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Sales Knowledge Management: A Technology Strategy

by Dr. Carl Binder

What is the Problem?

With the rapid growth of sales automation and such online technologies as Lotus Notes and intranets, many corporations have rushed to deploy systems for distributing information and documents of all kinds to their sales people. As markets and products change with accelerating pace, sales people must assimilate and apply vast amounts of current information about their markets, their competition, and the solutions they can offer to customers. The recognition that sales people are knowledge workers, perhaps the most overburdened of all, is gradually dawning on senior sales and marketing executives in the most forward thinking companies. It is becoming obvious to such executives that knowledgeable sales people can offer a significant competitive advantage at every stage of the sales process. Knowledge of customers' business issues, market dynamics, company vision, the competition, sales strategy, and products or services themselves, helps sales people establish and maintain credibility. They can identify the customer's pressing needs and configure optimal solutions, sell the benefits of those solutions, and guard against competitive challenges.

On the other hand, those working today in nearly all functions within business organizations suffer from severe information overload. Sales people are perhaps the most overloaded of all. Information of many types, in many different forms and media, pours in on the sales person. Dozens or even hundreds of documents are intended to provide sales people with the knowledge they need to compete. Yet because the information generally arrives from many different sources, neither its content nor format is consistent. Sales guides, training materials, audio and video tapes, sets of overhead transparencies, sales collateral, proposals, memos, emails and now documents in online databases often cover the same ground in slightly different ways, and are often very difficult to use if one is in a hurry to find needed information. The result is a scarcity of knowledge in an abundance of information.

By default, most sales people pick up the phone or seek the most convenient source of answers to their questions, e.g., the product manager's latest slide set or a brochure intended for customers. Sales people in some companies may make as many as 20-30 phone calls before they get the knowledge they need in response to specific questions. Product managers and their staff may respond to literally hundreds of phone calls and emails per week with answers to questions that they have already answered in some form or other, spending as much as 70% of their time doing so. These same marketing professionals also devote substantial portions of their work weeks to creating all kinds of "sales knowledge deliverables" &endash; whether training materials, white papers, product briefs, competitive updates, or sales guides. We often find literally dozens of documents covering similar topics written by multiple people within organizations. Lists of key messages and benefits differ for the same product. And the management and updating of information become nearly impossible. Thus, rather than maintaining a single, coherent knowledge base, the sources tend to create yet more documents in a near futile effort to update the field.

The overall result is that companies invest huge amounts in product development, marketing, and sales support, yet the messages that get to the sales force are so inconsistent that the return on those investments is not what it could be.

Needed: Fluent Access to and Use of Sales Knowledge

To the extent sales people must compete based on the added value of their knowledge, they must be able to easily access, learn, and apply knowledge. They may or may not need large amounts of knowledge, depending on their products, markets, and sales/marketing strategies. But certainly they need the right knowledge &endash; those facts, questions, answers, descriptions and other knowledge nuggets that will enable them to perform each key aspect of their jobs most effectively. In fact, it is the actionable nature of this knowledge &endash; its relevance to and ability to be used in on-the-job performance &endash; that separates it from mere information or data. Ideally, sales people should be able to access the knowledge they need, already transformed into structures and formats relevant to sales activities while easy to apply because of it relevance and form. The days in which corporations can expect their sales people to successfully fend for themselves in the jungle of information overload are coming to an end. Those companies that ensure easy access to sales-relevant knowledge will enable their sales people to perform significantly better than their competitors who do not have such easy-to-access knowledge.

The Challenge of Sales Knowledge Management

Managing the knowledge of a sales and marketing organization cuts across disciplines and departments and may include various functions within Marketing, Sales, Training, Sales Automation, and Customer Service. Conscious efforts in some major corporations to build a "learning organization" have yielded such job titles as Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and have involved cross-functional teams of various kinds. Recognition of the problem is itself a major advance. In many companies, Sales, Marketing and other functions do not cooperate effectively, and frequently blame one another for lack of effective communication.

The challenge is to make vast amounts of dynamic information both useful and accessible to sales people for use in performing specific tasks on the job. This can take the form of various learning tools and programs as well as reference resources, both hard copy and online. To realize a return on their corporate knowledge assets, executives need to provide for processes and systems that will optimize the capture and use of knowledge. Because knowledge is actionable information, used to support performance, an effective solution demands cross-functional processes for collaboration and communication.

