me?'
    a clear, specific explanation of the benefits to the salesperson of selling this product (especially if it is one of many)
  • 'What's in it for my customer?'
    Clarification of product benefits. So they don't have to go hunting for the benefits in the thick forest of product features
  • 'Why us and not the competition?'
    Accurate, realistic and verifiable information about the competitor's products coupled with a truly unique selling proposition(s)
  • Take home facts and figures
    Woven into easy-to-remember product stories
  • Background information
    Accessible, useful information, specifically written for sales people
Putting it right

One approach to improving product training is to conduct a six-month assessment of the skills of the sales people--their needs for product training, etc. However, by the time it's complete, most of what was initially examined has changed and the company is back to square one. The easiest approach is to start with these actions and then build from there:

  1. Get the CEO involved. If you need to accelerate developments in product training, you need a high-level sponsor who straddles both Sales and Marketing. The language used in 'Why bother with product training?' is specifically geared around the needs of the board of directors and should help you to get some leverage when needed.
  2. Ask a salesperson. You know that sales people will tell you exactly what is wrong with what is being done currently, so just ask. You don't need to conduct a huge survey; 5-10 views from sales people will give you a good basis from which to work. You can use the comments under 'Why 95% of product training fails' to help build your mini-survey.
  3. Develop a small network of like-minded colleagues within the company and share ideas on what works and what doesn't. Although this may seem obvious, one of the main benefits is it provides a support structure to help keep you focused on better product training and ultimately better product sales.
  4. Develop a consistent approach. Once you and your colleagues have done this enough times, you'll have your own company-specific methodology. This could be as formal as a mini website, or informal as a long text document with ideas jotted down from multiple contributors.

Product sales are complex enough to start with--so the job of product training is to simplify the complex and to clearly show to the sales force the actual way your products deliver results to their customers, and the easiest ways that they can articulate and demonstrate such benefits.

Andy McGinn

Andy McGinn

Andy McGinn is the CEO of Reality Associates Ltd. Reality Associates works with companies such as Oracle UK and BT to develop business centric product-training programs for their sales teams. Andy can be contacted at andy_mcginn@realityassociates.co.uk.

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