Knowledge is power: it is true in every industry, more so when you are on the field trying to sell a product or a service to a bunch of folks who have a problem and won’t accept anything less than a perfect solution to it.
Field sales executives use knowledge-bases to fill this gap. They read all the engineering documents, whitepapers, marketing materials, FAQs, customer testimonials, research for the product/service online, some even create their own knowledge articles such as how a particular product/service compares against a competitor, what strategy can be used to sell the product/service to a particular industry etc.,
But, all this knowledge is very subjective. Even large organizations with sophisticated content management systems don’t group all these in one place, there is always something missing, there is always an old version hitting you at a wrong moment, there is always a secret selling formula that is staying in a master sales person’s desktop, or worst, his brain.
While field sales executives constantly complain about lack of a reliable knowledge platform, they don’t understand that they are part of the problem. No solution a CSO implements will be successful if the actual users don’t contribute to it in a disciplined manner.
Means, Today’s Knowledge is not created by someone and served to everyone else, it is the collective intelligence of people working on the field, which then becomes useful to everyone.
Types of knowledge
When you look at a tree, the first thing you notice is its shape, then the colors, then leaves, fruits etc.,
That’s where most people stop. Only when then get closer, they will understand that the tree has a very strong Web of branches, which actually made those other features possible.
There is another layer just below the ground. No one notices it, but there are roots spread deeply in all directions, that bring the resources the tree needs.
Finally, there is a social layer attached to the tree. Humanbeings water it, animals, insects and birds live in it, creating the ecosystem around the tree. It grows constantly. You don’t see the same tree again, it changes every minute.
This analogy can be used to describe the knowledge about a product/service, any product/service, in any industry:
1.The noticeable layer, which contains all the published literature about the product/service, something everyone can get access to
2.The branch layer, where tons of underlying information is available to give you the understanding about the tree. But you need to work towards getting this information, it won’t be available easily as most never even know it’s existence, they are happy with the noticeable layer
3.The root layer, which provides further insights, but it is hidden, for example an engineering guy can give you so many details about magical things the product you are trying to sell can do, but, is there a channel that connects a sales person to this engineering expert?
4.The social layer, where people work with the product/service and they create tons of knowledge, thanks to their experience, questions, frustrations they face and their hard work. They won’t share this with others, not because they don’t want to, but there is no platform or system to make this happen
View from the sales side
While we understand that there are four layers of knowledge about a product/service and most people only get the first layer clear, the story moves down from there. Pretty soon, even that first layer is removed: people only have access to a PHOTOGRAPH of the tree, which was clicked many weeks (or months) back!
Many times, this is how a sales professional feels when (s)he tries to access product/service literature: they have access only to a snapshot of the tree, which is constantly growing (outside that snapshot). They need to understand the tree from the picture, present it to the customers and sell a living system to solve their problem(s).
This creates frustrations in multiple levels:
*The management is frustrated, because they know all this information is available somewhere, but the sales folks are not able to take this message clearly to the customers
*The average sales professional is frustrated because (s)he doesn’t see the big picture and lack of clarity doesn’t help him/her sell better, (s)he tries to scan the picture again and again, trying to make sense of it
*The customers are frustrated because they don’t get answers to their simple questions
*The super performers are frustrated because no one asks them to share what works for them, they have seen the tree, they have understood the tree, they are able to sell it well, but there is no platform for them to share their experience (in this case, expertise)
When it comes to a dynamic products/services environment (that is, most products/services that are sold today) a knowledge system is very important. Just having knowledge or knowledge trackers or knowledge catalogs or knowledge creation platforms or even knowledge workflows doesn’t help, if there is no system to connect these.
This means, the company should think big picture and start identifying internal and external knowledge sources first. In many cases, it won’t be necessary to create them. They will already exist, some may be unstructured or available in different strictures, which needs to be organized in the best possible manner: Like Big Data, you may call it a big knowledge challenge!
Once these sources are identified, mechanisms are to be designed to bring them in a meaningful manner to a central place. This doesn’t mean it has to be duplicated, techniques such as tagging, ranking, social feedback and automated duplication removal can be used to group them so that they are not a pile of text thrown in one corner, but contain the context.
Also, they need to be served from the respective sources. That’s what will keep them constantly updated with latest information. Never call a backup as “Knowledge”.
Also, remember that this knowledge is alive. So the system must allow people to add to it, clear or update old stuff, search, ask for new stuff and get answers at real time. Add Gamification, make learning fun, make teaching fun, let people create knowledge, without considering it ‘someone else’s job’.
When thinking about people adding knowledge to the system, don’t stop with CRM users. Most of your product experts never use a CRM, some may not even use a computer.
So, keep your system open. How lovely it would be if a sales professional can review product details over coffee, ask questions, some engineering guy answers him in his phone app from another corner of the world and this reaches the sales professional as a notification in his device, who then completes a winning presentation and uploads his slides to the knowledge system, thanking the engineering support he got. His colleagues rate these slides, adding/ correcting details and he moves up in the leaderboard of product experts.
Such a system will be as alive as the product itself. People will add knowledge to it and will benefit from it: seed knowledge, growing to a crowd curated knowledge tree that grows constantly, benefiting everyone.