I’m working on a keynote I will deliver next month on the topic of sales professionalism. When I first accepted the assignment, I thought it would be very easy to find material to supplement my own ideas on what it takes to be a sales professional. I would consult some of my experienced and respected peers, do some internet research, and go through my library of sales books. Unfortunately most of these sources came up dry. I found that surprisingly very little has been said or written about the topic. (One notable exception is the book Achieve Sales Excellence by Howard Stevens.)
Undaunted, I’m going ahead with writing the speech and I think I’ll come up with a few useful ideas. I did come up with an interesting idea which I’m going to share here, and I will welcome any feedback or suggestions for improvement:
One of the defining aspects of any profession is a standard body of professional knowledge, so I’ve been reflecting on what a sales person needs to know to aspire to the title of professional. Success in complex B2B sales requires a surprisingly large body of knowledge; here are four general areas that coincidentally all begin with the same first three letters: PRO.
Product: You have to know what you sell, how it works, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. It’s true that product knowledge has declined in relative importance because there is just so much information available to buyers, and sometimes they will know as much about your product as you do, and even more about competing alternatives. However, it will never go away as a requirement because new products are being introduced all the time, and someone needs to be able to explain them and how they work. A more sophisticated form of product knowledge is the type of knowledge that sales engineers usually provide which includes knowing how to implement and install the product and make it work within a complete system. Product knowledge includes everything that affects the delivery of value to the customer, so a sales pro has to know how orchestrate and deploy his or her company’s resources to the customer’s benefit.
Product knowledge is about yourself. The next three areas of knowledge focus on the customer.
Problem: If you’re going to sell solutions, you have to know a lot about your customer’s problems. While this sounds obvious, you can pick up just about any piece of sales literature today and find the word solution plastered all over it, with nary a mention of actual problems. I’ve heard salespeople blather on about their solutions without ever once asking a question to confirm that the customer has a problem or to understand the nuances of their particular challenges. Remember that even if you have seen it all before—to that customer, on that day—their problem is unique. A professional salesperson balances the credibility of having seen similar issues before with the concern for the customer’s perspective.
Process: You may think you’re selling products, but what your customers are really buying is process improvements. Their businesses are a collection of processes and workflows that either deliver value to their customers (e.g. shipping products) or enable them to operate on a daily basis(collecting accounts receivable). Sales pros know those processes intimately and can identify specific improvements opportunities within those processes that reduce inputs, take out steps, improve throughput, and increase or improve outputs.
Profit: At this level, you not only know how your product improves outcomes for your customers, but also why. In other words, you can connect the entire thread from your product to process improvements to business impact. This requires a deep understanding of your customer’s business goals and strategies, their business and competitive environment, industry opportunities and threats, and a wide range of general business knowledge. Armed with this level of in-depth knowledge about your customer, you will be able to work with them to spot unseen opportunities to improve their business, and quantify your value. More importantly, that’s what it takes to earn the position of a trusted business advisor—which is as good a definition of a sales professional as I can think of.