Knowledge Management Functions

Managing knowledge in an organization requires three distinct but overlapping functions, plus processes and tools for maintaining and refreshing the knowledge base over time.

  • Access: Sales people must be able to access required knowledge easily, quickly, and with the confidence that they can find what they want. The classic assertion that "sales people don't read," while it may be true as compared with university professors, is actually the consequence of most organizations' failure to provide reliable, quick access to needed knowledge. We have seen repeatedly that sales people will literally ask for more information, if given hard copy or online reference resources that support rapid, reliable access. There is something like the traditional 80/20 rule with respect to the amount of knowledge a sales person must be able to access versus the amount he or she must actually learn. For many tasks, such as planning account strategy, preparing for sales calls, writing proposals, and organizing information for presentations, sales people can perform well if they simply can find needed information. They need not commit it all to memory, if there is a system that allows them to rapidly find needed information.
  • Learning: Sales people need to learn a relatively small amount of knowledge &endash; that which is needed face-to-face with customers or for routinely thinking through problems (e.g., key associations between potential customers' problems and product solutions). And where sales people do need to learn, they must be able to achieve what we call fluency &endash; that level of "second nature" knowledge that comes from regular practice.
  • Application: To be useful, whether accessed or learned, sales knowledge must be organized and presented in a form that supports application in practical tasks. Ideally, information for sales people will appear in formats and structures directly applicable to their jobs, e.g., issue-implications descriptions of market drivers or needs-solutions tables. Such forms of knowledge support performance, without the need for sales people to re-organize, re-write, or otherwise re-process available information.

Technology Solutions

Technology is often seen as a panacea for the problems of knowledge management. Computer based training programs are among the most prominent forms of knowledge technology. Many different software technologies attempt to address the issue of knowledge access, including traditional database programs, online documentation systems, hypertext and multimedia authoring tools, expert systems, and more recently Lotus Notes groupware, and HTML and Java-based internet and intranet technologies. So-called electronic performance support systems (EPSS) combine various types of software technology in an effort to support key on-the-job tasks. Delivery mechanisms include conventional storage in desktop or portable computers, access to networks via internal LANs, intranets, or the internet, and distribution via CD-ROM. An important requirement for field-based sales professionals is convenient and time-efficient remote access, often via telephone lines.

What is common to all of these technologies is the old adage "garbage in, garbage out." We have seen case after case where companies have naively "dumped" hundreds of documents and bits of information into one or another form of database, on the premise that merely putting this information online in electronic form will enable sales people to access. We find that such repositories are often no better than distributing information via hundreds of documents. When the information is not consistently labeled, organized, or formatted, it produces at least as much information overload as hundreds of paper documents. In fact, technology merely allows many companies to create information overload at a more rapid pace than with conventional means. In both computerized learning or access systems, the failure to identify what knowledge is actually needed for performance, to eliminate unneeded information, and to conduct analyses of how sales people will use the knowledge, neutralizes the potential benefits of technology.

Thus, technology is not a simple cure. Unless the information made available by technology is analyzed, organized, and presented in a form that optimally supports performance, it will add to rather than alleviate the problems of sales information overload. Leading edge companies, including the suppliers of database and groupware technologies who use their own systems, are only recently coming to the stark realization that technology per se is not the solution.

Knowledge Architecture: Organizing Knowledge for Use

What is missing in nearly every effort we have seen to manage knowledge for the sales force is what we have come to call knowledge architecture. That is, a scheme for consistently and comprehensively labeling, sequencing, and structuring all the types of knowledge needed for sales. One of our clients put it most simply when she asked, "What if your newspaper were formatted and organized differently every day?" The answer, of course, is that you would find it very difficult to use and enjoy the newspaper if you could not predict how or where stock quotes, classified ads, sport statistics, entertainment news, or other important features would appear in the document. This, however, is directly analogous to how most organizations provide knowledge for their sales people, and is the problem our proprietary Product Knowledge Architecture™ was designed to address.

