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Selling In A “Knowledge Based” Economy

by David Brock on November 27th, 2014

The days of product, even solution based differentiation are long passed.  We can no longer count on great products to provide sustained differentiation and competitive advantage.

Don’t get me wrong, great products and solutions are the foundation of our businesses and the value we create for customers.  They are the things our customers buy and implement to achieve their own strategic growth goals.  So they are critical to thriving economies and company growth.

But as we look at our customers’ buying processes, great products and solutions are table stakes to getting considered.  Ultimately, the differentiator is the knowledge and experience we bring–both in the selling process and as our customers implement and use our solutions.

There are lots of studies about the importance of the customer buying experience in winning business and building customer loyalty.  CEB data puts this at 53% of why people buy/continue to buy.  It’s the knowledge and experience sales teams (not just sales people) bring to customers that become the ultimate differentiator.

So knowledge and experience become critical assets to our own success and growth.  Not just the knowledge that exists in our labs, development teams, factories, and back offices.  But the knowledge sales team demonstrate every day in working with customers and growing the business.

But then we are smacked in the face with interesting data.  The average longevity of a sales person (voluntary and involuntary attrition) is less than 2 years–add to that, average ramp time to productivity is 7-10 months.  The average longevity of a sales manager/executive is less than 19 months.

It’s an intriguing problem.  If our differentiation and success is based on the knowledge and experience we bring to customers, yet we churn through people before they can acquire the necessary knowledge and experience, then how to we maximize our own organizational performance?

So many of our corporate and individual behaviors seem to be running in opposition to the things that have an impact and make a real difference in our own result, growth, and success!  Knowledge, experience, sheer raw brain power are the keys to our success, yet we don’t seem to treat these as the differentiating assets they are.

Organizationally, too often we have a mentality of churning through people.  If we’ve hired the wrong person, no worries, we fire them, find another, hire them and so on.  We hit road bumps in the achievement of our goals, so we conveniently “right size” adding people when we need to, reducing people when we need to–just to get the numbers to fit.

Individually, we aren’t much better.  We move from organization to organization–chasing bigger paychecks, escaping bad bosses, chasing new dreams–yet never building deep knowledge and experience.  A colleague share the idea, “the same 1 year experience repeated 5 times does not approach the real experience we have in 5 years.”

We are constantly confronted with data about disappointing sales performance.  Declining performance against quota, declining win rates/average transaction value, customers engaging sales people later in their buying cycles.

We try to address these through providing better training, tools, systems, processes—but these seem to address the symptoms and not the core issue.

If we are to compete and differentiate based on knowledge and experience, how do we build and retain a strong asset base of knowledge and experience?  How do we attract and retain the best and the brightest?  How do we develop them, continuing to provide exciting new opportunities within our organizations, so they don’t have to look elsewhere for challenges and advancement?

Too many organizations seem to be pretty short sighted on this.  I seldom see development plans for people (having a decent performance plan is hard enough).  I am rarely involved in discussions about creating exciting growth opportunities to retain our people, providing continued challenges and new opportunities.  Too often, we seem to have a mentality of “renting” talent for a period of time, expecting they will move on.

We talk, mostly about millennials, about the “facts” they will move from job to job to job–accepting that as the way “they are.” But what if we addressed the issue differently, but looking at creating opportunities and challenges within our own organizations.

Too many high performing organizations are defying “conventional wisdom” with millennials, Gen Y, X, Baby boomers, Old farts, by creating exciting challenging work places, competing based in knowledge and experience, providing growth opportunities.

It may be the reason they are high performing companies is they are doing these things–and those companies that struggle with consistent performance and growth are not.

In a global world, where knowledge and experience is the differentiator, we can only be successful by looking at people as our most critical assets, protecting them, developing them, challenging them, growing them.  It’s an issue that’s too important to be left to HR.

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7 Comments
  1. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, great points on the challenges sales leaders face today in today’s challenging marketplace. One of the themes I consistently view from your alerting us to the challenges we face is LEADERSHIP. Who is going to lead this effort? Who and where are we going train, encourage, mentor these sales professionals? What business schools that already provide expertise in finance, manufacturing, fiancé and other functional areas are going to support the sales leadership and professionalism? Where are the MBA programs in sales leadership and sales professionalism? When is the business world going to recognize sales as much as a critical discipline as finance, manufacturing and human resources? Sales representatives are the ground soldiers doing the challenging tasks in persuading prospects and customers to buy. Maybe if we view sales professionals and leaders as critical the success of our companies and not replaceable assets we may get better results. It is going to take “Smart Leaders” to recognize this!

  2. A great post for year end, Dave Thanks!

    24 month tenure in Sales Role
    7 month ‘on-boarding’
    17 months performance.

    Then, They get a new Sales Manager!

    This is really worth thinking about,
    our futures depend upon it!

    • Thanks Brian, it seems we (the profession) loses sight of the people/knowledge/resource management/value of the sales function. That, however, is the core of what drives effectiveness, the rest is icing.

      • The rest is icing, indeed!

        Dave, thanks for another great year of insights, tips and advice so freely given to our profession.

        You are, in my estimation the best daily source of Sales Advice. Good solid, no BS, sales advice.

        No Magic moves, tricks or gimmicks, just sound advice and great thoughts.

        Unless you have a secret Voting ‘bot’ it’s unlikely that we will see you at any prizegivings this year. But, you had my vote, and you have my best wishes and admiration.
        Sincerely, Brian [BMAC]

        • Wow Brian, coming from you that is the highest praise and the most precious prize anyone could ever expect. Thanks so much! I don’t write these posts for prizes, though if I win some sort of contest I’m pleased.

          I write these so I can learn. Much of what I write about, I’m struggling with myself. Thoughtful people like you cause me to rethink things and learn. Having the ability to share ideas, having the ability to help other learn and improve is tremendously rewarding. A single note or comment from people who read this blog, particularly for someone I respect as much as you is more reward and recognition than I could ever dream of.

          Thanks so much for the comment, you’ve made my day and year. Thanks for keeping me on my toes by calling me on my BS–it does happen 😉

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