Just-in-time Knowledge - Creating a Reactive Selling System


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | Jan 09, 2014


When you get a canned email or direct mail piece, you know what it is instantly.  Even if the sender has woven your name through the piece, it still sounds “off.”  There’s a distinct aroma to boilerplate that most of us can sniff out pretty quickly.

And yet many companies arm their sales people with boilerplate presentation decks and boilerplate sales messages.  Do they work?  Of course not.  Most executives will resent being expected to sit through a boilerplate presentation.  They take it as a sign of laziness, incompetence, disrespect, or ignorance. 

But today's sales professionals carry larger portfolios of clients and are expected to handle bigger quotas than ever before.  They need ways to deliver effective messages fast.  If the company doesn't provide good standard presentations, the sales person will cobble one together on his or her own.  

A better alternative is for sales and marketing organizations to take a lesson from the Lean manufacturing revolution and develop just-in-time knowledge delivery systems.  By automating the creation, storage, retrieval, and management of information, we can make it much easier for our sales and marketing professionals to succeed at their core responsibility—creating winning messages that have been customized to the opportunity.

One of the most fruitful movements in business during the past twenty years or so has been the development of Lean Thinking.  Using careful measurement of performance in real-world settings, Lean Thinking focuses on identifying the activities that create value, determining the optimum sequence of activities, eliminating activities that add no value or that produce waste, and then continuing to review the process again and again.

The Lean Thinking movement identified seven forms of waste in manufacturing environments that needed to be eliminated.  Three of them involve people and their activities—using extra or unnecessary processing steps, engaging in unnecessary motion, and waiting.  Three sources of waste involve product quantity—overproduction, moving things around, and carrying inventory.  The final one involves product quality—fixing defects.

Can we adapt this analysis of seven forms of waste so that it applies to sales?  And can we identify a way to deliver the right content at the right moment so that our sales process moves forward efficiently? 

For example, we might ask what are the activities that create value in sales?  What is the optimum sequence of those activities?  In answering those questions, we define the ideal sales process for our business.  Unfortunately, many businesses simply buy an off-the-shelf solution, something recommended by this guru or that, rather than looking for evidence from the field as to what actually works.  This is a mistake because, as W. Edwards Deming said more than half a century ago, no one knows how to improve a process better than the worker who has to perform that process.  Nobody knows how to improve a sales process better, therefore, than the people who are actually selling

And what about the issue of identifying waste?  If we analyze the typical sales professional's workstream, we might find a lot of waste in there.  For example, we might find that some sales people are required to fill out forms and file expense reports, update customer data in a CRM system, run around dealing with collections, or just wait for approvals from management to move forward—activities that have nothing to do with actually selling something.  Sometimes sales people are required to use methods of selling that became irrelevant long ago.  For example, some banks still require their sales people to present a "pitch book" to a prospective client.  But the pitch book is typically a self-centered hymn of praise to how mighty the bank is.  It seldom focuses on the prospective client or their industry.  And it almost never encourages an open conversation between the sales person and the client.  It's a one-way presentation, it's old fashioned, and it doesn't work.  And yet some banks still use it.  

The seventh source of waste in Lean Thinking terms—quality—is pretty easy to define.  If we allow that the product of our sales process is good information that helps the customer make a decision, then providing faulty, inaccurate, erroneous or irrelevant information is a huge source of waste.  But it happens every day because sales people are under pressure to respond to prospects and to move deals forward, so they grab whatever they can find. 

To deliver just-in-time knowledge to the sales and marketing team, some companies have created static repositories of content, databases or SharePoint applications that typically consist of huge folders of Word documents, PowerPoint files, and PDFs of white papers and data sheets.  It tends to be a giant haystack with a few golden needles.  Good luck to the sales person, proposal writer, or marketing person who needs to find one.  With this kind of “system,” the organization’s knowledge tends to be fragmented into isolated pockets.  It’s more likely to stay in people’s heads than to be structured into something useful across a broad spectrum of applications.

A step up from the giant haystack of information is a more reactive selling system.  In this environment, information tends to be created on an ad hoc, unstructured basis but some steps have been taken toward centralizing it.  For example, information about products, pricing, competitors, and clients is stored together.  The problem is that all of this data is stored in separate databases and is often seen as the “property” of separate departments that share their information with others on a “need to know” basis.  As a result, the focus is mainly on providing standard product information or on delivering routine, procedural knowledge.

At the next level, a company gets truly serious about creating an integrated information resource and using it to support the field sales organization.  The organization has put enterprise-wide, knowledge sharing systems in place to deliver high quality, timely, convenient, and trustworthy information to employees who are authorized to use it.  Users have the ability to retrieve relevant content materials and configure them into personalized, even unique structures.  In this kind of environment, knowledge is structured into topical areas and stored according to an organizationally appropriate taxonomy.  The firm has defined specific processes for creating, editing, authenticating, publishing, maintaining, and distributing content, and it has created a system which provides a single point of access for the entire organization.  Just as a football team transforms knowledge of their players and their opponent into a series of plays that are likely to be most effective in a given game, the company creates playbooks from which the sales person can choose.      

In this kind of system, content takes a higher-order focus, delivering personalized messages that are properly structured to achieve a specific purpose.  Potentially the value of content is strategic, not tactical, although in practical applications the primary ROI from effective content management comes from establishing stronger customer relationships, making better decisions, and gaining competitive advantage.

The Qvidian Sales Playbook system and Proposal Automation tools have been designed to move you toward true just-in-time knowledge delivery.  Our flexible search, retrieval, and assembly structures make Qvidian an ideal foundation for providing enterprise-wide access to business critical knowledge.  

- This post is part of the Messages That Matter Series by Tom Sant. View more of Tom's posts here.