The key features of any knowledge architecture, according to our definition, include standards for:

  • Chunking and labeling: Just as the newspaper contains predictable "chunks" of information, labeled with the same words and phrases each day, an architecture for corporate knowledge bases should contain standard definitions of the types of content needed by users and standard words or phrases for labeling them. This feature of a knowledge architecture enables users to search for, learn about, remember, and apply knowledge of various types using known language. A standard chunking and labeling scheme also allows the organization to more easily update and maintain its knowledge resources by providing a framework for determining what knowledge has changed over time.
  • Sequencing: Standard sequences of topics, whether in reference documents, overhead transparency sets, or learning materials and presentations, support both access, or navigation, and efficient learning. The ideal is that the sequence of topics in a knowledge architecture will provide a path for first-time sequential learning, but also will allow later random access to paper or online resources.
  • Formatting: Standard page layouts and document structures, if designed to optimally support performance, make it easy to access and learn knowledge. Structures such as standard types of tables and similarly structured diagrams, if used throughout a knowledge base, enable users to obtain knowledge in a useful form. For example, standard needs-solutions tables are far easier to access and apply than are dense text about the same topics. A mature knowledge architecture contains a range of standard formats for key types of knowledge, wherever it might occur in the organization.
  • Linking: Standard links or cross-references connect chunks of knowledge that users may need to access or learn together, e.g., industry segments and potential customer needs. The best knowledge architectures contain standard links between related topics, a feature that is especially powerful when implemented in online technology.

It is important to recognize that, if implemented across the organization, a knowledge architecture can rationalize and improve the usefulness of a wide range of knowledge resources, including reference books and documentation, online resources, training materials and programs, marketing white papers, emails, and even audio and video tapes. Such an architecture provides the structure for systems, processes, and specific deliverables related to a particular area of knowledge and performance (e.g., sales) across the entire organization. As you will see, each of these key architectural features can be implemented in various ways with different types of software technologies.

State of the Sales Knowledge Technology Marketplace

Technologies of all kinds are available for providing sales knowledge. While there are many different forms of computerized learning/training tools, this white paper will focus more on technologies for access and application.

Sales force automation is an exploding market, with all kinds of tools available for managing the sales process in both simple and more complex situations and organizational structures. Within the scope of sales automation, the systems for providing sales knowledge are generally called either sales libraries or marketing encyclopedias.

  • Sales libraries: This term is often used to refer to databases of one kind or another that contain all kinds of different documents and information chunks intended to support sales. Ideally, it distinguishes between sales collateral, intended primarily for customers, and sales knowledge resources, intended to inform sales people.
  • Marketing encyclopedias: Marketing encyclopedias, strictly speaking, should contain those materials and documents intended for customers, including brochures, proposals and letters, presentation sets, demonstrations, and other customer-focused information. In fact, most organizations that we have seen mix customer materials with resources intended for the sales people, often without specifying which is which.

As these types of applications have begun to appear in the last several years, they have been implemented in a variety of ways, including proprietary systems designed and developed as modules in larger sales automation programs, conventional database technologies (i.e., Oracle's), Lotus Notes, and web-based technologies using hypertext markup language (HTML) and Java in publicly accessible sites on the Worldwide Web or private intranets. In addition, a number of knowledge classification schemes have been applied with technology designed to filter commercially available news feed services for articles and other snippets related to key markets, customers, etc. (e.g., grapeVINE Technologies).

What is most obvious in any review of the existing sales knowledge technologies is that most of them currently comprise dumping grounds &endash; single electronic "places" where marketing and sales people can publish or deposit all kinds of information, much like the traditional 3-ring binders containing multiple documents that sales organizations often distribute to their people. Materials and information are most often organized by document type, product name, or alphabetically. And the documents themselves are generally enormously redundant, and inconsistent in organization and content. For example, at one of our high technology clients, we were able to find in their intranet over 160 documents related to a particular product set, representing a degree of information overload that was nearly impenetrable by sales people in that organization. Understandably, those who create such online resources often complain of sales people who do not use them. In fact, technology can worsen rather than improve the problem of information overload.

A final note about current technology options is that many technologists have naively believed that the problems of analyzing, organizing, and providing access (e.g., via key words) to online resources can be handled automatically using intelligent software. Various systems for parsing, keywording, and creating links automatically have been applied. However, those at the forefront of practical knowledge management for the sales force recognize that it takes human intervention and screening to meaningfully assign keywords, structure and summarize information, and create useful links. In fact, a new job classification &endash; knowledge manager &endash; is emerging as a critical step in the process of providing and maintaining useful knowledge and ensuring application of standards for optimal accessibility. We want sales people to be able to select, rather than search for needed information, and this requires that someone else has already filtered, formatted, and tagged or labeled it. Leveraging the work of a few knowledge managers for the benefit of many more sales people can be an extremely cost-effective strategy.

