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Surviving in a Buyer's World

High-tech mentoring keeps your reps in the driver's seat

Sales as we know it has changed. Whether someone is buying home electronics, enterprise software or industrial equipment, buyers today can get their hands on analyses, reviews, pricing and specs long before they shake hands with a salesperson. With buyers in control, the sales cycle has become the buying cycle.

And if sales people want to succeed, they have to become the ultimate knowledge warriors: professionals who provide value far beyond what buyers can easily find on their own via the Internet. In the buying cycle, the traditional methods for preparing account executives to sell just aren't enough.

Sales meetings and conference calls highlighting new product rollouts are valuable methods for introducing a sales force to your latest wares. But it’s only a start. These traditional methods hamstring the account executive who seeks immediate answers to a dynamically changing set of questions from an educated buyer. In the buying cycle, if you don’t provide timely, insightful information, you can quickly stall, or even lose, a deal.

According to a Cahners survey of 23,000 companies, some 58% of their buyers say that sales professionals cannot answer their questions effectively. Another study of 1,300 companies by CSO Insights looked at whether or not companies provide relevant information to their salespeople. Among companies that made it "easy" for their salespeople to find and share best practices, sales quotas were attained 66% of the time, versus 49% for companies where best practice sharing was rated as difficult.

If you've read this far, then you recognize the problem. And here's one answer: Dynamic Sales Knowledge Management.

Now the last thing sales, or any other line of work, needs is another buzzword or phrase. But this particular one is worthy of attention, as it packs a potent punch for your salespeople. Mind you, it's not a silver bullet. It's more like a cultural shift with technology as a fulcrum.

Here's how: Through a combination of technologies like online communities, expertise exchange, instant messaging and wikis, you can give your salespeople a way to lay their hands on the know-how that experts possess. The glue keeping it all together, though, is mentoring.

By applying technology to mentoring, you can alleviate mentors' concerns about mentoring (e.g., takes too much time, answering the same questions again and again, etc.). Applying technology to mentoring also allows mentor and protégé to interact more frequently, while still respecting each other's time.

Last January, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled "Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World." The authors—two Harvard Business School professors and a former Ernst & Young executive—shared the following: First, mentors must provide authentic advice and access. Second, giving a B player a "small dose of attention" nets as much as a significant investment with an A player. Third, protégés ought to co-mentor one another.

Who doesn't use e-mail exchanges to swap expertise, you say? Of course we mentor our salespeople, you proclaim. But do you, really? Are you sharing expertise …or constantly answering questions? Are you mentoring…or simply teaching new hires your sales process?

Dynamic Sales Knowledge Management makes finding and contributing expertise a dependable and repeatable process for netting the answers that a salesperson needs, when they need it. Exchanging expertise entails much more than trading e-mails or swapping PowerPoint slides. If a sales team can: 1. quickly locate the expertise (or expert) needed; 2. manage the flow of interactions in an orderly way; and 3. store that valuable information for everyone to use at a later date, then a company's knowledge becomes everyone's know-how on demand. And if many minds co-mentor to meet a buyer's needs, they'll trump a salesperson selling alone.

Plenty of tech tools are available for constructing a platform that facilitates Dynamic Sales Knowledge Management. Each has its benefits. Each is designed to give a salesperson facing a prospect access to the best answer at a moment's notice.

But Dynamic Sales Knowledge Management isn't just about knitting technologies together and saying, "Have at it, folks." It's also about showing people that the concept works. And for that, you need evangelists to sell the merits. Evangelists proselytize best when they show how a product or service specifically helped them.

What's that mean in practical terms? Assume we have a smart (but green) account executive. In today's new buying cycle, buyers may be hitting this exec with RFPs before she even picks up the phone. Her sales manager has taught her the firm's sales process, and she's following it carefully. She's excited to get the RFPs because they seem to fit a sales profile for one of her firm's new payroll products. The new account executive even starts building her pipeline around these RFPs because she thinks that’s where the demand is.

But she also decides to tap her company's knowledge platform. A password-protected Website, the knowledge platform delivers her a link to a video about the payroll product, contact information for a product manager and an e-mail string between a colleague from the West Coast office (who she's never met) and one of her company's most successful sales executives (an expert). With the knowledge platform, she asks the product manager and the expert for advice.

Within minutes, the product manager tells her via e-mail to steer away from selling the payroll product as a first step because the competitors' products are stronger. The sales executive sends an IM advising the new sales rep to focus on selling the company's HR software suite, which includes payroll features and has a higher probability of being bought.

Armed with that information, she adjusts her strategy and tailors her pipeline accordingly. Dynamic Sales Knowledge Management put three minds (plus technology!) against the buying cycle, instead of one sales exec selling alone.

By investing in such an approach, account executives can substantially cut the time between a buyer's question and a salesperson's response, while increasing the quality and consistency of response. And that puts salespeople well on the way to becoming the ultimate knowledge warriors.

Jeff Heine is vice president of sales for OutStart, a Boston-based software maker (www.outstart.com).