What’s the first thing you teach new sales reps?

Most training falls into two categories: sales training and product training. Chances are, you use both of them in your training program.

After all, how can your reps sell without knowing what the product does, or how to connect and communicate with customers?

Both are important, no doubt about that. But thinking about training exclusively in those terms and training for them separately means you’re not emphasizing the most important lesson of all: the art of discovery.

Rather than focusing on broad areas like “product knowledge” or “selling tactics”, we need to think about the end goal – finding a solution to a customer’s problem – and teach reps how to get there.

Back to basics: product vs. sales knowledge

Before we go any further, let’s unpack the two categories we traditionally think about when we hear “sales training.”

Product knowledge answers, “what do we sell?” It educates sales reps on the details surrounding your products or services and how they work. It focuses on things like:

  • Features and benefits
  • Customizability and variants
  • Pricing and costs
  • Competitive landscape
  • Target markets and buyer personas

Sales knowledge answers, “how do we sell?” It emphasizes the softer selling skills along with best practices and specific tactics that open conversations and close sales. We’re talking:

  • Empathy and active listening
  • Problem-solving
  • Objection handling
  • Sales psychology
  • Communication

Why discovery comes first

A great discovery is a perfect marriage between product and sales knowledge. Reps need to know how to look for problems, ask the right questions, listen to the answers, and find a solution that fits. You need both to make that happen.

But finding that balance is hard. Too much focus on the sales stuff, and we won’t be able to explain our products effectively. Too much focus on product, and we lose touch with the customer and what’s important to them.

Just ask Brianna Layton, an account executive with Salesforce.

“I had been conditioned to ask the same five or six questions in every discovery and to try to prescribe a solution right away — expecting a customer's demand for our product instantly,” she writes, describing a gap she found in her own sales methodology.

Then, Layton attended a training session focused wholly on discovery. Her task: to dig deep into one account, and walk a mile in the shoes of that business’ customers.

Over the following weeks, she signed up for their rewards program, took their surveys, downloaded their mobile app, Tweeted at them, and purchased a few things from their website and brick-and-mortar store. She took screenshots and made notes along the way.

She put her findings together and presented the results to the top executives – what she liked, what frustrated her, and what she thought they could do better. She came to the meeting as an engaged customer, and left being able to say, “By the way, my company has a platform that can help you with all of this.”

What did Layton learn from the experience? “It sounds clichéd, but it’s really about sitting back and listening, and giving customers a chance to talk and ask questions in a different way — a way that gets them thinking more broadly about what the root of their issues could be,” she says.

In doing so, she achieved that balance: looking for problems, asking the right questions, listening to the answers, and finding a solution.

Finding your training balance

In a world where customers expect your reps to be more than just salespeople – they want an industry insider, an educator, a business expert, and an advocate – you need to demonstrate that you understand how their business works and can help produce results that matter to them.

A straight-up information dump in training won’t get you there. Most of it will be quickly forgotten (reps certainly have enough to remember as it is). That’s why The Sales Blog creator Anthony Iannarino recommends a combined approach to training that ties both product and sales knowledge together in service of a larger goal or lesson.

For instance, why not pair the details around the technology, capabilities, features, and benefits of your product or service with related questions your reps can ask a prospect? Why not present those product details alongside an ROI spreadsheet to show value over price?

In the end, it’s not just about combining product and sales knowledge – it’s also combining a sales idea or goal, like discovery, with the tools reps need to execute and achieve success.

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