There's no doubt that sales professionals need to understand their products and services. This is a given. What’s troublesome is, despite how much has been written on this topic, so many companies still aren’t maximizing the potential of their product training efforts.
I could go back much further and cite other sources, but as just one example, four years ago in CSO Insights’ Sales Performance Optimization Study Jim Dickie and Barry Trailer wrote:
...while product training will always be needed, Level 4 [the best-performing] companies realize that prospects typically conduct significant online research before meeting with a salesperson, and, as a result, are no longer reliant on the salesperson for information. So, the primary focus of these companies’ training initiatives is on improving the selling skills of their salespeople, so that they can have meaningful business dialogues with prospects.
Compare that to this year’s 2016 CSO Insights Sales Enablement Optimization Study, and you’ll see not much has changed. More organizations report their training programs need either major redesign or improvement than those whose expectations are met.
Rather than focusing time and effort on training that doesn’t stick, one method to try that produces great results is Scenario-Based Solution Training.
Disclaimer: Rarely does one set of advice apply universally, so as always, read this with your situation and nuances in mind. Some product or services and their related features and benefits are very complex. Apply any advice, including mine, with reason and good judgment.
First: How to Think About Your Products and Services
It all starts with how you think about your offerings.
- You have a product or service (which I'll call "product" for simplicity).
- Your product has features which are factual characteristics.
- The way a feature works or what it does is the advantage. (A feature may provide a competitive advantage over other similar products).
- A feature and its advantage (and competitive advantage, when existent) provide a benefit to customers by addressing an issue for them -- usually by avoiding a negative impacts (avoiding something bad) or enabling an opportunity or positive impact (getting something good).
- A benefit produces a business outcome -- a result.
- The outcome translates into business value -- impacting the metrics that matter for the business and the way that the buyers/decision-makers are measured (value may include things other than financial, such as the achievement of mission or vision, but is very compelling when dollarized) -- this is the ROI.
- Multiple features/advantages/benefits combine into your company's capabilities; the competitive advantages, when they exist, become your differentiators.
- The way you combine these capabilities to address business issues for your clients become your solutions.
Let that sink in. It may be overkill for some simple situations, but again, it’s important to understand the thought process, starting at the top and flowing to tie impacts to outcomes that provide business value.
I'm hoping that you already see that this goes far beyond "product knowledge" or typical "product training," and foreshadows where I'm heading with Scenario-Based Solution Training.
One addition: I'm talking about products here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't reinforce that people are often a true competitive advantage. The way you work with your customers, implement a solution, deliver customer support, or engage your sales engineers, may all provide real advantages to your customers. And of course, there's you. Relationships and trust still matter a great deal. Just don't expect them to always overpower compelling financial or performance value. If you believe these advantages hold true for you, you should try to quantify them in the above framework.
How to Deliver Better Product Training
Step 1. Teach Reps How Your Products Work
Having basic product knowledge is simply the ticket for entry. It's a prerequisite. While product complexity varies, for the most part, this is simple knowledge transfer.
You can use elearning, videos, reading, virtual instructor-led training (vILT), learning games or blended solutions to lay this foundation. (Brainshark works incredibly well for creating rich-media, engaging elearning with animation and voice-over, with or without video.) Using assessments to confirm understanding during the course and learning reinforcement systems to sustain the knowledge afterward is also a smart idea.
The first step here is to help your sales reps understand your products and how they work. Unfortunately, this is often the first and last step in many product training programs. In this stage, teach the concrete, factual things about your products:
- Competitive advantages
Step 2. Show What Your Products Do for Customers
After the foundation of facts, it's time to switch gears and focus externally. Since benefits are always specific to a customer, I leave those until this stage:
Here, the training requires examples (and if you're a real instructional design geek, some non-examples - for when the products don't fit a customer situation). Teaching benefits, outcomes and value ties to domain expertise as well as business and financial acumen, so those competencies are a prerequisite. Your reps either need to bring those skills to the table, or they need to be a prerequisite in your curriculum.
Step 3. How to Develop Solutions
This is where the scenarios come in. Now we're going to focus on:
This is where insight selling can come into play. You can learn what insight selling is, and how it relates to prospecting here.
This is the place to pull in your market knowledge of the challenges and opportunities your buyers face, depending on their buyer personas.. It's also the place to pull in deeper specifics about customer scenarios.
Create Real-World Customer Scenarios and Case Studies
In this portion of the training, create various real-world customer scenarios and use case studies. When reps dig into them, they’ll uncover ways to address their issues with your solutions. The first few should be easy and cut-and-dried. They should get progressively less clear and more challenging, simulating whatever complexity your customers and reps face in the real-world.
In many cases, you can use real situations that your sales team has faced. There's some great potential here to engage top reps (in person or video) and customers (via video), in your training, as well as Win/Loss analysis and Voice of the Customer data. In some cases, you may need to develop real-worldly but simulated scenarios, to help your reps connect the dots you want to highlight or reinforce, based on what you're training at the time.
Scenario based solution training is best done in a classroom setting, whenever possible. This is more sales training than product training, and while vILT technology is advancing, classroom ILT is still often the best medium for diving into case studies, having deep discussions/debating options, participating in breakouts or group activities and individual assignments followed by group discussion, troubleshooting, and simulations or role plays
If you're doing a boot camp, or if this is part of your sales onboarding, there's a wonderful opportunity to incorporate your training on sales messaging, as well. For both solution scenario training and messaging, virtual and video coaching solutions, like Brainshark for Coaching, offer an excellent way to validate rep skills levels after training and provide a way for sales managers to coach their reps toward mastery as reps prepare to transfer and apply what they learned with real buyers.
No matter which option you choose, remember that event-based training doesn't work for product training or sales training, and support your efforts with an effective learning system.