A KM framework for frontline sales

Knowledge Management case studies are often from the manufacturing, projects, operations or service world. However Knowledge management can be applied to any business activity. In this reprise from the archives, we look at how it can apply to Sales.

The sales force often work as individuals,  grouped into teams covering specific regions and specific products or product ranges for their organisation.  They may be selling FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods) such as clothing or pharmaceuticals to buyers in high street chains, they may be selling IT solutions to blue-chip businesses, or they may be selling cars to fleet buyers in major multinationals.

They work to sales targets, and are often highly motivated and incentivised to meet those targets. They spend a lot of their time with the buyers and customers, and relatively little time at “head office” with the rest of the team.

In this blog post, we explore some of the issues of KM for frontline sales staff (we exclude the practice of Knowledge Management for bid teams – that is far closer to the practice of KM in project-based activity).

Critical knowledge for sales

The sales force needs the following knowledge
  • Knowledge of how to sell. They need the basic knowledge of the sales process, such as relationship building, negotiation, and closing. This can be taught in theory, but the knowledge is really only acquired through practice, for example through role-play and coaching, as well as on-the-job learning and “learning before doing”. As one sales director told us, “we always do a lot of scenario planning. Before reviews I sit with my team and I plan what is the worst case that might happen, and how do we combat it? What is the most likely case, and how do we combat this?  What is the best case, and how do we maximize the outcome”?
  • Knowledge of pricing. Sometimes the price of an item is flexible, with the potential for offers and promotions such as “buy one, get one free”. The sales force need to know the pricing strategy, the pricing options, and how to sell the benefits of the pricing approach to the buyer. This knowledge needs to be provided to the sales force by the experts in the sales organisation, who themselves rely on input from the sales force. Pricing strategies can usefully be shared between sales forces in different regions and different countries.
  • Knowledge of product. The sales force need to know the details of the product, and to be rapidly briefed in any new products that may be developed. In the conversation with the buyer, the sales person has to be the product expert. This knowledge comes from the product development unit, and may also be informed by feedback from customers and consumers. One firm producing motor oil products delivers regular training to its sales and marketing departments to bring them up to speed in new products.
  • Knowledge of the consumers and their behaviour. This includes knowledge of buying habits and how to influence them; through display, promotions, education and negotiation. The sales person selling to a retailer, for example, must be the recognised category expert and understand the category shopper better than the buyer, and better than the competing companies. “One thing that we offer is our understanding of the local consumer, and we need to use that knowledge to advise the retailer” said one sales manager. This knowledge can be used to sell the products and brands better, to build more shoppable displays, and to help to grow sales for the retailer, and thus for the sales force. The sales rep starts to act as a consultant to the retailer, offering a knowledge based service.
  • Knowledge of the sales to that buyer. They need to know the sales data, the margins, and the trend. This knowledge will be delivered by the central sales organisation, based on studies and on aggregated sales data from across the firm. One sales manager told us “we have to know our data and information much better than the buyers do. They will use a set of information on how much they buy and sell from us, we need to know this data far better than they do”. If the buyer understands the data better than the seller, then the buyer is at an advantage.  This knowledge needs to cover the buyer’s competitors’ data as well, if possible. The sales rep selling to a retailer will probably have data for all of the retailer’s competitors, and although they cannot give away any specifics, they can talk about trends, and provide them insight in terms of what is going on across the overall marketplace. This knowledge is much appreciated by the buyer, and becomes an added service the sales force can offer.
  • Knowledge of the buyers and the buying companies. The best sales work through mutual advantage, so that both the buyer and the seller benefit from the deal. Therefore the sales force need knowledge of the buyers (both individual and organisational) and their goals and objectives.  They seek to understand their big customers, their game-plan and drivers, and develop and define a customer profile which is shared with and understood by the entire sales force. Although much of this knowledge comes from the sales force themselves, it will again be aggregated by the central organisation. 
  • Knowledge of the production capacity of the organisation. There is no point in selling something that can’t be delivered, so the sales force need to know what can be produced for and delivered to the client. Again, this knowledge needs to be delivered to the sales force, by knowledge transfer along the internal supply chain, and needs to be incorporated into sales targets

A KM Framework for sales

A Knowledge Management framework for a sales organisation, to allow transfer of these areas of knowledge, will probably contain some of the following elements (obviously tailored to the specific organisational context).

  • Roles – these will include  a KM person or team providing KM support for the sales organisation; also owners of critical knowledge, such as practice owners for the key areas of sales practice, product owners who ensure product knowledge is up to date and accessible, and key account owners, who hold the knowledge of dealing with key accounts.
  • Processes – Coaching and training (including role play and scenario planning). Regular knowledge exchanges and mini-peer assists during meetings of the regional team, and the wider sales community. Regular (e.g. quarterly) Retrospects for the sales team to generate lessons. Creation of knowledge assets on pricing, consumer behaviour, effective techniques, and dealing with buyers (especially major accounts). These knowledge assets will have been developed through interviews with key successful sales staff.
  • Technology – Access to the sales community of practice while on the road, to share updates and ask questions. Access to customer-related and account-related data while on the road, and in the office, through a CRM application. Provision of knowledge of products, supported by a mobile-enabled knowledge base.  Access to past sales lessons
  • Governance – tracking the frequency and effectiveness of sales KM, including the completeness and availability of knowledge assets, and the interaction within the Sales community. Monitoring the effectiveness of Knowledge Management in increasing sales.

Together these 4 elements form a KM framework for frontline sales staff.

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