By definition, an expertise-based business relies on its knowledge and insights to attract and keep clients.
For sellers in expertise-based businesses it is easy to become over-reliant on the bank of ‘product’ knowledge within the business. Especially when that knowledge has been at the core of the sellers field of expertise for many years.
Differentiate between ‘product’ and ‘process’ knowledge
During a recent episode of the Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Corner (ecorner) series speakers from the engineering school and a venture capital investor made some very interesting observations. The topic was Forecasting the Future of Technology, however the comments that caught my attention related to how individuals recognise which type of knowledge is most important.
VC investor Steve Jurvetson drew on his deep knowledge of what is happening within new fields of technology to comment:
Process knowledge will become more important than product knowledge. Product knowledge can be held in a database. Process knowledge focusing on the variables of success will be increasingly the locus of learning. (video 26:30)
And that should resonate with anyone in sales. More and more, prospects are looking online to get the product information they want. Fact sheets, case studies, videos and how-to information abounds. Even for very technical products and services clients want the control and freedom to seek product information when they need it.
Which means the really valuable role for sellers is to help clients interpret that information and apply it to their own specific situation. That is, having the process knowledge they can share with clients (or prospects). Just knowing the product knowledge isn’t enough.
Process knowledge could be considered to be:
- Knowing which variables are most important in each specific situation, and why
- Insights into how to achieve the best outcome, not simply which products to use
- Recommendations on how to minimise expected obstacles or difficulties
- Understanding how each role within the client company will relate/react to the use of a particular product or solution
Process knowledge can be captured and documented. But process knowledge also draws on a large component of experience – or wisdom – in how to go about achieving a particular outcome.
To achieve the most impact, sales training should include a blend of product and process knowledge within any training event. This may be done through recognising and documenting the process knowledge held within the business, as well as gaining personal input from those team members with relevant experiences in the field.
You need to have the plasticity to continue learning
Unlike a lot of product knowledge that remains unchanged, process knowledge continues to evolve. There are smarter ways to use the same old products. New combinations become possible. New applications are discovered.
To remain effective and relevant professional sellers need to regularly update their own process knowledge. They need to be curious and seek to understand why outcomes happen they way they do – not simply know which products were used.
But learning can be difficult.
And time consuming.
And sometimes frustrating.
Recent research has shown that academic learning is actually a physical activity – your brain actually changes as a result of the learning process; it rewires itself along the neural pathways.
Interestingly during the Stanford panel discussion Christina Smolke, Associate Professor of bioengineering at Stanford made the observation that:
If you want to stay at the forefront of a field you need to have the plasticity to learn, and to continue to adapt. (video 26:02)
Sales leaders should ask themselves how they can create learning opportunities for their team to sharpen their process knowledge.
And sales professionals should be seeking opportunities to expose themselves to new information that challenges what they have previously known.
Product knowledge is essential. But process knowledge will be the distinguishing factor that attracts and delights clients.
Note: Watch the full Stanford ecorner panel discussion here.