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Sales Leadership
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Offsetting sales knowledge gaps simply by adding bodies to calls isn’t practical; narrow product and market specialists must be evolved into subject matter experts.

Darwin taught us that in the wild, creatures of all types run the risk of extinction if they are unable to adapt to a changing habitat. In today’s harsh b-to-b sales environment, non-quota bearing headcount such as overlays and specialists are growing endangered, their cost and contribution continually evaluated to justify their existence or rationalize their demise.

Unrelenting expense pressures are forcing sales leaders to rethink the affordability and disposition of all of their sales support resources. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we will document the decline of the “four-legged” sales call, identify the components of expertise sales must be able to access, and explore the evolution from specialist to subject matter expert.

In more prosperous times, reps would set up appointments and manage prospect relationships, then lobby to secure the time of a specialist once a prospect’s questions became too specific. The setup was perceived as both a productive and affordable way to offset the knowledge limitations of salespeople, as well as an effective way to share best practices as specialists travelled from rep to rep acquiring and spreading situational knowledge and tactical advice. After weeks on the road, debriefing the specialist afforded sales and marketing leaders a unique look into what was and wasn’t working in front of prospects.

Over the years, a number of b-to-b organizations have utilized video-based conferencing and Web presentation capabilities to improve the scalability of specialist resources and minimize their travel expenses. Others have chosen to eliminate these positions, putting more of a burden on their reps. While budget cuts may spell the extinction of the four-legged sales rep, what can’t be eliminated is the need to satisfy growing requirements from prospects for information.

Eliminating the specialist role increases the amount of time and effort required for sales reps to hunt for answers, often dramatically affecting their productivity. Once the utility of off-the-shelf collateral has been exhausted, reps are forced to reach out to their personal knowledge network to find what they need.

To fill these critical gaps, b-to-b organizations are increasingly turning to subject matter experts (SMEs), shared sales readiness resources that may reside in sales, product marketing or field marketing. SMEs are responsible for providing a single point of expertise to sales, acting as human knowledge portals that can be tapped as needed. SMEs tend to focus their mastery in seven core areas, including:

. Product capabilities. SMEs are a source for most current product collateral, training, roadmaps, reference guides and market positioning.

. Prospect communications. In addition to traditional product scope sheets, call scripts, value prompters, anxiety questions, emails, presentations, RFP/RFI response, proposals and all forms of customized sales communications can be sourced through SMEs. Their recommendations of the most popular and successful tools can enable a salesperson to quickly identify the best approach for each situation.

. Competitive intelligence. In-depth working knowledge of competitors’ products, tactics, strategies and pricing. SMEs maintain real-time awareness of live opportunities, preparing reps for competitive interaction with both offense- or defense-based tactics and strategies.

. Situational coaching. Based on the aggregation of multiple prospect interactions, the SME can suggest strategies, pricing, competitive positioning and other invaluable nuggets that sales reps can incorporate into their selling strategy.

.Nickel knowledge. Industry tidbits, market newsfeeds or any other source of meaningful, relevant information that sales might need can be maintained and fed to sales through the SME.

To reinforce their case for affordability, SMEs must be available not just to reps with whom they have a working relationship – as the specialist model grew infamous for – but to everyone. To accomplish this, they will need to broaden their impact through a range of tactics and technologies, including:

. Tactic: Playbooks. In conjunction with marketing resources, SMEs can develop product, vertical and buying center playbooks that pre­assemble the most current, relevant and customized content for a sales rep. Adapting value statements, case studies or ROI examples to prospects can reduce the amount of time the sales rep needs to create messages, as well as to dramatically improve the relevance and quality of interactions at each phase of the sales cycle.

. Tactic: Just-in-time learning. SMEs can leverage the capabilities of a learning management system to post product, market, competitive or vertical knowledge briefs that can be accessed through traditional outlets or rich media formats such as podcasts.

. Technology: SME central. The SME is uniquely positioned to leverage collaboration among sales reps that was historically restricted to these reps’ immediate network. The development of a microsite maintained by SME can share FAQs, competitive intelligence, and most frequently used/successful content.

. Technology: Rich media. Voice-supported PowerPoint and full-motion video podcasts capture SMEs and their content in a manner that allows salespeople to access information and even share it with prospects while on the go. Rich media production requires marketing resources and the SMEs work together to produce top-quality content, and a sales information portal that can store content and track its usage.

Knowledge is what differentiates great salespeople from their peers and competitors. With plugging in a body where this knowledge is lacking no longer a cut-and-dried option, b-to-b sales leaders must work with marketing to find ways to deliver knowledge to reps in a systematic, just-in-time manner or risk being marginalized in competitive situations. Building a group of SMEs is an excellent option, but they must be resourced with the proper tools and infrastructure in order to drive maximum leverage; otherwise, they will become nothing more than moved pieces on the chessboard.

About the Author:

SiriusDecisions, a leading source for business-to-business sales and marketing best-practice research and data. SiriusDecisions Executive Advisory Services, Consulting Services, Benchmark Assessment Services, Learning and Events provide senior-level executives with the sales and marketing operational intelligence required to maximize top line growth and performance. 

©SiriusDecisions, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

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