Binder Riha Associates' Technology Strategy

Our technology strategy can be described as containing the following key elements:

Open architecture: The Product Knowledge Architecture™ is our comprehensive knowledge architecture for sales and marketing, based on nearly ten years of research and development with clients across industries. Containing seven major segments and multiple sub-segments sequenced to support both learning and access, the architecture provides standards that are customizable for each client organization for chunking and labeling sales knowledge, formatting on paper or online, and linking key sub-segments to one another. This architecture can be readily translated into the features of software systems, including keywords, views, document or database templates, and links. The Product Knowledge Architecture provides a unique and powerful framework for analyzing, organizing, and presenting information for sales in any form.

Implementation in industry standard technologies: Although the Product Knowledge Architecture can be implemented in virtually any type of online technology, we have focused on the emerging technology standards, for example web technology and Lotus Notes. Virtually every major corporation is now using one or both of these technologies in some form, and with the recent seamless integration by Lotus/IBM of Notes with internet technologies in Domino, these technologies provide excellent vehicles for knowledge management. Notes, in particular, with its workflow, collaboration, and document management capabilities, provides an ideal technology environment for managing sales knowledge. Beyond these industry standards, we will selectively respond to other opportunities for implementing our methodologies using other types of software.

Online FluencyBuilding™: As part of our technology strategy, we offer a Windows-based tool, ThinkFast™, for providing fun, effective FluencyBuilding™ practice online for fact-level knowledge. We then build upon this knowledge with non-computerized practice such as responding to tough questions and objections, talking with overhead slides, etc.

Client partners: In the process of evolving our technology offerings, we seek client partners whose real business problems define the requirements for our systems. We have always conducted our research and development in the context of client relationships, so that our products and services represent real solutions to sales and marketing performance problems, rather than "inventing" products in a vacuum. As new technologies offer further opportunities, client situations provide the environment for achieving significant mutual benefit.

Updating and maintenance tools: Part of our strategy relates to updating and maintaining sales knowledge bases, one of the most challenging aspects of sales and marketing support. The Product Knowledge Architecture™ provides a framework for analysis and identification of knowledge chunks in need of updating, as well as a classification scheme for input from the field and from multiple sources within organizations. Combined with workflow technologies, we plan to develop increasingly sophisticated processes and models for maintaining the integrity and economy of virtual sales knowledge bases in our client organizations. Moreover, we will offer to serve as an outsource vendor for the maintenance function where our clients would prefer not to manage this specialized process themselves.

Process design and management: We take a systems approach to everything we do. We configure sets of products, services, and specific deliverables to meet the specific knowledge needs of our clients' sales people in a systematic fashion. We also recognize that our client organizations will need to define new processes and job functions in order to optimize the use of technology-based solutions for sales knowledge problems. This need for process is a corollary of the "garbage in, garbage out" adage, and take principles of process improvement and quality management into account, as they apply to knowledge systems and processes.

Integration: Whenever possible, we work with client organizations to integrate their use of technology-based solutions with other low-tech aspects of their sales knowledge efforts. For example, we encourage training departments to integrate sales training events and programs with use of online resources to encourage and support use of those resources on the job. Ideally, our client organizations come to see all efforts to provide knowledge to the field as parts of an integrated, enterprise-wide sales knowledge system.

Benefits of Our Strategy

The strategy outlined in this document offers a number of benefits to any organization choosing to work with us:

  • greater integration and effectiveness of company messages to the marketplace through the sales force,
  • more cost-efficient development and maintenance of sales knowledge resources,
  • improved information auditing, less redundancy, greater assurance of completeness in the knowledge base,
  • fewer errors and inconsistencies in the knowledge base,
  • less cognitive overhead for sales people because of the consistent knowledge architecture,

and the most important:

  • greater overall sales and marketing productivity.

How Can We Help You?

Binder Riha Associates is a unique resource focused on being world class experts in all areas of providing knowledge to support sales performance. As we continue to evolve our technology-based products and services, we will continue to be on the leading edge. If you are in any phase of considering how best to provide sales and marketing knowledge via technology, contact us first and together we'll find the best solution for your organization.


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