Is problem knowledge more important than product knowledge?


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TSW May 24 coverThis article was first published in the May edition of Top Sales Magazine. You can subscribe by clicking the link at the bottom of this article.

It’s a fairly basic principle that in order to be able to sell something, we need to know something about what we’re selling. But is it always true that someone who knows a lot about their products or services is inevitably a more effective salesperson than someone who only knows a little?

I think most potential customers would be concerned about buying anything from a salesperson who did not appear to know what they were talking about. But I am also convinced that detailed product knowledge is not by itself enough to make someone a good or effective salesperson.

This point was hammered home recently when my wife and I went out looking for her new car. Now, I have learned over the years that my wife is (unlike me) something of a technophobe. She distrusts gadgets and unnecessary functionality and prefers something to “just work”.

The last thing she wants to hear about is a senseless stream of features, functions, and gadgets that she can see no use for and would only serve to (from her perspective) make things unnecessarily complex. In fact, that would only put her off – and (unfortunately for the salespeople involved) that’s exactly what happened.

A tale of three salespeople

We started at the Seat dealer. The salesperson obviously wasn’t up to speed with the features of the recently updated product range. They were incapable of answering simple questions such as which model had a built in satnav or a reversing camera. We then went for a test drive. Unfortunately, although we wanted to buy an automatic, they could only demonstrate a manual. Needless to say, it wasn’t a good experience.

We then moved on to the Toyota dealer. The salesperson clearly had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the many and varied features and functions of the latest models and couldn’t wait to prove it. Unfortunately, he did this by unleashing a relentless stream of buzzwords that only served to confuse (and irritate) his potential buyer.

Most significantly, he never asked my wife what she was looking for, what was important to her, or why she was in the market right now. He then offered a test drive. Instead of displaying something relevant to my wife on the information screen (like how easy the sat nav was to use – a key point for her), he switched the screen to a pointless real time display of where the power was coming from (battery or engine) that simply persuaded his potential buyer that that car was way too complicated.

Finally, we visited the Skoda dealer. The salesperson was knowledgeable and asked my wife what was most important to her. He avoided mentioning or introducing features that were irrelevant to her. He arranged a test drive of an automatic version of the model that was most appropriate, we negotiated a fair price (benchmarked against CarWow), and needless to say we paid our deposit and we’re looking forward to delivery.

I think there are some broader lessons here. First, if you don’t know your product, you will struggle to sell it. A little (or no) knowledge is a dangerous thing. But even if you do know your product in (literally) excruciating detail, this can also be a dangerous thing. What you choose not to share about what you know is as important as what you choose to share. – which leads me to my key point:

Problem knowledge is more important than product knowledge

If we don’t know what problem our customer is trying to solve, or what is most important to them, we will struggle to sell them what they need. It doesn’t matter how much we know about our product if we can’t relate it to our customer’s situation and priorities. And sharing a few well-curated pieces of information is far more effective than unleashing a stream of irrelevant functionality.

If we don’t find out what is most important to them – what they are trying to fix, avoid or achieve, and why – we’ll never be able to convince them that we can address their needs, or persuade them that they need to take action rather than sticking with the status quo. And simply uncovering their issues isn’t enough, either.

Issues have implications – and it’s their implications that drive action. Neil Rackham highlighted the importance of this when he wrote his timeless book on “SPIN® Selling”. Simply uncovering our customer’s problems and then immediately pitching our “solution” (often in the form of a stream of product features) without first understanding the implications and relative importance of those problems is a short-cut to sales failure.

When I talk about problem knowledge, I mean not only understanding each potential customer’s motivations, issues, problems, and implications – I also mean the ability to connect their issues to our capabilities and to selectively highlight only those capabilities that are truly relevant to that specific customer.

But I also mean having a generalised knowledge of the issues faced by all similar customers, such that we can develop informed, testable, and research-based hypotheses about what our prospective customers are likely to be concerned about, and how we are able to help.

In fact, this generalised problem knowledge is critical to effective outreach, demand generation and early-stage sales conversation. It allows us to anticipate their likely issues, using language and references that they can relate to. This is far more effective than the naïve product pitching that is – regrettably – still so common in so many sales environments.

That’s why I believe problem-centric knowledge is critical to increasing sales effectiveness throughout the start, middle and end of any complex B2B sales process.

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Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


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